Foraging in July in the Scottish Lothians

Nature writing and lore from Scotland

by Scott
Sun set on the last day of July - Lunastal - east Lothian

“A shower of rain in July, when the Corn begins to fill, is worth a plough of Oxen, and all belongs there till.”

Am Mios crochadh nan con – The month of hanging dogs, also known as Am mios buidhe –  the yellow month. Where the first term comes from, I’m unsure. It may have related to rabies back in the day. The yellow month is because it can be so full of sunshine and late.

July is a changeable month weather wise and is at once hot humid and wet and summer sunshine and wind. Basically we never trust a July sky! But nature is at its truly most busy at this time of year. It’s worth remembering that Scotland was, and luckily still is in parts, a temperate rain forest. It’s why everything is so green and lush and why everything is so wet. In the Highlands amazing work is being done to help return some of the treeless mountains to their former glory and I look forward to seeing this work continue.

This month truly means the plants are overtaking. Surpassing everything, the road side verges and paths are almost overcrowded with plants toppling down onto one another and falling over the tarmac of the road. The white trumpet flowers of Bind weed poking out here and there, complacent as they hold themselves up on the work of other plants. Above these the yellow and red crowns of Woodbine (honeysuckle), superior in their elevated position by virtue of the work of others, looking regally over the hedge rows from the tops of trees. The greenery is alive with flowers. The hot humid wet air hanging between the lanes sticks close to your skin and draws out your own body moisture and scent as you become slick with the hot wet air. The scent of flowers fills the air with a hot wet musky perfume adding to the headiness of summer. The castle walls are even reaching their dew point with the water starting to run down the inside and the stairwell into the dungeon. Yep even the buildings are sweating. It “taps aff” weather really and we languish in the back garden drinking cold cider and white wine watching the sun set over the pap’s of Fife. The cats are feeling it too, they just stretch out across the tiled floors where it’s cool, and catch “sky raisins” (flys) every now and again. When it’s too hot for them even the flies aren’t appealing to chase after, I feel them roll their eyes at the thought of it.

Dog rose, Scotland

Dog rose

The estate is looking amazing though, everything in full leaf and in full bloom, so alive. July really is the Rose flower month for us, even though it started in June they come into their own in July. Here and there the underbrush is punctuated with the deep scarlets and whites of the Dog Rose petals that come from the surrounding hedgerows. Throughout the month I have gathered the petals of the dog rose. Saying a word of thanks as I walked past different plants and gather their petals and placing them into a tincture jar filled with alcohol to tincture them up. The heads of Meadow sweet with their amazing white beehive flowers that smell like honey and sweet almonds also sent the air and we have them competing with the last of the elder flowers for most distinctive smell. Cotton plants dot the landscape and bop up and down in the warm wet winds, they are in abundance. In fact, I’ve never seen so many.

Heather lies in bright pink clumps within the more barren grass fields offset by the yellows of Ragwort that the sheep, cows and horses wont touch. Thistles too stand proud in the middle of fields their purple flowers open. The tall Mug wort plants, by old dry stone walls and the edges of hedges, move from bud to full flower throughout this month and at their best just before the open into flower bud. Ladies bedstraw is also out over taking the crosswort’s place and Valerian’s slightly stinky blooms abound. Yarrow is huge and flowering, providing little landing pads for the tired busy bees as they go about gathering the pollen. But even the Yarrow plants can’t compete with the allure of the Monkshood plants. The bees just absolutely love it. Moving from one purple bowed and cowled head to another, happily buzzing away in harmony with one another. Second to this is their love for the white and red clover heads covering the lower paths and grass fields. The enticing sway of foxgloves and angelica flowers attempt to beckon them over and compete with the others. Rosebay willow-herb raises its fiery head above the rest of the plants and its purple cone head like a punctuation mark.  A symphony of flowers competes for our attention each adding a different note to overall song of summer.

Nettle flower, Scotland

Nettle flower, Scotland

Nettle plants move from flower to seed throughout this month and now is the time to gather them in their green phase as we near the end of July. The seeds of Hogweed and Sweet Cicely are ready to harvest at the end of the month. The Hogweed seeds having turned a light brown and the sweet cicely seeds having turned a dark black. Hogweed seeds tastes best when you have gathered them in their brown phase and can be used like a yuletide spice. Sweet Cicely seeds are best gathered when they’re green for eating but I’m looking to gather the black ones to plant out for next year nearer our house.  The seeds of broom are setting in their pods and you can see how it relates to the pea family now, there seeds protected in pod like sleeping bags. Horse chestnuts are starting to grow bigger and wild cherries are starting to change their colour from a light green to a light red. Some elder flowers still remain but others have started to set berries.  The acrid tang should be with us by la Fheil Micheal.

Hawthorn berries are starting to set their colour and Rowan berries are starting to ripen and some of these might be ready by the end of the month in time for Lunastal. Another sign that Lunsatal is upon us is that the raspberries and bilberries are ready for gathering. They are a nice mid walk treat. The barley and wheat are almost fully yellow by the end of July and poppies punctuate the field like pin pricks of blood. It’s exciting times for us. Lunastal is like a big midsummer party before the hard work starts. Near the end of the month the moths start to be more and more clear. At night I can hear them, their wings against the glass windows, tap-tap tapping gently to come in to the light juts before the bats swoop in for the kill, or the cats for that matter.

All this is a sign that summer has reached its high point and we are moving into late summer or autumn. The symphony of summer hides the nourishing heartbeat of autumn. It reminds us that in the midst of plenty there is change, to enjoy but with an eye to the harvest as things, as always, move on. It signifies the returning of the other world as we move closer to winter and toward the gate of Samhuinn.

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