Saturday, 27 August 2016


This post, like the last one, is all about a single plant that makes a major impact on the appearance of Milton Country Park.  Last time, it was hawthorn, this time is the elder.

Large 'plate' of elderflowers seen from underneath
12 June 2016
Huge plates of white blossom like this are seen throughout the park in early June.

Plates of white elderflower blossom are seen in all the hedgerows in the park during the first weeks of June.  Last year, I felt I had failed to fully capture the impact that the elderflowers have on the park.  

One reason is that the blossom faces upwards, and as much of it is above head height, particularly in the hedges in the centre of the park, only the undersides of the umbels are visible.

Elderflowers visible amongst confluent bushes and climbers
North of Park - 8 June 2016
A lot of the elder bushes are mixed in with other bushes and climbers

Another issue is that the elder bushes are often growing amongst some of the thickest vegetation in the park.   Here the elderflowers struggle to be seen amongst hawthorn bushes, ash trees and brambles.  The eye easily sees such blossom, which tends to 'disappear' when photographed.

What's in a Name?


Masses of elderflowers on bush
12 June 2016
Elderflowers can be used to make cordials, white wines and teas.

The name elder is thought to be derived from the Saxon word 'Aeld' or fire. This, and the alternative name 'Ellhorn', refer either to the use of its pithy core as tinder, or its hollowed out branches as bellows. This is quite strange in a way, when you consider that it was believed that burning elder brought death and disaster. One suggested alternative derivation for 'Elder' is from 'Hylde-Moer' the Scandinavian tree spirit who was said to inhabit elder bushes.

Food and Drink

Elder roots, stems and leaves are all toxic. Uncooked, its flowers and berries have an unpleasant bitter taste and contain low concentrations of some poisons, which are destroyed by heat. With that caveat, the flowers are used to make cordials, white wine, and tea; the berries for jellies, jams, wines and liqueurs. 

Medicine Chest 

Large bunch of elderberries hanging down
14 August 2016
Elderberries are a rich source of vitamins A and C

For centuries the elder tree has been known as the medicine chest, because almost every part of the bush has been used by herbalists.  Some uses, for instance using the bark as a purgative, have now disappeared, and only the flowers and the berries are routinely used.

Preparations of the flowers are effective against various respiratory complaints such as coughs, colds and sinusitis.  Drinking elderflower tea for two months before the pollen count rises is said to alleviate the symptoms of hay fever.

The berries are a great source of vitamins A and C.  In addition, they contain chemical compounds which reduce the duration of flu, boost the immune system, and are beneficial to diabetics as they stimulate glucose metabolism and the excretion of insulin.


Elder bush in full bloom
8 June 2016
The wood from elders is excellent for making magic wands

Through the ages, the elder has been hero and villain and all things between. At first, elder was regarded as sacred to the goddess of vegetation Hylde-Moer, and was to be honoured and treated accordingly. So, if given suitable offerings and prayers, the elder would protect the people who treasured it, and hence was planted around the house to keep out evil spirits. A collateral benefit was that the elder was never struck by lightning (or so myth had it), and hence would protect the dwelling from that as well. This protection was for life and beyond: green twigs were placed in coffins to protect the body and soul on its way to the otherworld.

The heavy smell of elderflowers was believed to be narcotic, which may well explain why sleeping beneath the tree at midsummer was such a good time to see fairies.

Then along came the Christians keen to appropriate everything pagan for themselves. So they cursed elder. It was the tree that Judas hanged himself from. It was also, highly improbably given the lightness and weakness of its wood, the tree from which the cross was made. Witches could turn themselves into elder trees, and its wood was used for making magic wands.


These snippets were gleaned from the following websites:

Elder | Trees for Life 
Elder in Profile   
Sambucus nigra (elder)  
The Elder Tree   

Saturday, 13 August 2016


It is almost impossible to overestimate the impact that the coming of the hawthorn blossom in May has on Milton Country Park, and the surrounding countryside.  Almost every hedge and innumerable bushes are thickly covered with creamy white flowers.

Hawthorn bush covered in blossom seen through an arch of trees.
Hawthorn Blossom Framed by Arch of Trees.  By Deep Pool - 27 May 2016

Hawthorn has been an important part of the landscape for well over a thousand years: it name is derived from the anglo-saxon 'haegthorn' meaning hedgethorn.  In those times, it was not only used for hedges, but individual bushes were often important boundary markers.  It is not surprising then, that over the centuries, hawthorn has gained many names, including: hedgethorn, quickthorn, whitethorn, may, beltane, and quickset.  It has also attracted a great deal of folk lore.

