Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Ne'er cast a clout till May be out.

With most old English phrases and sayings the meaning may be well understood but often the origin of the phrase or proverb is uncertain. With this one "Ne'er cast a clout till May be out" there is no doubt about the actual meaning. 

In England, in May, you can't miss the Hawthorn. It is an extremely common tree in the countryside, especially in hedges. Hawthorns are virtually synonymous with all kinds of hedges. The tree gives its beautiful display of flowers in late April/early May. It is known as the May Tree and the blossom itself is called May. 

Many towns and villages used to hold the May Queen parade. Some young girl of the parish being elected Queen of the May! Other much older celebrations included dancing around the Maypole.

Using that allusion, "till May is out" could only mean, until the hawthorn is in bloom. The word "clout", although archaic, is straightforward. The word has long been used variously to mean "a blow to the head" or "a piece of cloth or clothing."

The amount of may blossom on a hawthorn can vary, some are quite sparse and others are fit to burst. Along the towpath by the side of the boat is a stunning Hawthorne. There is so much blossom on this specimen that from a distance it looks like snow.

I did a close-up photograph of a plant I found alongside the towpath a few days ago. I wonder if you figured out what the plant was. It was the Teasel or the dried remains of a teasel from last year. I have seen these dead plant heads used as decoration in peoples homes. However for many years the teasel was used in cloth making from wool.

The Fuller's Teasel a cultivar of the wild teasel was formerly used in wool processing, providing a natural comb for cleaning, aligning and raising the nap on wool fabrics. The dried flower heads were attached to cylinders, sometimes called teasel frames, to raise the nap on fabrics. 


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