Ne'er cast a clout till May be out.
The word clout is unambiguous in this context, simply meaning a piece of cloth or clothing. So from a book, "Early English Miscellanies in Prose and Verse", dating from c.1485 we have:
He had not left an holle clowt,
Wherwith to hyde hys body abowte.
More problematic is the word "May". It may (sorry) refer to the month but I prefer to think that we are talking about the Hawthorn, otherwise known as May. It is abundant throughout most of Britain with its population probably having been augmented by its use as a hedging plant during enclosures, largely of the 18th and 19th centuries. Inevitably John Clare, whose life was much affected by these enclosures, refers to it many times in his poems (though not, to my knowledge. in a politico-historical context; it would not have gone down well with his well-heeled patrons):
There May blooms with its little threads
Still upon the thorny bowers,
And never forget those pinky heads,
Like fairy pins amid the flowers.
|Hawthorn leaves (Common left, Midland right)|
from Byfield Pocket Park. 15 May, 2013
But there is a slight complication to this situation, for in Northamptonshire - and over much of southern Britain - we have two species of Hawthorn. By far the most abundant is the Common Hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna; much less common, though by no means rare, is the Midland Hawthorn, Crataegus laevigata. These species differ in the structure of both flowers and fruit, but the leaves are also distinct and it is this feature which allowed me to note a solitary specimen of Midland Hawthorn in Byfield Pocket Park. The Common Hawthorn (on the left) has more lobes on the leaf; the Midland Hawthorn (on the right) has - usually - just three lobes. It was noticeable too that the flower buds on the Midland Hawthorn were on the point of opening; those of the Common Hawthorn were far less advanced.
|Midland Hawthorn in bud.|
Byfield Pocket Park 15 May, 2013
If only the situation were that simple. Unfortunately the hybrid between the two species (Crataegus x media) is not infrequent and may cause a little head scratching.
In most years the nectar is bountiful - much to the delight of beekeepers - but sometimes the yield is poor. I don't know the reason for this variability. In good years many insects other than bees will visit the flowers. Also of interest is that more than a dozen kinds of insect or mite will feed on the leaves causing galls. Many caterpillars are also to be found on Hawthorn, all-in-all making it a very important plant for wildlife.