There are two indigenous types of hawthorn, the common (crataegus monogyna) and Midland (crataegus laevigata) in the UK. The leaves of both trees have a nutty flavor and were eaten by children as ‘bread and cheese’. The hawthorn blossoms in May (hence its familiar name), when the trees are smothered in clusters of white blossoms that give out a strangely disturbing but unmistakable perfume.
Common hawthorn has been used for about 2000 years as natural fencing because its tangle of thorny branches makes an ideal barrier for enclosing and protecting livestock. Its name derives from Anglo-Saxon haegthorn, which means hedge-tree and signs of defensive hawthorn hedges have been discovered round the edges of excavated Roman forts. The natural lifespan is around 100 years but some trees have reached the ripe old age of 300 years. Slow growth produces a very hard wood and although it burns well, hawthorn timber is little used today except for tool handles and walking sticks.
Medicinally, the hawthorn can rival the elder. Culpeper recommended it, while in modern herbalism the properties of some of the hawthorn’s active constituents are now better understood. Some constituents strengthen the heart’s action; others slow it slightly and improve the blood supply. For culinary use, hawthorn berries or flowers were used to make jellies, wines, liqueurs and sauces.
Hawthorn has perhaps more connections with ancient beliefs, folklore and traditions than almost any other native tree in the British Isles apart from the blackthorn. The appearance of the blossom at the beginning of May heralded the end of winter and the beginning of summer, when it was said to be unlucky to take May flowers into the house because of the associations with the Faere Folk. For the Romans, however, the hawthorn was a symbol of hope and protection, and cuttings were brought into the home to ward off evil spirits; it also echoed the ancient British tradition that the tree was associated with marriage and fertility. An old country rhyme recommends the tree as protection for man and animals in thunderstorms:
Beware the oak—it courts the stroke.
Beware the ash—it courts the flash.
Creep under the thorn—it will save you from harm.
Like the elder, the hawthorn was a doorway to Otherworld and perhaps it is this association and its links with the old pagan festivals that give the tree its ‘unlucky’ reputation. Quite recently it was discovered that one of the chemicals that make up the flowers’ distinctive scent is also produced during the decay of corpses! On the other hand, the fragrance of the blossom is also reputed to have a strong aphrodisiac effect, particularly on men. Taking all things into account, it would appear that the pre- Christian view of the hawthorn was one of protection. It is appropriate to use hawthorn for the Beltaine bonfires, which the cattle were driven through and the villagers leapt over to ensure their fertility in the coming year.
The tree can also be used to protect babies and young children. Hang a sprig above a child’s bed as a protection, or keep a pouch of the leaves sewn into the pillow. Hawthorn can be planted by the home to keep out negative influences and protect it from lightning strikes. Make a wash of flowers and leaves to sprinkle around the house to repel negative energies; the wood, berries and leaves can also be burnt in incense form to purify and attract beneficent energies.
Hawthorn is said to be sacred to the powers of Elemental Fire and any demon or malevolent spirits can be controlled with a wand or staff of hawthorn. This is one of the trees of the White
Goddess, Cardia who casts her enchantments with a hawthorn wand. Make sure to leave a suitable offering if you take any wood from the tree —perhaps bread or cheese.
DETAILS FROM ROOT & BRANCH: BRITISH MAGICAL TREE LORE