Hawthorn: the Tree of May

Plant profile written by herbalist, Corinne Boyer of Opal’s Apothecary

In the autumn and wintertime, the hawthorn tree with her gnarled bark covered in grey green lichens and her gangly branches reminds me of an old woman. She is a small tree that can usually be found on older homesteads. But in the spring and early summertime she boasts vibrant green leaves that surround many small bouquets of white blooms, often tinged with pink. She becomes a queen! This tree is like the matriarch gatekeeper of the nature spirits in my mind. Many plants/trees seem to possess supernatural powers and hawthorn is one indeed. Here we will find a wealth of folklore and older uses that have been recorded throughout history.

There are around 200 known Cratagus species and they apparently cross easily. The Latin Cratagus comes from the Greek kratos meaning hardness, referring to the strength of the wood. The common European species is Cratagus monogyna and C. oxacantha. The Northwest has a native species, C.douglasii, known as black hawthorn. The genus is native to all temperate zones; Europe, North America and Asia.

Common names for hawthorn include May Flower, May Blossom, White Thorn, Thorn Apple, Hag Thorn, Ladies, Meat, Bread and Cheese Tree and Quick Thorn. The ship the Mayflower from England was named after Hawthorn. The word “haw” comes from the old word for hedge, for which this tree has been used extensively. The planting of hawthorn to provide fencing for pastures, or hedgerows, began in Roman times. Currently in North America, Hawthorn is planted for ornamental purposes and also as a tree that provides both food and shelter to birdlife.

The flowers are gorgeous but smell somewhat stinky and acrid. As the flowers are pollinated by flies and insects that are attracted to carrion, this smell has been compared to the smell of “carnal love” and of rotting flesh! The lime green leaves shine and have a shape that is unmistakable once learned. The autumn display shows off the haws, the fruits of the tree, in various shades of red, from bright to deep. In the winter time the wise tree stands naked, beautiful and her strong thorns can be found with ease.

In European folklore, this tree was considered sacred before the arrival of Christianity and afterwards. In particular, lone standing hawthorns or thorns, that is hawthorns that were not planted but occurred naturally, were known to be fairy trees. It was considered an act of vandalism to remove a bough, or take away fallen branches firewood. If one of these solitary thorns was removed, it could bring death to the family to the person who removed it. It was also believed that if the thorns were ploughed up, all fertility would leave the land.  It is amazing to think back to the times when the powers of nature spirits, not science, ruled the collective consciousness.

It was advised to never fall asleep under one, for fear of be taken over by the fairies that abound. An Irish belief is that hawthorn grows over graves or buried treasure. Hawthorns also mark wells. In early May, people tied rags and trinkets to the branches of a hawthorn companion to a holy well. In the Lake District, hawthorns were also associated with justice and older court systems, and were planted near important meeting places.

Hawthorn is strongly associated with May Day celebrations because it blooms around the first of May. Going “a maying” was a happy custom where people would gather the flowering boughs alongside music and horn blowing. At sunrise, the branches were hung over the doorways of homes, which was originally a protective act. Bathing in the dew from a hawthorn on May Day ensured a beautiful complexion. In some parts of England, one was doused with water if a hawthorn sprig was not pinned on during the May Day celebrations.

On May eve, hawthorn could be used in a love divination. A girl would hang a branch of it from her signpost. In the morning, her future husband would come from the direction which it was pointing. If it fell, it foretold no marriage. Hawthorn is associated with love, interesting because of its carnal smell. It is connected with marriage rites and it is often incorporated into a bridal garland or chaplet. It is symbolic of fertility, love, marriage, hope, fruitfulness and spring.

Hawthorn is also associated with witches. In the Channel Islands, they believe witches meet under the solitary hawthorns and that it is dangerous to sit under a thorn on May eve as the tree is likely to transform herself into a witch. Interestingly, this “witch” tree was also used for protection from witches, by way of hanging crosses made of its wood over the house door. Driving a small hawthorn peg into a grave site could prevent the spirit from coming back to haunt the living or from turning into a vampire.

Hawthorn was associated with the powers of protection from lightning, as it was said that the white thorn was never struck by lightning. In fact, it was thought that cutting down the tree itself would cause a thunder and lightning storm. Attaching a sprig to the cradle of a newborn protected the child. Mothers in Burgundy France took their sick children to a flowering hawthorn tree and prayed to the tree for their health. It was thought that carrying a dying person round an ancient thorn three times and bumping against it would help recover their health.

