Ne’er cast a clout ’till May is out! This old phrase advises when to change from Winter to Summer clothing. Some folk also use it to work out when might be the last frost of winter for planting out tender plants. But to use a particular month to judge the weather seems very inaccurate especially when deciding what outdoor clothes to wear or making key gardening choices. And, this becomes more of a problem if you live in Cornwall or the Pennines. So what does the phrase really mean?
Most of us living in the slightly warmer climate of East Anglia could accept that temperatures start to climb at the end of the month of April. But for this advice to be of any use across England – from where the phrase originates – we would have to accept there are relatively uniform temperatures across the country. Most people know this is plainly not true so perhaps ‘May’ has another meaning.
The answer could lie in a slight variation of the phrase found in some parts of the country: Ne’er cast a clout ’till the May is out. At the end of April into May the hedgerows undergo something of a transformation. First the blackthorn (sloe) bushes show their white hazy flowers and the hawthorn in the hedges starts to green up. A little later the hawthorn flowers themselves come out producing dramatic creamy pink cascades along the hedgerows.
Another name for hawthorn is the May tree. In much of England hawthorn flowers in the month of May but in unusually warm or cold years flowering time can advance or retreat. In northern Scotland the hawthorn might not flower until nearer the end of June. These observations suggest that the flowering time of hawthorn might be a better indicator of local temperatures and the need for a clout than looking at the calendar.
But temperature is not the only part of the story. Daylength – directly related to the calendar – can also influence flowering time. The interplay between temperature and day-length in controlling plant growth is a complex science, but seasonal proverbs occasionally have a way of simplifying scientific complexity.
The science behind studying flowering times and other seasonal activities of wild plants in general is called phenology. The father of phenology is considered to be Robert Marsham, a local man being a former resident of Stratton Strawless Hall just up the road from Tuttington. Marsham started recording plant data in 1736 and he, and then his family, continued the practice until 1958. Marsham’s and other studies suggest that temperature is an important factor in determining flowering time of hawthorn (May tree). This evidence might swing opinion in favour of the plant-based rather than the month-based explanation of the old proverb.
Whatever the origin of the old phrase it’s probably better left to individual judgement when selecting clothing or planting out your runner beans. And anyway, in these climate changing times, how much longer will seasonal folklore continue to be relevant before new phrases need to be coined?