The return of the Sea Pines: reflections on the cold spring of 2021

Was this spring of 2021 freakishly cold, or just a brief return to an old normal?  Growing up in Northumberland in the ‘60s I used to think of May, not April, as the month of transformation when the world turned green; and would wonder why hawthorn flowers were called May blossom when they didn’t actually flower until June.  Mayflies dancing over the river were something else that seemed to be misnamed as they didn’t appear until June either.  My parents explained that this was because in the exotic land known as The South, far beyond the Tyne, May was indeed the time when hawthorn blossomed and mayflies flew.

Later they might have been but I do not remember those ‘60s springs being quite as cold as this one.  In earlier times, however, cold springs certainly were the norm.  Describing the Northumbrian climate in 1805 John Bailey and George Culley in their General View of the Agriculture of the County of Northumberland said:

In the spring months, the cold, piercing, easterly winds are most prevalent; and our longest droughts are always accompanied by them: in some places they have acquired the name of sea-pines, from the slow progress vegetation makes whenever they continue for a few weeks.  Rain is of little use while they prevail, from the great cold which always attends them.

I presume these winds are called pines because they make the vegetation pine for water.  Although the term has long since fallen out of use, Sea Pines are certainly what we had this year, and it was striking how it was the rain and not any noticeable increase in temperature that finally triggered the green explosion in May.  As far as I can tell most plants seem to be catching up with themselves – the hawthorn blossom has been at its best during the first week of June, and the mayflies have been drifting over my house the last few evenings, being hawked by herring, lesser black-backed and black-headed gulls.  However there is one plant that has definitely been confused by the weather.  This is the wild garlic Allium ursinum.  Much of the floor of the Blyth Valley Woodlands is carpeted with this plant, their delicate green leaves unfurling to a continuous carpet as winter turns to spring, finally illuminated with heads of starry white flowers as the leaves of the trees open.  Towards the end of May the plant yellows and rots away in a great exhalation of garlic breath.  This year the green carpet appeared as usual but the flowers seemed reluctant to join in, the leaves starting to die back when many of the buds had yet to open.  It was as if leaves and flowers were responding to different environmental cues.  Did anyone else notice this I wonder, or was it just a local phenomenon?

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