Curious Roots: The Month of June

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By Heather Elvidge

June is the month of roses, especially wild dog roses. Their silky flowers are white or deep pink, with a crown of golden stamens at the centre. It’s worth pausing to enjoy their delicate, fresh scent, because they flower for only a short time.

Adaptable dog roses thrive in hedgerows and woodland, often in conditions that would defeat modern roses. But cultivated garden roses flower for longer; some for the whole summer. They owe their qualities to generations of plant breeders, who crossbred wild roses from overseas: damask roses from Persia, the repeat-flowering china rose, and the apothecary’s rose, rosa gallica. Today, roses are grafted onto dog rose rootstocks, because the wild cousins have more vigorous roots.

It’s good to see the swallows back, swooping low over ponds and pasture to scoop up insects. They always return to the area where they were born, if possible to the same barn or outhouse.

While swallows are repairing last year’s nests, resident birds already have young on the wing. Some are bold, like the starlings chasing their parents through the air, begging noisily. Others keep a lower profile. Although they’re quite large, young blackbirds and thrushes hide under bushes where they hop silently on legs that look too long for them. If you come across a young bird on the ground, remember it’s not as helpless as it looks — its parent will be somewhere nearby, waiting for you to go away.

At the heart of June is the longest day. On the 21st, the summer solstice, the sun will reach its highest point at noon. Solstice is from the Latin for “sun stands”, because the solar disc does seem to stand still for a few days, rising and setting at the same points on the horizon. 

But after Midsummer Day on the 24th, the sun starts heading south again and the days slowly shorten. So we’d better make the most of the month with the longest daylight hours. Hopefully, June’s infamous Atlantic winds loaded with rain clouds will stay away this year — we don’t want to give up our bistro sets and garden sofas just yet.

Our ancestors would have seen magic in our solar-powered lanterns and tree lights that capture the power of the sun. For them, the days when the sun stood still were a strange, uncanny time, and they responded by lighting bonfires, banging drums, and rolling flaming wheels down hillsides. Perhaps they were hoping to win the favour of their life-giving god, or were simply trying to ward off illness and other evils.

We call the sun god’s plant St John’s wort (the saint’s feast is on Midsummer Day). The starry yellow flowers, bright as sunshine, appear from June until September. When crushed the petals bleed red juice, said to be the saint’s blood.

Medieval herbalists used infusions of St John’s wort to treat melancholia, while ointments prepared from it helped to heal wounds. A bunch of the sunshine herb was said to chase away nightmares if hung over the bed. It was also a defence against the charms of troublesome faeries, who celebrate Midsummer by tempting humans to join their woodland rides and midnight dances.

Another classic plant of Midsummer was the ox-eye or moon daisy, known in Yorkshire simply as moons. Nowadays it tends to comes out earlier, in late May, but the tall white flowers can still be seen swaying above the long grass on roadside verges.

The little lawn daisy is the day’s eye, opening to greet the rising sun. A necklace or circlet of daisies worn at Midsummer brings twelve months of good fortune, so start practising your daisy-chain skills now. Pick some daisy flowers with longish stalks. Use a fingernail to make a split in a stalk, push the next stalk through the slit, and so on. Better still, cheat, and ask a child to do it for you.

The wind direction on Midsummer Day is said to give the prevailing wind for the next three months. Will this be a summer of sunshine, showers, or sea frets? June 15 is the day we all dread: “If St Vitus Day be rainy weather, it’ll rain for thirty days together.” 

As the sun slips below the horizon Venus gleams in the western twilight, and on June 16 it will form a lovely duo with the young crescent moon. By the 27th the moon will be full and close to Saturn, low in the southeast. Good binoculars or a small telescope will reveal the full beauty of the planet, with its rings open wide.