Path by wetlands with hedges covered in may
Hedgerow Covered in Blossom.  Path by Wetlands - 29 May 2016

Hawthorn is perhaps most strongly associated with the month of May, and May Day celebrations in particular. Either in the evening of April 30th or early in the morning of the day itself, villagers would go out and gather armfuls of may to decorate their houses. This symbolised the start of the growing season and brought new life into the village.

Huge hawthorn bushes completely covered in may blossom
'Knots of May' on bushes in centre of park - 22 May 2016

This is the basis of the expression 'to go a'maying', and also the origin of the rhyme 'Here we go gathering nuts in May'. Like most nursery rhymes, I had recited it endlessly, but never thought about the problem at its very heart – there are no nuts in May. Here 'nuts' refers to the 'knots' of hawthorn flowers on the branches.

But May Day is also a fertility celebration, and many who collected flowers on 30th April would stay out all night love-making, causing a minor baby boom at this time of year. When the Christians came to claim this festival as their own, they wanted nothing to do with such ribaldry, and, instead, turned May into a month of celibacy and restraint. This has led one author to put rather a different interpretation on 'ne'er cast a clout till May is out'. He suggests that it is an instruction not to change one's clothes at all during the month. Why? Because any sign of sexual activity will be impossible to detect on such dirty and dishevelled clothes.

Branches of hawthorn covered in flowers
The Smell of Plague Comes to Milton Country Park.  Centre of Park - 22 May 2016
Hawthorn has more sinister associations as well.  May flowers were said to smell of plague.  This is well based as one of the components of the scent is trimethylamine, which is one of the first chemicals released by rotting corpses.

More equivocally, is its association with witches.  While some believed that witches rode on broomsticks made of hawthorn, others put sprigs of hawthorn over their doorways to keep the ladies out!

Isolated bush covered in hawthorn blossom
Drug Store or Fairy House? By Fen Road Exit - 22 May 2016

It widely believed that fairies lived in hawthorn bushes.  In the ballad of 'Thomas the Rimmer', the eponymous hero is abducted by a fairy queen in a hawthorn bush and taken to a fairy kingdom, where he was kept for seven days.  So the bush pictured here could be a Harry Potter-like portal to a magic place!

Hawthorn is held to be a veritable super drug store.  A bath in the dew of the flowers collected on May Day brings not only a better complexion, but a healthy and lucky future too.  Its leaves can be eaten, hence, 'bread and cheese' is one of its many names.  Its flowers used to make white wine, and its berries used to make jelly, tea, and a liqueur when soaked in brandy.  Its berries can be used effectively against artherosclerosis,  hypertension and cardiac arrest!

Hawthorn bush deep in the woods
A Bush Fit for a Crown  By Dickerson's Pit - 29 May 2016

Finally, spare a thought for Richard III who had a very bad day at the office on 22nd August 1485 at the battle of Bosworth.  Not only did he lose his kingdom and his life, but, also, rather carelessly left his circlet hanging around in a hawthorn bush for his enemies to find. 

All this is a fairly superficial romp through the folk lore of hawthorn, of which there is a great deal more.  Perhaps, you will be like me, that after reading such tales, you can never look at a hawthorn bush the same again.

I have culled these thoughts from the following sources:

Trees for Life 

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Tree Blossom

This is one post in a short series in which I look again at spring in Milton Country Park.  So much happens in spring, in such a short space of time, that I found it impossible to keep up with the changing landscape, and, as a result, did not do justice to everything that was going on, the first time around.

White blossom on trees in orchard
Orchard - 19 April 2016

The Orchard

One area that I completely neglected was the orchard.  Orchards are, undoubtedly, at their most attractive in spring when the trees are covered in white blossom, like those shown in the image above.

Apple tree in blossom
Orchard - 19 May 2016

I found photographing the apple blossom posed the same problems as I had found with other tree blossom such as the blackthorn. What appears to the naked eye as a substantial and obvious mass of bloom, seems quite insubstantial on the photograph: there seems to be far less flowers than I remembered, and those that are there are individually smaller.  It is then a case of balancing the need to show the overall effect, but still have the blossom large enough to make an impact.  I hope by focussing on a single tree in the image above, I have conveyed a sense of what I saw, while still retaining something of the overall environment.

Apple blossom in close up
Apple Blossom - 8 May 2016

 A close-up highlights the delicate pinks of the buds and developing flowers which is an important feature of apple blossom.

