Spring, the season of opportunistic muddle

As the climate changes, we will mourn the clarity of the idealised spring, whose business in nature is to promote renewal after a period of rest.

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I shall be sad if this proves to be one of the last Easters whose date isn’t fixed in stone by parliamentary enactment. Its traditional date is decided by a wonderful mash-up between theological and natural cycles, being the first Sunday following the first “ecclesiastical” full moon after the spring equinox. Its wanderings ­between late March and late April may infuriate tidy-minded planners but it seems to me a pretty good metaphor for the way the boundaries of the seasons are blurring.

I am writing this in a March snowstorm. There is nothing unusual about this, except that it follows a so-called winter in which not just daffodils but a second flush of wild roses were in bloom in December. On a heath here in Norfolk, I found a burnet rose bush bearing two generations of hips, a wonder that would have awed our ancestors as much as the Glastonbury thorn (a hawthorn sport), which flowers on Old Christmas Day (now 5 January) as well as in spring. When 11 days in September were “eliminated” in the bureaucratic calendar revisions of 1752, there were huge and angry gatherings around England’s scatter of Glastonbury thorns, to see if they would flower at “natural” or parliamentary Christmas.

What followed our recent spring-in-winter has been a procession of chaotic, seasonally illegible alternations, with peacock butterflies tempted out of hibernation on sunlit January afternoons to visit Mediterranean euphorbias in full flower, and gales of autumnal ferocity that wrenched trees out of waterlogged ground. Now we have jumped back a month to mid-February and the “Beware: frogs” posters on the lanes through our common went up the day before the temperatures dropped to 5°C.

We view these collapses of the natural order with foreboding and assume that we will have to “pay for it”. Bees will be mummified in crocus sarcophagi, caught out by frost. Precocious blooming will sap plants’ energy and uncouple them from the flight cycles of their pollinators. And we will mourn the clarity of the idealised spring, whose business in nature is to promote renewal after a period of rest – a process that also seems to symbolise some psychic or biological rhythm in ourselves.

These past months – and it may be a permanent change – we have been landed with the climate-change version of Eliot’s “April is the cruellest month”, with the pleasant riot of premature flowers only serving to remind us that behind them is the jet stream we see so graphically on the weather forecast maps. But winter and spring have never been as clear-cut as it suits us to remember. Spring is an opportunistic muddle, enacted by each species in its own time and space.

The great floral symbol of Easter is the primrose, the prima rosa, the first flower. In less ecologically correct times, children picked bunches for their mothers and did no harm to populations by this kindly harvest of blooms whose pastel yellow seems the quintessence of the new season.

Yet even in an unexceptional year a few primroses are always in bloom by late November. Wordsworth loved them for their adherence to place more than to moment. His poem “The Primrose of the Rock” commemorates a single clump that hung on in a roadside crevice and became a symbol of those Wordsworthian virtues of independence and fortitude. His sister, Dorothy, ­annotated her copy of the poem: “Written in March 1829 on seeing a primrose-tuft of flowers flourishing in a chink of rock in which that primrose-tuft had been seen by us to flourish for 29 seasons.”

Our first primroses of spring begin in the damp microclimate of the roadside ditches, a rime edging the bottom of the sloping banks and nurtured by the seepage of moisture and nutrients. This year, after incessant rainstorms, some have been swallowed up by the rising ditchwater; you have the eerie experience of seeing them flowering underwater, pallid Ophelias that seem to be none the worse once they have dried out.

Because of the primrose’s long flowering period, stretching till the end of May, it is in bloom at the same time as other members of the primula family, giving it opportunities to cross-breed and make botanical identity one of the other mutable features of the season. About a mile from our house, there is what is called a “hybrid swarm”. Common primroses grow in a roadside ditch, cowslips on the verge and flatter top of the bank. On the other side of the lane is the edge of an isolated cottage garden full of polyanthus. Over the years, they have promiscuously interbred and backcrossed. Last year, I counted 18 distinct varieties: primroses with pure white and “rhubarb and custard” flowers; primroses growing as umbels on long stalks; hybrids between all these and normal cowslips and the terracotta-petalled variety known as “Devon red”; and here and there the bronze and ochre hues of polyanthus edging their way into the gene pool.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, there was a belief among the clergy and literati that winter was a punishment of the Fall and that Eden previously basked in a “perpetual spring”. In Paradise Lost, Milton praises its constant “vernal delight”, in which “Blossoms and fruits at once of golden hue/Appear’d”. We might find this unvarying abundance tedious, despite our distaste for the new English spring, which looks as if it is settling into a mishmash of warmth, wet and
wind that stretches from December to May.

Climate change will disrupt the character and cast of early spring but it won’t stop the season in its tracks. Spring is protean and, be it confined to ditch bottoms or cracks in rocks or single snatched hot afternoons, its essential business of regeneration will happen, whether we notice it or not. 

Richard Mabey’s “The Cabaret of Plants” is published by Profile Books

This article appears in the 17 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Spring double issue