Foraging in March in the Scottish Lothians

Nature writing and folklore

by Scott
The sun setting on A March evening

The cuckoo comes in the middle of March

and sings in the middle of April

and passes away at Lunasa tide

when the corn begins to fill

March, Màrt, is upon us, the time of earrach geamhraidh, or winter-spring continues until we have the nine days of Gearran, the Cailleach and the Squabag, each different weather fronts.  True to form March has been a very changeable month weather wise and hard to get out and about to look at what’s happening on the ground. The gearran came early this March with days of calm weather, then we had the Cailleach, the strong storm winds followed again by the Squabag, a really stormy set of days. It felt as though it swept everything clean. Then just when we thought winter wasn’t ever going to end we had some amazing days of sunshine.  It really is true that March comes in like a boar’s head and goes out like a lambs tail. The cailleach is also celebrated this month and you can find out more about this here.

We wonder about bad weather, in fact, we probably hate it, but the wind, rain and general carnage are needed by plants to make sure that they can grow. Without wind trees and long stemmed plants would just fall over and die. The wind flattens dead stems of plants and allows the dead limbs of trees to fall. Each of these adding to the health of the soil beneath it. They and we need adversity to prosper and grow strong.

During the driving wind and the rain, I have watched the crows and magpies start courting and been witness to them diligently start to build their nests in the still bare larch trees just across from the Castle. Huge sticks in their mouths, as the flew into the wind, they are indeed tenacious wee birds, barley moving forward with their extra load but eventually making it. At night I have heard the call of owls and the barking of foxes. It seems as though everything but me is feeling active.  When I finally managed to get out and about what a luscious day it was well apart from the smell.

Leaving the grounds the first thing that struck me was the smell of manure. It seems that all the farmers are taking advantage of the clear weather to get the manure and slurry laid down. It smells. Really bad! Its best not to go into the fields at this time of year for a few weeks least you breach biosecurity measures (yes there is such a thing) and risk exposure to bacteria. However, in the not so smelly fields the cows and pregnant sheep are out and running about. I love when they have just been released as they are so curious and will follow you and say hello to anyone walking along the hedge line. If you carry a bag with you, they will also follow you thinking you’re out to feed them. But I steer clear of the fields at this time of year as pregnant ewes can get upset and if your totally stupid you can cause the ewes to abandon their lambs once they have given birth.

Following the same trail past the castle, we come to the old Hawthorn trees and ancient hedges. They are now all starting to bud and grow leaves. The blackthorn, its partner in crime, is covered in white flowers. It’s easy to tell them apart by this as they can both look similar in winter. The blackthorn flowers first then has leaves. The hawthorn is the other way round. It’s also important to note those that have flowered as you’ll find sloes easier come harvest time.

The ground is covered in the start of new spring growth we have cleavers, Red and White Dead Nettle, Jack in the green (Garlic Mustard), Nettles, Chickweed, Dandelions, Ground Elder, Wild Garlic and Few Flowered Leek and all the other spring tonics just growing that much taller and still that luscious spring green colour. They make amazing eating as well as good medicine but i’ll wait just a wee while longer before I start putting some into recipes like weed pesto.

It also reminds me of the old saying:

If they wad drink Nettles in March

and eat muggons in May

sae mony braw maidens

wadna gang to the clay.

It’s a wee rann, suggesting we should get our spring greens to save us dying early I guess! (muggons is Mugwort).

The members of the carrot family are also starting to grow. As I’ve said before I view these with suspicion and have to wait till they are more fully grown before I even start to identify them. This is because we have the lovely Angelica, Sweet Cicely and not so bad cow parsley but also the fatal  Hemlock. They can all look very similar when they are so young but you can be easily confused by them.

Further into the woods, the trees are still barley budding, again the Blackthorn and Hawthorn are coming into their own and the odd elder tree has leafed. But the majority of trees are pretty bare looking with just small buds on them. It’s usually poplar harvest time around now too, but I cant find any in my local area. Other trees in action are the Alder and the Hazelnut tree. The Hazelnut is just starting to push through news leaves and now its catkins are looking slightly tired and brown. The Gorse bushes are in a blaze of spring yellow, the scent from their flowers, overwhelming as I walk the paths. Such a lovely smell of coconut, its reminds me of hot beaches and sun tan lotion. The Holly trees are just starting to push through news leaves. It’s under these whin bushes the cailleach is said to throw her magic hammer on the 25th of March (more about that

The Holly trees are just starting to push through news leaves. It’s under these whin bushes the cailleach is said to throw her magic hammer on the 25th of March (more about that here). Next to these huge Holly trees, the bare tree limbs or a sycamore tree is being strangled by  Woodbine (honeysuckle). It’s growing everywhere and brings forward leaves early. Theres a tradition in Scotland that farmers and others would cut some woodbine at the increase of the March moon that hangs about the Oak. They would then make a wreath of it keeping it until next march. They would use it to heal “hectic feavers” or other illnesses in people and cattle by getting the folks to pass through the circle made of the wreath three times.

Looking through the forest floor I see plenty of Crocuses and the start of Ground Ivy and Wood Avens around. Also, Red Dead Nettle and Hen Bit too. These three are usually confused a lot at this time of year, sometimes with All heal too. They all look pretty similar but there are great resources out there to help you identify them.

It’s here where I see my first bumblebee of the season! There is a superstition that if you catch the first Bbee you see and keep it in your purse you’ll never be short of money that year. Not that I do anything about it. Bee welfare these days is very important, more so than what’s in my Wallet, so I say hi as it moves past and on its way.

I start to head back as the weather is on the turn. Once back in the grounds, i notice some Daffodils just poking their yellow heads above some dead grass. It truly lifts the spirits to see the budding on the new growth, the splashes of yellow such a Scottish spring feeling. Summer has been long in the waiting. I for one can’t wait to get out there and enjoy the milder weather.

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