Elsewhere in the Park


Tree laden with white blossom
By Visitor Centre - 8 May 2016
This tree, besides the main path leading past the visitor centre, is, perhaps, the most conspicuous and most noticed, in the park. 

Willow tree covered with catkins
Centre of Park - 12 May 2015

Not all blossom is as conspicuous as the white flowers of the fruit trees.  This willow trees shines bright yellow in the sunshine, not from its leaves, but from its catkins.

Close up of Field Maple Flowers
Field Maple Flowers - 8 April 2016

Similarly, the flowers of the field maple are easily missed as they are only very slightly different in colour from the surrounding leaves.

Next: Hawthorn


Saturday, 9 July 2016

Green Leaves

When we think of spring, we naturally think of colourful flowers: yellow daffodils and dandelions; white blackthorn and hawthorn; and the pink of freshly opened apple blossom.  These are the eye catching highlights of the season.  

Elder leaves
Young Elder Leaves

At the same time, there is a more lasting change taking place - from bare branches to green leaves.  It is a transition that goes by almost unnoticed; one day the trees are bare, the next, or so it seems, they are covered in leaves.  And, of course, the trees stay green until the following autumn.

For the second year, I have tried to photograph this transition, the mid point between bare wood and leaves, in Milton Country Park.  The main difficulty is capturing that moment when the buds have developed enough to show up green in the photograph, but not so far that only a confluent green mass can be seen.

It was only when I tried to do this last year, that I fully realised that not all trees go green at the same time. The first leaves to appear are those on the elder.  This year this was at the end of February.  The image at the top of this post was actually taken last year in April, which is probably a good indication of the difference in climate of the two years.

Field maple highlight among bare trees
South of Park - 27 March 2016

Another bush that gets its foliage early is the field maple.  This one was in a favoured position on the edge of the woods at the south end of the park.  Its bright green leaves stand out against the surrounding bare trunks and branches.

Veil of hawthorn leaves
By Play Area - 27 March 2016

The field maple in the previous picture was well separated from its background. More usually, the developing leaves are little more than a thin veil over the surrounding wood, clearly visible to the eye but often 'disappear' in a photograph.  This hawthorn is catching the early morning light which helps to accentuate the leaves.

Sticky buds gleam in the sunshine
South of Park - 3 April 2016

Not all buds are so indistinct.  The swelling sticky buds on this young horse chestnut were visible from some yards away.

Large oak tree bright yellow green dominates the path
Centre of Park - 19 April 2016

We tend to think of trees in terms of their colour only when they are in blossom, or, during the autumn.  The rest of the time we appreciate for their stature, form or age.  However, I think they can be impressive when the leaves are just fully formed and are a rich vibrant green.  I have particularly noticed it with oak trees this year.  The foliage of this one really stands out in the sunshine.

Path between bright green hawthorn bushes
By Wetlands - 1 May 2016

The same can also be said of the hawthorn.  Here the hawthorn is in bright contrast to the darker greens of the ivy and the tree trunks.

One for the Future

Young sycamore plant
By Wetlands - 8 April 2016

It does not take much searching to find young sycamore plants like this anywhere in the park.   

Next: Tree Blossom

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Dead Wood

Dead  trees, whether upright, broken down, or rotting on the ground make a significant contribution to both the appearance and the ecology of Milton Country Park.

Two dead tree stumps surrounded by brambles.
By Dickerson's Pit - 13 April 2016

These tall tree stumps, complete with woodpecker holes, are part of a trio of such stumps by the path on the eastern side of Dickerson's pit.  Later in the summer they will be covered in cascades of convolvulus.

Tree stump broken just above ground level with trunk in water
Wetlands - 22 February 2016

More often, the dead stumps do not remain intact and upright, but, like the tree in this image, are broken off by one of the gales which batter the park from time to time.  

Willow tree snapped in two
By Hall's Pond - 13 March 2016

While willow trees like this, snapped in two, are a dramatic testimony to the power of the wind.

Complex of bleached tree roots
Centre of Park - 14 March 2016

At other times, the trees are simply uprooted.  With time, the soil is washed away, leaving a skeleton of roots to bleach in the sun.

Small dead tree on ground bleached white.
Woods at Southern Edge of Park - 3 April 2016

This small tree reminds me very strongly of an animal skeleton.

Moss covered fallen branches
By Todd's Pit - 13 March 2016

Eventually, all the fallen branches will be covered by moss and overgrown by nettles and brambles.  Herb robert is another frequent coloniser of the dead wood in the park.  The logs themselves will provide food and shelter for a host of invertebrates including beetle larvae.

