Updated: Aug 28
My garden is surrounded on two sides by a dense hawthorn hedge about eight feet high. It's virtually impenetrable and its vicious thorns further deter intrusion and are an aid to garden security. A member of the rose family, hawthorn or crataegus, if planted alone, can grow into a small tree with many-fissured, twisty dark-grey trunks sometimes found in parks or pavements, especially in its more unusual deep pink form. My hedge, bare and black in winter but quickening to green early in spring, smothers itself in foamy white 'may' blossoms that since pagan times have been used in marriage ceremonies and associated with the spring-goddess Blodeuwedd. It is she who is represented by the blossom-bearing May-Queen at Mayday festivities while the May King also wears leaves and flowers on his costume. On Old Midsummer’s Day, 5th July, trees were blessed and adorned with flowers and red ribbons before children danced around them in a ceremony called ‘bawming the tree’.
In the 1500s, three hawthorn trees grew on Glastonbury Hill in Somerset, unusual in that they flowered twice, once at Easter and again at Christmas. This gave rise to their association with Christianity. There is a descendent of those trees in St. John’s churchyard from which, each Christmas, a spray of buds is sent to the Queen, in a tradition going back to the 1700s. I guess she’s not overly worried by superstition, but when I was a child, we were forbidden to bring may-blossom into the house as it would ‘bring bad luck’. Personally I think it is to do with the unpleasant scent (that research shows contains trimethylamine) which is formed when flesh decays, and is perhaps reminiscent of long-gone days when corpses were laid out for a week in the front parlour! However, in my garden all is well, for Hawthorn is also considered to be a faerie tree known as a psychic shield that can lift the spirits. No wonder then that I love being outside at all times of the year, though methinks those little faerie folk try to get their own back when I trim their magical tree by stabbing at me with their sharp black thorns!
Used for centuries in folk healing for ailments associated with blood pressure, modern science shows that Hawthorn contains several chemical components which contribute to it being known as ‘Valerian of the heart’.
Also known as the 'bread and cheese' plant, young leaves can be eaten and jelly and wine can be made from its lovely red haws.