Other August pages: Flowers • Birds • Butterflies and insects • Weather
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August is the month of harvest, the season of gathering in. It is the month when berries, fruits and nuts start to ripen in the hedgerow. Apples groan on branches and from early in the month are even scattered on the ground. Blackberries are at their best and by the end of the month they can even be going over, though in many places they last well into September.
Berries are in fact everywhere you look in August. Most obvious are the red haws on hawthorn, some of which may look ripe early in the month but most of which ripen in the second half. (If spring is hot, some may even ripen earlier in the summer). Note also the berries on rowan trees, which have for the most part reached their full red colour (with a slight tinge of orange) by the start of the month.
Hips (the fruits of wild rose bushes) mature in the second half, and throughout the month you can see the characteristic blue blush of sloes on blackthorn bushes: hard and unripe at the start of the month, they start to soften towards its end. Their more palatable relatives wild plums (red or blue-black) and greengages (green) can also be found ripe in August, but damsons (blue-black) and bullaces (blue-black or white) tend not to be ripe until September. Cherry plums, which look like a cherry but taste like a plum and can be yellowy-orange or red, are ripe in the first half, though in some summers they are not found at all. These are edible, but if you see what looks like tiny black cherries on a bush with large rubbery leaves in the second half of the month, they are definitely not: this is the cherry laurel and its fruits are poisonous.
Other berries might catch your eye - and provide a useful aid to identifying the shrubs they grow on. The wayfaring tree – a common shrub on downland – has berries that turn red and then later in August black: the two colours are often mixed up on the same cluster. Guelder rose berries are reddening or already red in the first half of the month, while the berries of the whitebeam may be starting to turn from green to red near the end of the month. Dogwood berries ripen to black at the same time, and the distinctive snowberry continues both to flower (tiny pink ones) and to produce the white globular berries after which it is named. You can also see the characteristic fluted berries of the spindle tree (a bush) turn a dull maroon colour in the second half: later in September they will ripen to pink.
Black clusters of elderberries are ubiquitous from the second week onwards, though their ripening is staggered - that is, on any particular bush some are ripe and some remain green a bit longer. They are edible but don't taste of much. Where it has been allowed to flower, privet (both the garden hedge variety and its longer-leaved wild cousin) produces green berries that will ripen to black in September (though this is a shrub with rather variable timing, and some can still be flowering at the start of the month). Two more garden plants that occur in semi-wild locations are firethorn (often called by its Latin name of pyracantha), whose plentiful clusters of berries turn orange (or very occasionally red) as the month goes on, and cotoneaster, whose berries turn an orangey-brown colour and then go red.
If you see a climber trailing red berries across the hedgerow towards the end of the month, it is quite likely black bryony (a member of the yam family) or white bryony (a member of the marrow family). Both have green unripe berries earlier in the month and white bryony can still be flowering at that time. Once the berries come out they have often lost their leaves so it can be hard to tell them apart, but black bryony berries look more luscious while white bryony's are duller. Both are poisonous.
Honeysuckle also may continue to flower right until the end of August, but you also start to see its red berries quite early in the month. Yet another hedgerow climber that can be both flowering and producing berries in August (the latter probably green early in the month, maybe red towards the end) is bittersweet (otherwise known as woody nightshade). The lurid orange seed heads of cuckoo pint continue to provide a striking sight on verges.
Even less noticed on the berry front are the ones of the yew and holly: early in the month holly berries are green and almost impossible to spot amidst its foliage, while the buds of yew berries look like tiny acorns. By the end of the month some yew berries may have ripened to red, however. One other plant - ivy - is only just starting to think about flowering, with the buds it started to produce at the end of July growing slowly larger throughout August.
Nuts and seeds
The presence of seeds or fruits makes August a good time to identify trees. Beech nut cases, for example, are visible, with some falling to the ground and splitting open from quite early in the month, though plenty still remain on the tree. Meanwhile, acorns grow to full size during the month on oak trees and some are to be found on the ground at the end of the month.
The round nut cases of sweet chestnuts (spiked) and horse chestnuts (smooth) become increasingly prominent as the month goes on, and some of the latter start to fall to the ground at the end of the month. Early in the month the ground under sweet chestnuts is still littered with its fallen flower tassels. You can also find hazelnuts on the ground right from the start of the month, and sometimes walnuts.
The winged seeds of Norway maple, field maple and sycamore can also be found on the ground during the month, but this is probably due to squirrels feeding on them (look to see if the pod with the actual seed in has been neatly slit open): most stay on the tree, however. Squirrels may also be a factor in the hornbeam seeds which are found under some trees but not others. The ground under lime trees is littered with reject winged seeds, though plenty still remain on the trees.
Ash seeds (keys) continue to hang in larger green bunches, though they can sometimes be yellowing a bit at the month's end, and there are fat cylindrical seeds (looking a bit like catkins) on birch trees - mostly green, though more and more of them turn brown as the month goes on. If you look closely you will also see that alder, birch and hazel have tiny buds (which in fact appear in July) that will grow into next year's catkins.
Look down and you find seeds stuck to your socks at the end of a walk. These are the seeds of cleavers (also known as goosegrass), a sprawling verge plant, and also enchanter's nightshade and wood avens (aka herb bennet).
The start of leaf tint
Towards the end of the month you can also see some yellowing leaves on trees – usually just a few that turn and fall, scattering the ground below. Around other trees you may see a fallen leaves without any apparent tinting.
Several factors may trigger this, including drought, cool August weather, or perhaps the aggregate amount of stress the trees have been under over the whole spring and summer. Storms can also sometimes dislodge leaves from trees, but whether they were going to fall anyway is an interesting question. It does seem, though, that some species are just making a quiet start to their autumn leaf fall, though in some years - 2012 being an example - there is hardly any such activity at all.
Whatever the reason, limes, birches, field maple, elder, crack willows on riversides, hornbeam and even beech can all see some tinting in August, as can buddleia (even as it continues to flower), hawthorn, blackthorn, cherry plum and bramble. Poplar, whitebeam and oak may shed some leaves without any tinting.
In 2016 (when dry weather did seem to be a factor), grey willow, rowan, dogwood, sweet chestnut and hazel also showed some tinting by the end of the month, while weeping willow, sycamore and alder lost leaves without tinting. All of this ceased once wetter weather came in September, however, and in general is not till later in the autumn that trees and shrubs lose their leaves in earnest. An early onset of tinting or leaf fall is not an indicator of an early autumn: as far as I can see there is no correlation at all.
If you see horse chestnut leaves withering or turning brown in August, it is due to a leaf-mining bug that started attacking them in 2009. This seems to be less intense in wetter years, at least in the summer months. In 2016 the symptoms of ash die-back disease also became apparent across the south east, with many trees - especially saplings - developing brown shrivelled tips to their leaves.
In addition sycamore can develop a black spot on its leaves, and on the South Downs in 2012 many also had part-withered leaves from some other unknown cause. In 2011 some leaves of virginia creeper - an imported climber that is semi-naturalised - turned their characteristic reddish brown in August, though normally this does not happen until September.
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