May 1st, the start of summer? Yes, it’s a day for gardening!

By Sarah Buchanan. First published by Rattan Direct on 1 May 2016.

May 1st, the start of summer?

May 1st and we think of maypoles with brightly coloured ribbons and country dancing at school. That is quite modern! To the Celts, May 1st was the end of winter and the start of new growth, with animals moving onto the new year’s grass.  In medieval times May Day dances aimed to banish evil spirits while huge painted poles, covered in flower garlands and flags, stayed in place all year,  commemorated in the names of some village pubs. May 1st - the start of summer?

Not a summery day for this Maypole Pub in Somerset.

The Victorians added the ribbons, dances and May Queen we know well.

May 1st, the start of summer
Maypole dancing. Copyright

Local traditions on May 1st mark the start of summer

May 1st is called ‘Garland Day’ in some country areas, reflecting a tradition of ‘bringing in the may’ or ‘going maying’ on 31st April when spring blossoms, usually from hawthorn trees were cut to decorate houses, farms and even livestock. ‘May Birchers’ cut and hung branches and blossoms of different trees on local cottage doors. In the nineteenth century the tradition grew: children carried garlands of flowers and leaves from house to house, singing songs and collecting money. In Upton, on the edge of the North Wessex Downs, the garlands were then taken to the church to decorate the altar or family graves.

May 1st, the start of summer?
Knots of May, the women’s morris dance group, in Lewes. Copyright: Knots of May 2016.

Start your summer now

In your area there may be other May 1st traditions. Or start your own with a garland of early flowers and a greeting in your garden. The children’s folk song  ‘here we go gathering nuts in May’ is a corruption of “here we go gathering knots (another name for garlands) in May, ” or try this greeting from Upton:

“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, it is the first of May.

We’ve come to show you our garlands because it’s a happy day.

Happy day, joyful May, winter’s gone and passed away!”

In Upton, children then sang the folk song The Cuckoo is a Pretty Bird (not quite as in the Bob Dylan version!).

May 1st is a day for gardening

As International Labour Day it is a day to celebrate work and workers. The first Monday in May is a UK bank holiday perfectly timed for work in the garden! Read our gardening blogs to focus action or start the summer in your garden with a list of the flowers near you that you would like in your garden (ready for garlands next year!). These might include
– may blossom (from hawthorn trees):
magnificent magnolias
– alpine plants (come back to our blogs next week to find out more!)
– primroses and bluebells (plant them in your garden: you must not pick wild ones)
– early apple, plum and pear blossom
– garden shrubs from berberis and broom to skimmia and viburnum
– pulmonaria (or lungwort)
– rhododendrons and azaleas
– euphorbias (but watch out for sap that might irritate skin)
– and more!

Enjoy your garden …

Try this recipe for a traditional ‘May Cup’.

Mix together, one bottle white wine, two small bottles of sweet cider and one glass of brandy. Add fresh orange slices and a bunch of May blossom. Stir well, cover and chill for two hours. Strain and serve in the garden.

May 1st - start of summer?
May Blossom. Copyright Robert Gilbertson,

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