Nature Studies

Have you ever noticed that spring flowers and blossoms are generally white or yellow, while autumn fruits are generally red or blue? And sometimes it’s on the same branch. For example, blackthorn has sugar-white blossoms and navy blue fruits, which are sloes; hawthorn has creamy-white blossoms and dark crimson fruits, which are haws. Bramble is another such—pale white flowers and autumn fruits so dark blue that we call them blackberries; and elder is similar. And you can find wild roses whose flowers are white and whose autumn fruits are bright red hips.
Alfred Russel Wallace, the Victorian naturalist, noticed this (he was the man who worked out the theory of natural selection before Darwin, but that’s another story.) He carried out a simple but fascinating survey: of 1,143 English wild plants, he found that 753 had flowers which were yellow or white, as opposed to only 290 which were red or blue. But in fruits the position was reversed: Wallace calculated that 113 out of 134 he looked at were red or blue, with only 21 being yellow or white.
The difference is probably there because flowers evolved to attract insects, to pollinate them, and fruits evolved to attract birds, which spread the host plants by eating the fruit and pooing out the seed elsewhere. So we may reasonably conclude that bumblebees and their insect fellows are drawn to yellow and white flowers in spring, and song thrushes and other birds are attracted by red and blue berries in autumn, presumably because these two different sets of organisms see the colours of the world through very different prisms.
I’ve been thinking about this over the last couple of months, enjoying the sight of the autumn fruits in the hedgerows. It’s been a good year for them. My favourite is one of the earliest, the rowan, the small tree sometimes known as the mountain ash. This is another example of white blossoms/red berries, although the word ‘red’ in no way does justice to the colour of the fruits: at their peak they are a most brilliant, almost startling scarlet. You can see them as early as the first week of August and to me they are one of the earliest hints that autumn is coming (along with the disappearance of the swifts, which I wrote about here a couple of months ago.)
Yet rowan is not just special for its berries. It is often thought of as a magical tree, especially in Scottish Gaelic culture; it was said to protect you from witches and sorcery, so you often see Highland cottages with a rowan growing protectively close by. But its supposed power was such that you could also use it in a curse, and indeed it figured in a famous curse involving two well-known literary figures from the mid-20th-century. One was Gavin Maxwell, who 60 years ago shot to international fame with Ring of Bright Water, his captivating account of living with pet otters in his house, Camusfearna, on the coast of the Sound of Sleat between the Western Highlands and Skye; the other was Kathleen Raine, the poet who was his sometime lover.
In the mid-1950s there was a bitter falling-out between the two and Kathleen Raine fled from Camusfearna in rage and fury, but returned secretly at night—as Maxwell, much later, learned to his consternation from her autobiography—and put her hand on the Camusfearna rowan and “cursed him with all the strength of her spirit”, saying “Let Gavin suffer in this place as I am suffering now.” (You can find the story in Maxwell’s final book, Raven Seek Thy Brother, although Raine is not named there).
Maxwell’s succeeding years indeed contained plenty of suffering: he lost his otters, he lost a marriage, he lost Camusfearna itself (burned down in a disastrous fire) and in the end he lost his life to cancer at only 55. Whether or not he attributed any or all of this to Kathleen Raine’s rowan curse is uncertain, although she herself undoubtedly did, with great subsequent regret.
Call it nonsense; call it scary; call it anything you like. I have no opinion on that. I am drawn to the story merely because when I glimpse a rowan tree in autumn I reminded that there is more to it even than those splendid scarlet berries—that it has an age-old, powerful human resonance, one in danger of being forgotten as we leave our knowledge of the natural world ever more behind.