Hawthorn: The May Tree

The Hawthorn, a tree that displays a prolific splendour of white or pink flowers at the beginning of May, is known by a variety of different names, such as “The May Tree“, “The Beltane Tree“, “The May Blossom“, “The Whitethorn“, “The Quick“, or simply the “May“.

Hawthorn blossoms.

In Irish Gaelic, the Hawthorn is known as sceach. Shrubby and thorny, the scratchy Hawthorn tree is the “Thorn” tree referred to in the famous line “By Oak and Ash and Thorn” from Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “A Tree Song“. In the Ogham alphabet, it’s the sixth letter, known as “Huathe“. In scientific terminology, the Hawthorn is represented by a number of trees in the genus Crataegus. The Common Hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna, originally native to Europe, northwestern Africa, and West Asia, is now found in many other parts of the world, including North America. Much of our folklore surrounding the Hawthorn may have originated from the related Woodland Hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata) which was common in ancient woodlands in Europe during the early Middle Ages. In my homeland, the west coast of Canada, our native Hawthorn species is the Black Hawthorn (Crataegus douglasii).

The blossoming of the Hawthorn is symbolic, signaling the end of the dark, cold winter nights, and the beginning of spring, fertility and new life. At the festival of Beltane, young women would hold a twig of Hawthorn blossom to attract a husband. In Ireland, the Hawthorn was considered to be one of the most likely trees to be inhabited or protected by the “Wee Folk“. Most of the isolated trees, or “lone bushes“, that were said to be inhabited by faeries, were Hawthorn trees. Solitary thorns were known as the faeries’ “Trysting Trees“, and frequently grew on barrows and tumps or at crossroads. Such trees could not be cut or damaged in any way without incurring the often fatal wrath of their supernatural guardians. In Irish tradition, strips of torn cloth were attached to the Hawthorn to appease the fairy guardians who live in it. This practice is still carried out today in many Celtic countries. It’s customary to attach small cloth rags or ribbons (known as clooties in Scots) to a Hawthorn at Beltane, especially if the tree grows by a well, in order to make a wish. This is also done to ask for Brigid’s blessing on the cloth, which is then used in healing. On Beltane dawn, men and women would bathe in the morning dew of the Hawthorn blossom to increase health, wealth, luck, good fortune, and beauty. Women would become more beautiful and men who washed their hands in the dew would become skilled craftsmen.

Hawthorn berries and blossoms.

Interestingly, although the blossoms of Hawthorns were used for garlands, and large leafy branches were cut and set in the ground outside houses, there was a very strong taboo against bringing Hawthorn into the house. In Ireland, there was a belief that bringing Hawthorn blossoms into the house would be followed by illness and death. Medieval country folk also asserted that the smell of Hawthorn blossoms was just like the smell of death. Botanists later discovered that the chemical trimethylamine present in Hawthorn blossoms is also one of the first chemicals formed in decaying animal tissue, producing the smell of death, so it is hardly surprising that Hawthorn blossoms were so unwelcome in the home. Apparently, the Woodland Hawthorn blossoms, which would have been more available during Medieval times, give off much more of an unpleasant scent of death soon after it is cut than Common Hawthorn.

Despite the smell of Hawthorn’s blossoms, its berries are tasty edibles. The berries are traditionally gathered after the first frost, which converts some of the starches to sugars, and makes the berries more palatable. Berries are used as an ingredient in hedgerow wine, or to make haw jelly as an accompaniment to wild game. The berries can also be mashed, removing the skin and seeds, and used to make a fruit leather as a way of storing them. The young leaves and flower buds are eaten in spring salads.

Medicinally, infusions of the flowers, leaves, or berries have been shown to improve the heartbeat rate and strength and to reduce blood pressure. They also help with irregular heartbeats and increase peripheral circulation, helping with conditions such as Reynaud’s and improving poor memory through increased circulation to the brain. Hawthorn infusions contain bioflavonoids and proanthocyanins, valuable antioxidants which help repair and prevent tissue damage, especially in the blood vessels. Hawthorn also helps to relieve anxiety.

Common hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna).

The Hawthorn tree is a great example of how Nature provides for us, giving us food and medicine, ease and release, and maybe even granting us a wish or two. So, find your nearest Hawthorn, hang a clootie on it, and welcome in the May!

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