Turning Year: Waiting for the oak and ash to awake

Oak, left, and ash ' splash or soak?
Oak, left, and ash ' splash or soak?

Many trees were held back by the cold winds, but now they’re looking their best with bright new leaves. Well, almost all. Oak and ash are always last to awake.

Weather prophets watch these two keenly because of this well-known saying: “Oak before ash, sign of a splash. Ash before oak, sign of a soak.” In other words, if ash wins the race, invest in a summer mac and matching wellies.

Yes, it’s an old saw, but there is something in it. Oaks wait for temperatures to rise before opening their buds. For ash trees, increasing day length is the trigger.

The contest is over in southeast England, where oaks came first. On the northeast coast the oaks still sleep. But, oh dear, the ash’s black buds have already cracked open, spilling out clusters of curious purplish flowers. The leaves are not far behind.

To test the old saying in your area – weather lore only applies locally –find an oak and an ash that are fairly close together. Even if they already have young leaves, it’s usually possible to tell which is ahead.

Wild cherries defied the blackthorn winter and are now in full bloom; their elegant habit and delicate, dangling flowers have inspired many a poet.

In parks and gardens, Japanese cherries bear posies of buds among fresh, bronzed leaves – soon they’ll be a mass of pink ruffles.

Apple trees are rushing to catch up, and we can only hope their flowers don’t get nipped. Chilling winds are not uncommon in May, and nor are frosts. Fruit growers used to dread May 9-14, for the annual cold snap that could devastate tree blossom. This was the time of the so-called Ice Saints: Mamertus, Pancras, Servatius and Boniface.

Records confirm that mid-May is often cold, especially before a reasonably good summer. Regarding the holiday months, folklore names May 25 as the date to watch – St Urban’s Day, it says, shows us what summer will bring.

Perilous flight

Cuckoos have arrived safely from Africa, but there’s sad news about Vigilamus, one of the cuckoos tagged by the British Trust for Ornithology. Poor Vigilamus arrived back on the North York Moors at the time of those heavy snow showers, since when there have been no more signals from his satellite tag.

Happily another BTO cuckoo, Coo, has returned to the Fylingdales area and his signals show that he’s moving around, no doubt searching for a mate.

Have you heard a cuckoo yet? Moorland valleys, wetlands, and open woodland are the places to catch that distinctive call. It’s clear and loud because it needs to carry some distance if the solitary cuckoo is to find a mate. Apparently, some adult cuckoos leave Britain as early as the end of June, so they’ve no time to lose.

If grim weather kept you indoors on May 1 there’s another chance to welcome summer. The 12th is Old May Day, a legacy of 1752 when eleven days were dropped to align England with the Gregorian calendar.

Some communities held their events on the “old” day, eleven days later than everyone else. Maybe they had good reason – what’s May Day without the may? Hawthorn rarely flowers for the 1st, yet on Old May Day it’s usually in full, riotous bloom.