The hedgerows at FarmED are smothered in drifts of highly-scented, starry hawthorn blossom.
The dense, impenetrable shrub was used to enclose fields from the time when commoners were no longer allowed to graze their animals and cultivate crops freely, and in many ways the hawthorn has come to define the British countryside, holding a special place in our affections. It’s a sign that spring is making way for summer and it’s also a symbol of enchantment and deep magic, steeped in mythology and folklore.
The hawthorn was believed to be a dwelling place of fairies, guarding the threshold of the otherworld. Anyone who cut down this fairy tree was doomed to perish. The exception was Mayday, or Beltane, when boughs of hawthorn were gathered to bedeck the May Queens and Maypoles that were central to the festivities. The branches of blossom were collected before dawn to catch the dew for girls to bathe their faces.
If you’re wondering how, in centuries past, people were able to find hawthorn blossom as early as the first of May, this is due to the changeover from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in 1752. In that year we lost 11 days, so the dates of all festivals were pushed forward. The old May Day would have been celebrated on or around 12th May in our calendar.
The hawthorn’s magical properties were not just confined to maytime. Many stone circles, burial chambers and wells are guarded by a lone hawthorn tree, often standing gnarled and weather-beaten.
Hawthorn goes by many names, including quickthorn, whitethorn, hagthorn and mayflower. In Welsh, it’s known as Bara Caws (‘bread and cheese’), because that’s what the leaves are said to taste like. The word ‘hawthorn’ itself derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘hagedorn’, meaning ‘hedge thorn’, which refers to its use on field boundaries. The word ‘hag’, meaning ‘witch’, shares the same origin and witches are said to ride on brooms of hawthorn, while wands made from this wood are believed to be especially powerful.
The most famous hawthorn of all is the Glastonbury Thorn. According to legend Joseph of Arimathea is said to have brought the Holy Grail to Britain, and at Wearyall Hill in Somerset he thrust his staff into the ground, whereupon it instantly took root. The resulting tree had the ability to flower twice a year: at Christmas, and again in May and during the reign of James I the Bishop of Bath and Wells began the tradition of sending a sprig of flowering hawthorn to the monarch at Christmas. The Glastonbury Thorn has suffered over the centuries but in 2013 a replacement tree, grafted from the old bush by botanists at Kew Gardens, was planted at Glastonbury.
The hawthorn tree is hardy and will tolerate poor soils. If allowed to grow tall it can reach nearly twenty metres.The dark green, deciduous leaves appear in mid April and amongst the leaves are the thorns, a couple of centimetres long. The white flowers are followed by fruits ‘Haws’, green at first, but ripening in late August to a deep red, important foods for a variety of birds, including blackbirds, thrushes, fieldfares, finches and yellowhammers. The tree’s gnarled trunk also provides habitats for nests and insects.
The hawthorn has inspired poets and painters including Arthur Rackham, but the final words goes to John Mil
“While the ploughman near at hand
Whistles o’er the furrow’d land,
And the milkmaid singeth blithe,
And the mower whets his scythe,
And every shepherd tells his tale
Under the hawthorn in the dale.”
John Milton ton.