Dear Readers, those of you who read my earlier post about Cherry Tree Wood might have guessed which way my Wednesday Weed was tending this week! I have often walked past these trees without paying them much attention, and yet they are glorious at this time of year, with their spikes of white flowers going off in all directions like little fireworks. The plant likes damp conditions, and there are plenty of streams and rivulets arising in the wood, so I think it feels very at home.
In other parts of the world the tree is known as Hackberry, Hagberry or the Mayday tree. It’s native to Eurasia but has been naturalised all over the world. It was apparently planted by home owners in great quantities in Anchorage, Alaska, which goes to show how hardy it is.
The tree was probably planted for its beauty, but it is popular with bees and other pollinating insects, and although the fruit is generally too tannic for human tastes, birds don’t care (as the name of the plant might suggest).
However, it wouldn’t be true to say that no one has ever eaten the fruit. Herodotus, writing 2500 years ago, describes a race of people known as the Agrippeans, who were all bald from birth and appear to have lived in the foothills of the Ural Mountains. They used the fruit of what appears to be the bird cherry as a staple food, pressing the cherries for their juice and then making a kind of cake from the residue. They sound like rather lovely people – in the winter they made their yurts around the bird cherries, using the trunk as a kind of living tentpole. According to Herodotus:
They dwell each man under a tree, covering it in winter with a white felt cloth, but using no felt in summer. These people are wronged by no man, for they are said to be sacred; nor have they any weapon of war. These are they who judge in the quarrels between their neighbours; moreover, whatever banished man has taken refuge with them is wronged by none.
– Herodotus, Ἱστορίαι (The Histories) Book IV, Chapter 23
In Siberia the berries are milled for flour, which is again baked into a kind of cake, and jam is also made from the fruit. For further details of this, I was fascinated by Professor Gordon Hillman’s website ‘Wild Food Plants of Britain’, which explains how the pits of bird cherry contain various toxins (including cyanide), but their preparation by native peoples living in the Amur valley of Far Eastern Russia eliminates the poison – the fruits are pounded in a pestle and mortar and then laid out in the sunshine to dry. Cyanide is a rather unstable compound, and so exposure to the sunlight and air makes it safe to eat. The berries are then turned into a kind of fruit ‘leather’ for consumption right through the winter.
In Scotland, the fruit is sometimes made into brandy.
According to my Harrap’s Wild Flower guide, Bird Cherry is largely found in the north of the UK, and it’s here that we find most of the folklore about the plant. In the north-east of the country it was considered to be a witches tree (which is presumably where the common name ‘hagberry’ came from), and this meant that the branches should never be used for staves or walking sticks, and the flowers should never be taken into the house. However, confusingly, in Wester Ross in Scotland, a walking stick made from bird cherry was supposed to mean that you would never get lost in the mist, so I suppose it was a choice between upsetting a witch and falling into a bog. I think falling into the bog was probably the wiser choice, but as I’m getting into my own ‘crone years’, maybe that’s just me.
In Wales, Bird Cherry is said to be considered unlucky, as it’s ‘the tree that the devil hung his mother from‘. Has anybody ever heard the details of this legend? Goodness, even the Kray Twins were good to their mother.
In the north of England, the tree was sometimes known as ‘Yorkshire lilac’, and indeed it does bear a passing resemblance to my white lilac bush, which is in full bloom at the moment.
The bark of bird cherry has an acrid smell, and it used to be believed that nailing it to your front door would keep the plague away. The bark was also used as a pesticide to deter insects and rodents from eating crops, and a dye derived from the bark was used to colour fishing nets brown.
Medicinally, Bird Cherry was used to treat many ailments, including conjunctivitis, fevers, kidney stones, anaemia and bronchitis.
And finally, a poem. Am I the only one who sees a similarity to the ecstatic poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins here? Let me know, readers.
And I was alive in the blizzard of the blossoming pear,
Myself I stood in the storm of the bird-cherry tree.
It was all leaflike and starshower, unerring, self-shattering power,
And it was all aimed at me.
What is this dire delight flowering fleeing always earth?
What is being? What is truth?
Blossoms rupture and rapture the air,
All hover and hammer,
Time intensified and time intolerable, sweetness raveling rot.
It is now. It is not.
(4 May 1937)
Translated from the Russian by Christian Wiman.
Photo One by By Anneli Salo – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5084318
Photo Two by By Oleg Bor – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=80467614