Wildlife value of Hawthorn: The leaves of Hawthorn are the food-plant of many butterfly and moth caterpillars, including the Brimstone Moth, several Pug Moths and the Lesser Yellow Underwing. The flowers provide nectar and pollen for small beetles, many hoverflies, several species of solitary bee including Andrea, Halictus and Lassioglossum. The honey produced by Honey Bees feeding on May blossom is a deep, rich amber. The flower buds are also fed on by the protected Common Dormouse. The berries in autumn supplement the diet of our native Thrushes and Blackbirds, winter Thrush visitors (Fieldfare and Redwing) and another special winter visitor: the Waxwing. Small mammals also feed on the haw berries, as do the larvae of the Hawthorn Shield Bug, while birds and mammals often shelter or nest in dense Hawthorn hedges and thickets.
Human uses of Hawthorn: The finegrain wood has been used for woodcarving and, with its magical properties, for wands (the fictitious Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter series has a wand made from Hawthorn!).
The berries, high in pectin, anti-oxidants, Vitamin A and C, are used in making jellies, though the small fruits, with their large stone, make this a fiddly task. The leaves, known commonly as ‘bread and cheese’ are edible when young and can be used in salads. As children we would eat the leaf-buds on the way to school.
Hawthorn berries have been used as a tonic. Herbalists have long used Hawthorn to treat cardiac and circulatory conditions.
The 17th Century herbalist Culpeper, in his book ‘The English Physician’ recommended Hawthorn as a remedy to remove thorns, treat dropsy (known today as oedema), remove stones and for “inward tormenting pains.
The mythology of the Hawthorn tree: Supernatural powers have been associated with this ‘enchanted, magical tree’ and these beliefs persisted well into the 19th Century. It was sacred in many Celtic cultures and the Mayday tradition of the Maypole is associated with the tree, as are the ancient spring rituals of Beltane, where it symbolises new life, love and protection.
The legend of the Glastonbury Thorn is based on the belief that Joseph of Arimathea, who was believed to have buried Jesus after the Crucifixion, travelled to Glastonbury, planted his hawthorn staff in the ground there, from which grew the tree.
Planting a Hawthorn tree near your house was believed to protect you from lightning-strikes and to keep out evil spirits. To cut one down was thought to bring bad luck.
The mythology of May blossom: Bathing your face in the dew on May flowers, at dawn on May 1st was common, thought to bring you good health and complexion. In his diaries Samuel Pepys expresses his concern at his wife and maidservants leaving the house at dawn to do just this. Garlands of flowers and leaves of May are included in the wreath of the Green Man and many spring brides would wear May flowers in their hair, though you should always ask the fairies for permission to pick the blossoms they protected.
The flowers were said to be unsafe to bring into homes, except on the first of May. Recently the scent of May has been found to contain Trimethylamine, a chemical present in decaying bodies. At a time when many more people would have laid bodies out in their houses before burial, greater familiarity with the smell of decay probably led to this belief.
Random facts about Hawthorn/May: - The oldest known Hawthorn tree is the Hethel Old Thorn, in Hethel, Norfolk, thought to be over 700 years old. - Some of the miles of Hawthorn hedgerows in Normandy were so dense that, in 1944, 600 allied tanks were fitted with sharpened steel blades welded to the front to allow the advancing armies to penetrate the hedgerows. - Hawthorn is a member of the rose family. The scientific name Craetaegus is derived from the Greek for strong.
The Hawthorn in Shakespeare: The Hawthorn is mentioned in 5 of Shakespeare plays. In As You Like It, he writes about Orlando: “There is a man haunts the forest that abuses our young plants with carving Rosalind on their barks, hangs odes upon hawthorns and elegies on brambles.”
In Henry VI Part 3 he writes: “Gives not the hawthorn bush a sweeter shade To shepherds looking after silly sheep Than doth a rich, embroidered canopy To kings that fear their subjects treachery.”
In King Lear Edgar speaks of winter winds so strong they can pass through a “sharp hawthorn”. He refers to a ‘young dandy’ as a “hawthorn-bud”
John Clare: The great English poet and naturalist John Clare (1793-1864) wrote of Hawthorn. In ‘The Thrush’s Nest he writes: “Within a thick and spreading hawthorn bush that overhung a molehill large and round I heard from morn to morn a merry thrush Sing hymns to sunrise and I drank the sound With joy; and often, an intruding guest, I watched her secret toil from day to day How true she warped the moss to form a nest….”.
How much the widespread, resilient Hawthorn represents the English countryside is expressed in Siegfried Sassoon’s poem, to his son away at war: The Hawthorn Tree (extract) “I know my lad that’s out in France With fearsome things to see Would give his eyes for just one glance At our white hawthorn tree”