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August fruits, berries, nuts and trees

Other August pages: Downland and seaside flowersWayside flowersBirdsButterflies and insectsWeather

Picture: crab apples. Click here for more August fruit, berry, nut and seed photos.

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 (including wild crab apples) groan on branches and right from the start of the month can be found 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. (You may very occasionally even see a bramble flower or two, useful late summer food for insects and butterflies.)

Berries are in fact everywhere you look in August, and it as this time of year when you realise why primates evolved three colour vision (which other mammals lack): it enables us to see red and so easily spot when berries are ripe. Most obvious are the red haws on hawthorn, a few of which may ripen in the first half, with the rest following in the second. Some may also fall to the ground in the second half, either of their own accord or because of birds trying to eat them. The berries on rowan trees are mostly orangey-red at the start of the month but generally darken to a full red as the month goes on. Hips (the fruits of wild rose bushes) start ripen to red in the second half, sometimes a bit earlier, though timing varies from place to place and you can often still see ones turning in September.

Sloes on blackthorn bushes have their characteristic blue blush right from the start of the month, but are hard and unripe: they start to soften towards its end. Their more palatable relatives wild plums (red or purple-blue) and greengages (yellowy-green) can also be found ripe as August goes on. Damsons (purple-blue, oval: looking like large sloes) and bullaces (rounded, purple-blue or yellowish with a pink blush) may be ripe towards the end of the month.

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 they are rather elusive and in many summers I don't find them at all. These are edible, but if you see what looks like tiny black cherries on a bush with large rubbery leaves, they are definitely not: this is the cherry laurel and its fruits are poisonous. They ripen during the month, creating a pretty kaleidoscope of colours as they turn from green to orange, maroon, red and then black

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 black in August: the two colours are often found in the same cluster. Guelder rose berries are reddening or already red in the first half of the month, while Dogwood berries ripen to grey and then black from the second week onwards (this shrub can also occasionally produce flowers in August). The fluted berries of the spindle tree may start to develop a slight blush of their ripe pink colour, or even turn a kind of dull brick red, though they do not turn their final bright pink till the end of September. Whitebeam berries usually stay green, though I have occasionally seen them starting to turn red at the very end of the month (this seems to be particularly true of Swedish whitebeam).

Black clusters of elderberries are ubiquitous from the second or third 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. Both wild privet - and its garden privet relative, if it has been allowed to flower - produce green berries that will ripen to black in September, though this is another shrub with rather variable timing.

Garden plants that occur in semi-wild locations include 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 a dull orangey-brown colour and then go red. The berries of tutsan, a relative of St John's wort and another garden escapee, usually start the month a mix of red and black, and go fully black as the month progresses. Snowberry continues to produce both flowers (tiny pink ones) and the white globular berries after which it is named.

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), though in both cases the berries can still be green or orange at this time too. White bryony may even still be flowering earlier in the month. Once the berries ripen, both plants can lose their leaves so it can be hard to tell them apart, but black bryony berries look larger and more luscious and are more closely packed on the stem, while white bryony's are smaller, duller and more widely spaced. Both are poisonous.

Honeysuckle also may continue to flower right until the end of August, but you can also see its red berries right from the start of the month - to see both on the same plant is not uncommon. Yet another hedgerow climber that can be both flowering and producing berries in August (which ripen from green to red, both being seen throughout the month) is bittersweet, otherwise known as woody nightshade. The lurid red seed heads of cuckoo pint continue to provide a striking sight on verges - earlier in the month you may also see ones that still have some seeds that are green (unripe) or orange (partially ripe).

Less noticed are the berries of holly and yew. Holly berries remain green all month, and so are almost impossible to spot amidst their foliage, though a few may be showing a slight flush of red towards the very end of the month. Yew berries at first look like tiny green acorns, but from quite early in the month you might see some ripening to red, their number increasing toward the end of the month. There will usually still be plenty of green ones on the same tree or bush, though.

One other plant - ivy - is only just starting to think about flowering, with the buds it started to produce at the end of July slowly developing throughout August. By the end of the month they may be fully formed and at the very end of the month some may even be starting to flower. Rhododendron has cylindrical green seeds, as well as buds that look like the flower buds that appear in spring, but are actually new leaf clusters about to open.

