Never before the last week of November do the song thrush, the robin and the bullfinch start eating the berries of the Guelder rose. They usually don’t do it until mid-December, ornithologists and botanists agree. The berries are ripe, red and shiny as early as September, beckoning to the birds, but the song thrush, the robin and the bullfinch only notice them later.

It’s in the sturdy stem of the berries, wrote the renowned Birds and Berries in 1988. Until the beginning of December, the fruits are for birds unpluckable. Also with other researchers did you come across this statement, at the same time it is claimed that the birds actually find the berries so dirty that they only start eating them when all the other berries are gone. The berries of the Gelderse rose are astringent and sour, say the bird books, and they smell. Only after a night of frost can they be chewed.

The leftover berries that were found last weekend in an offshoot of the Amsterdamse Bos did not smell at all and were not nearly as astringent as the blackthorn plums further on. And it was apparently eaten with taste. In addition to thousands of rose hips, there were also so many hawthorn berries hanging that the fieldfares and redwings were completely excited. It would be unthinkable that they would be gone by mid-December.

The Gelderland rose in the Amsterdam forest at the end of November.
Photo Jelijn Knip

It may be taste

Perhaps there is something wrong with the explanation for the late feeding. It makes no sense anyway to keep track of whether or not berries are tasty if birds can have their own thoughts about that. See great tits and blue tits feasting on the sea buckthorn berries that inevitably turned into limp, fermenting sacs during this time. Greenfinches and hawfinches eat yew seeds that are life-threatening to humans.

But recent research in northwestern Spain confirmed the conclusions of Barbara and David Snow from 1988: as long as there are rose hips and hawthorn fruits, the berries of the Guelder rose remain uneaten. It may be the taste, but the size of the berries can also play a role. It was noticed that the birds let the largest berries hang the longest.

For example, all sorts of information about the Gelderse rose could be dished up here, but it would be pointless because the Dutchman does not know the shrub at all, just as he does not know the Spanish maple, the buckthorn or the wild gale. That the Guelder roseofficially: Viburnum opulusbesides having scarlet berries also beautiful inflorescences, elder-like ‘corymbs’ with a whorl of large white flowers, has not been able to help him.

No one even knows why the Gelderland rose is called the way it is. The Viburnum is not a rose at all, rather an elder of wet soil, and no botanical or ecological relationship with Gelderland has ever been discovered. Yet the shrub has been called ‘Gelders’ for centuries, and not only here but also around us: Guelder rose, rose de Gueldre, rosa de Gueldres, rosa di Gueldre. It is claimed that the white decoy flowers were depicted on the coats of arms of the old Gelderland nobility, but the pictures that have to prove it are absolutely convincing. The vegetable kingdom has no shortage of five-part white flowers. An alternative explanation assumes that an unfortunate page formatting in the famous Kruydtboeck of Lobelius (1581) has created confusion.

Traditional embroidery

The Dutchman is not familiar with the Gelderland rose. It is very different in Eastern Europe, from the Czech Republic and Poland to Ukraine and Russia, where the shrub kaline or kalyna is called. There is a complete kalyna folklore which goes back to the Middle Ages and beyond, to times of pagan customs. The kalynas are easy to recognize in the traditional embroidery on Ukrainian shirts, dresses and flags. The white of the flowers stands for faithfulness, beauty, purity and pristine, the red of the berries for fiery love and what comes from it. Kalyna berries are picked once it has frozen and then eaten with lots of meat. And so on, and so on, this kind of reflection goes on and on: there is tea, there is jam, there are medicinal drinks.

The red kalyna, the Chervona kalyna, was as loved in Russia as in Ukraine but gradually became a bush symbolizing Ukraine’s struggle against Russian oppression. It was brought about by one patriotic song from 1875 that in 1914 became the battle song of a Ukrainian army unit: ‘Oy u luzi chervona kalyna pokhylylasia’ – in the meadow the kalyna is bent, there is sadness in glorious Ukraine. It is said to refer to the ancient custom of Ukrainian women to plant a kalyna after their husbands had died in battle. During the Soviet era, the song was not allowed to be sung because it overemphasized Ukraine’s resilience and independence.

The song became immensely popular in the past year, and dozens of videos can be found on the internet that play it. It sounds squaresin schools, in echoing corridorson roofs of tower blocks and bee historical movies. The video of the operation that Pink Floyd made in April can leave no one unmoved. A bit drowsy, don’t you think, that we don’t even know the Gelderse rose here.

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