January 09, 2011

Hips and haws

The trees are bare, the grass muddy and thin, and for the most part the gardens around us are a sodden tangle of rotting leaves and frost-blackened foliage, with here and there the odd new shoot or catkin presaging things to come. Yet January is also a time of plenty, if you know what to look for. Some fruits - quinces, medlars and wild service berries, for example - need to be bletted by frost, meaning January is often a good time to gather them.

Rose bushes, if they are not dead-headed, are laden now with hips, the fruit of the rose. These oval red or orange fruits, with their hairy seeds removed, have long been turned into a sweet pulp or puree; during the Seconed World War they were collected by volunteers and processed into a syrup which was distributed to children, as one cup of rosehip pulp contains more vitamin C than 40 oranges, and citrus fruits, imported from overseas, were very hard to come by.

The hairy seeds inside the hip also have their uses, and have been dried and turned into itching powder by generations of schoolchildren. 'Itchy-coos' even found their way into a song by the Small Faces in 1967.

In contrast, haws are the small red berries found on hawthorn trees and hedges, also part of the rose family. They are just about edible as they are, and used to be called 'bread and cheese' - bread being the  leaves, the berry being the cheese; more commonly they are used to make jellies and preserves. Birds find them much more palatable than we do, and haws are an important winter food source for many species - particularly thrushes and waxwings, one of our most glamorous winter visitors and one that does appear, from time to time, in London parks and gardens.

Along with the berries of pyracanthas, rowans and cotoneasters - thankfully all common in urban areas - hips and haws help sustain thousands of birds through the hard winter months.