Nuts and seeds

The presence of seeds or nuts 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. Early in the month, when the cases are broken, one wonders if squirrels are a factor: later one sees splayed cases on the ground or on the tree, suggesting they have fallen naturally. Either way the nuts themselves disappear fairly quickly. Meanwhile acorns grow to full size during the month on oak trees and increasing numbers are to be found on the ground as the month goes on, though plenty also remain on the tree.

You can also find hazelnuts on the ground right from the start of the month, though they are soon snapped up by squirrels and dormice (squirrels, indeed, can be responsible for them falling, since they eat them off the tree, dislodging others as they do so). 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.

The winged seeds of field maple and sycamore can also be found on the ground during August, but this is usually due to squirrels feeding on them (look to see if the pod with the actual seed in has been neatly slit open). The majority of the seeds stay on the tree, and most of these on sycamore and some on field maple turn brown as the month progresses. Squirrels are also the reason you find green hornbeam seeds under some trees, and again, some of the ones that remain on the tree may be yellowing a bit towards the end of the month. The ground under lime trees is littered with rejected winged seeds (the ones that did not fertilise?), though again plenty still remain on the trees.

Ash seeds (keys) continue to hang in larger green bunches, while on birch trees there are fat seed cylinders (looking a bit like catkins) - mostly green, though more and more of them turn brown as the month goes on. This year's larch cones now look very similar to the ones from previous years, which can still be seen, though the old ones have open scales while the new ones are still closed up. London plane has green seed balls, and alder new green cones, though in both cases some brown ones from last year may still remain. 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, agrimony (which has distinctive conical seeds) and also enchanter's nightshade and wood avens (aka herb bennet).

The start of leaf tint

It seems a bit incongruous in high summer, but if you look closely you can already see some yellowing of leaves on trees and shrubs in August – usually just a few that turn colour and fall. You may also see leaves that have fallen 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 dislodge leaves from trees, but they do also seem to fall of their own accord. This happens in a very small way as early as late May but seems to increase a bit in August, at least in some years. However this early tint and shed is not an indicator of an early autumn: there seems to be no correlation at all. It is not until later in autumn that trees and shrubs lose their leaves in earnest.

Whatever the reason, lime, birch, elder, crack willow, goat willow, wild cherry, hazel, sweet chestnut, hornbeam and common whitebeam can all see some tinting in August, as can buddleia even as it continues to flower, dog rose, dogwood, blackthorn, hawthorn and bramble. On blackthorn occasional tinted leaves act as camouflage for female hairstreak butterflies, who lay their eggs on this plant. On both this plant and hawthorn the falling foliage also seems to highlight the presence of the berries as they ripen, making them more obvious to birds.

In 2016 and 2017 rowan also tinted, while in 2014 and 2019 beech did. Some leaves on hybrid black poplar turned yellow in 2020 and in other years it has shed without tinting. White willow, alder and ash can also shed leaves without any tinting, as can oak and sycamore, though these two do occasionally see some tint. Weeping willow tints very inconspicuously (you have to look closely) and sheds a few leaves, but only in a very minor way. Some leaves on cherry laurel also yellow and fall to the ground, part of a renewal of this evergreen shrub's foliage that has been going on since May.

Special mention has to be made for horse chestnut leaves withering or turning brown in August, which is due to a leaf-mining moth caterpillar that has been attacking them since 2006. It seems to be less intense in wetter years, at least in the summer months, and in July is largely confined to lower levels of the tree. In August it can creep higher until the tree is affected right to the top, but since 2019 many (though not all) trees have been relatively unaffected, suggesting the trees are developing resistance to it.

Sycamore can also develop a black spot on its leaves due to a fungus - remarkably, this is a sign of clean air - and on the South Downs in 2012, 2019 and 2021 (and to a lesser extent 2020) many also had part-withered leaves from an unknown cause. In 2011 some leaves of virginia creeper - an imported climber that is semi-naturalised - turned their characteristic reddish brown in August, and this also happened in places at the very end of August 2017: normally, though, it does not happen until September.

As mentioned above, black bryony leaves start to wither as its berries ripen and this sometimes produces yellow tints. You may also see leaves yellowing on large or hedge bindweed and stinging nettles, and attractive orangey tints on rosebay willowherb plants that are dying back. There can be a tiny bit of tinting on bracken, but it overwhelmingly remains green.

More August pages:

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