Next: Spring Leaves


Saturday, 11 June 2016

Review 2

This is the second part of my review of a year in Milton Country Park, and looks at autumn and winter.    

Close up of elderberries
Elderberries - 23 August 2015

The Weather


Waterlogged path
Waterlogged Path - 12 January 2016
No review of autumn and winter 2015/2016 would be complete without a mention of the weather.   The whole six months of these two seasons could be characterised as very wet and mild: no snow at all, a few light frosts, and a couple of misty days.  This path of puddles sums it all up.



Apples strewn across path
Windfall - 20 September 2015

Autumn is generally thought of as the time of fruit: apples, pears, plums, and the red hawthorn berries. However, a lot of fruit, such as the elderberries shown at the top of this post, were ripe before the end of August.  Similarly, the apples were already nearly finished by mid September - the heavy windfall shown above was pictured on the 20th September.

Carpet of yellow maple leaves beneath trees
Autumn Leaves - 2 November 2015

By early November, the park had turned yellow, as is well illustrated by the carpet of leaves beneath the woods beside the A14. 

Reed bed with reed flowers turning to seed
Reeds - 2 November 2015

At the same time, the extensive beds of common reed around the pits had finally flowered and were turning to seed.


Path enclosed by bare trees
Bare Trees - 8 January 2016

Winter was continuation of autumn.  As usual, for the season,  the trees were bare. 

Line of snowdrops in litter beneath trees
Snowdrops - 16 February 2016

The snowdrops started flowering in December and continued through to March.

Burst of cherry plum blossom in hedge
Cherry Plum Blossom - 2 February 2016

With the mild weather, some spring flowers were exceptionally early, particularly the hazel and cherry plum.  (If I had defined this blog as documenting the year from cherry plum blossom to cherry plum blossom, it would have been six weeks short of a year.) 

Clumps of daffodils besides path
Daffodils - 24 February 2016
By the end of twelve months of photographing in the park,  the daffodils were flowering. 

Where Now?

I have decided to continue this blog for the next few months at least.  At the beginning of this blog, I had no time to do other than react to the changes in the park with little time to reflect on what was happening. This is something I felt most acutely during spring, when I almost failed to record the elderflower at all.  

Similarly, there are aspects of the park which are not time dependent.  An example are the dead and broken trees.  These, with their moss covered branches on the ground, are an important part of the ecology of the park, but which change little during the year.  My next post will be concerned with this subject.

Next: Dead Wood 

Saturday, 28 May 2016


View of Todd's Pit from Visitor Centre
Todd's Pit - 15 September 2015

I have now documented Milton Country Park for just over a year. I started taking pictures of golden reeds in wintry sunshine in February 2015, and ended photographing frost etched vegetation in March 2016. After thirty nine posts, and over 200 images, it is time to look back over the last fourteen months.

This review of the year is organised in four sections which are roughly based on the perception of the seasons. One thing that this project has taught me is that the natural world does not neatly parcel itself up according to man-made divisions. These sections have fuzzy boundaries and their time frames overlap each other. For instance, I have included fruit in the autumn section even though a lot of it was ripe in August, when there was still a lot of summer flowers around.

I have split this review into two parts: in this post, spring and summer; in my next post, autumn and winter.


Cherry Plum Blossom
Cherry Plum Blossom - 23 March 2015

The main feature of spring was the successive waves of white tree blossom which engulfed the park. It started with the cherry plum and blackthorn, followed by apple, hawthorn, and elderflower. Herbaceous plants also contributed to the whitening of the park.  In particular, cow parsley at the northern end of the park; and jack-by-the-hedge and  comfrey in and around the woods at the southern extremity.  This is a time of rapid change.  None of the tree blossom lasted more than a week or two; and, at the same time, as the leaves came out on the trees, the park was transformed from brown to green in a matter of weeks.

Hawthorn bush in front of massed hawthorn blossom
Hawthorn Blossom - 20 May 2015


Yellow Irises - 26 May 2015

Summer is the time for summer flowers. It started with the yellow irises blossoming around the margins of the water and ended with the blooming of bulrushes and the reeds. At the start of the summer, rosebay willow herb made a prominent display on the banks of the 13th Public Drain alongside Remembrance Meadow. Later, as the yellow irises faded, their place at the water's edge was taken by purple loosestrife.  Other noticeable flowers included ragwort around the children's play area, the large white flowers of convolulus, and the purple water mint.  But there were also some big surprises, including a patch of poppies on the access road, and a single white orchid.

Rosebay Willow Herb - 30 June 2015
Next: Review 2