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If I May!

Well, here we are in May.

It seems to me ‘may’ has lots of meanings (apart from its use as a modal verb and the name of the fifth month) with quite a few linked to plants, so, if I may, let’s spend a few otherwise idle moments looking at a couple.

First, there’s its use as the common name for Crataegus monogyna – May Blossom, May Flower, or simply May (but Crataegus is also called Hawthorn, Quickthorn or Whitethorn just to confuse things). This deciduous tree must be one of the least fussy and most versatile trees that we have. It will grow in just about any location, including coastal and exposed areas, in just about any soil as long as it’s not waterlogged, and can cope with part shade: it also makes a beautifully shaped tree (up to about 6m, so it needs a bit of space), or it can be grown as a hedge. 

There’s an old saying 'Ne'er cast a clout till May be out', which means that you shouldn’t go without your outdoor clothing until May is over. Some people regard this as being the month of May, but others think it refers to the flower of the Crataegus which is in blossom in mid- to late-spring. 

Apparently, May blossom was also used to garland the May Queen, although I can’t help but think it would be a bit too prickly. It’s also been surmised that the old rhyme ‘Here we go gathering nuts in May’ is a corruption of ‘Here we go gathering knots of may’ meaning collecting bunches, or ‘knots’, of may blossom for the celebrations. Which sort of makes sense because what nuts can be harvested so early in the season?

And then there’s the line from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18: ‘Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May’. Crataegus was certainly known as the Maybush in Shakespeare’s time, so it would seem that the darling buds are indeed those of the Crataegus. However, I do remember being told once that the line refers to a variety of apple (or possibly other fruit), called ‘Darling’ that flowers in the month of May. I’ve tried and tried to find a reference to it but without joy. If anyone knows anything about it, please get in touch!

Then we have the May Lily, Convallaria majalis, also known as Lily of the Valley: both common names make sense if we look at the Latin: Convallis means the valley; majalis refers to the month of May – so we have a flower that grows in the valley and flowers in May.

Each month has its own flower assigned to it, so not surprisingly the flower for May is the May Lily. There are various myths and legends whirling around it: in the language of flowers it means ‘return of happiness’; it also symbolises chastity, purity, happiness and luck so it has long been included in many a bride’s bouquet (including HRH The Princess of Wales); plant it in your garden and you will attract fairies because they will use its bells as cups to drink from; and it’s also reputed to protect gardens from evil spirits. So there you go!

If you do want to plant it in your garden make sure you have the right conditions, namely moist, fertile, humus-rich moist soil in full or partial shade: if it likes its location it will form a goodly colony.

The 1st May has traditionally been regarded as a time of celebration and festivity to welcome the coming of Spring, with dancing around a pole, Morris dancing, and choosing a May Queen to head up the festivities. Which leads me nicely to another ‘May’ flower – Rosa ‘May Queen’. Being introduced in 1898 it hasn’t got the same long pedigree as the festivities, but this rambling rose certainly deserves its name. It’s fragrant with sprays of gorgeous, double, lilac-pink blooms which appear later in May and throughout the summer. Lovely.

And last, there’s Geranium sylvaticum ‘Mayflower’. As we saw with Convallaria, the Latin name gives us a clue about the plant, this time it’s the sylvaticum bit. This means ‘of the wood’, which tells us about the conditions the species was originally found in, so if we give it a similar environment in the garden - moist soil is best but it will grow in any, moderately fertile soil and it prefers partial shade or sun but will tolerate shade - it will be a happy chappy.

This chappy is not modest or demure, however; it will grow to about 70cm in height with a spread of about 50cm, so it needs a bit of space. And does it flower in May? Well, I took the photo on 13th May a few years ago so it does live up to its name of Mayflower.

Any more 'may' flowers that you can think of, let me know!


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