Despite this, it was considered unlucky to bring hawthorn inside and one should never pick the flowers before May eve. An old Cheshire saying goes “May in, Coffin out.” Another old saying goes “Hawthorn tree and Elder flowers, Fill the house with evil powers.” In Ireland the flowers were never supposed to enter the home before June, and by then they would be done, I imagine.  Apparently sleeping next to thorn flowering indoors in May would bring great misfortune.

Hawthorn has been used medicinally. The bark was used to soothe sore throats in Scotland, while an infusion of the flowers was good for anxiety and for stimulating the appetite. Also, this leaf infusion was used to ease childbirth pains in East Anglia. In Russia, hawthorn was used to treat conditions of the heart, much as it is used today, in particular for heart pain, angina. Traditional Scottish herbalists used hawthorn for balancing high blood pressure. The use of hawthorn as a heart tonic comes specifically from an Irish physician from the nineteenth century. An infusion of hawthorn leaves was used topically to draw out splinters and bring boils to a head.

The young buds of hawthorn were called ‘pepper and salt’ by country folk or ‘bread and cheese’. I have seen older salad recipes that include young hawthorn leaves in the long list of ingredients. Wine and mead can be made from both the flowers and berries. I like to make mead with the dried flowers–it is excellent! The berries can be infused in brandy or made into conserves along with other fruit, as they are mealy and dry but high in pectin. They are called “pixie pears” in some places. The berries were thought to be best after Halloween, when witches had flown over them.

I love hawthorn tea, made from the dried flowers and leaves of the tree. After drying, the stinky smell seems to lessen. It is a great tonic for circulatory and heart concerns, best used without any other medications and taken for 3-6 months to produce an effect. I make a decoction from the dried berries along with rosehips, hibiscus, cinnamon chips, allspice and a few cloves. This makes a beautiful “Red Velvet Chai” as I like to call it, delicious with a little milk and honey. I have a friend who likes to extract the berries in port wine. Here are some unique and interesting recipes to try.

Hawthorn Flower Syrup- from A Country Harvest- Pamela Michael

5 Cups hawthorn flowers
Extra sugar- see recipe
4 Cups sugar
5 Cups water
6-7 Tablespoons lemon juice
6-7 Tablespoons rosewater

Layer the flowers with sugar in a jar, until full. Heat the 4 cups sugar, water and strained lemon juice until sugar has dissolved, boil for 3 minutes. Set aside to cool, then add rosewater. Pour the cooled syrup into the jar of prepared flowers. Screw the lids on loose and place in a saucepan on sheets of folded newspaper, with the folded paper between jars to prevent them from touching. Fill pan with cold water and bring to boil then lower heat to barely simmering for one hour. Lift jars and tighten lids. When cold strain and pour syrup into bottles and cork. Store in refrigerator. Keeps for months.

 

Hawthorn Berry Jelly– From same source above

3 Pounds Haws, pick larger ones if possible
3 ¾ Cups of water
1 pound sugar
1 pint lemon juice, strained

Wash berries thoroughly, place in saucepan with water and bring to a boil, cover cook gently for one hour. Occasionally mash berries with wooden pestle. Drip through double thickness of muslin or a jelly bag overnight. Measure juice into a large saucepan, adding sugar and lemon juice and bring to a boil, stirring continuously until sugar has dissolved, then boil hard for rapidly for 10 minutes or until jelly sets and pour into jars to seal.

References:

Treasury of Tree Lore, Josephine Addison, Cherry Hillhouse, 1999
A Dictionary of Plant Lore, Roy Vickery, 1995  
Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition- The Ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland, Gabrielle Hatfield and David Allen, 2004
Hatfield’s Herbal, Gabrielle Hatfield,2009
Encyclopedia of Folk Medicine , Gabrielle Hatfield,2004
Elsevier’s Dictionary of Plant Lore , D.C. Watts, 2007  
A Modern Herbal Volumes 1 and 2, Maude Grieve, 1931
A Country Harvest, Pamela Michael, 1980
 

Close-up of white May flowers by Kami Jordan

All other photos taken by Waverly Fitzgerald

First published May 12, 2012

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Naming the Trees in Winter

This year, I made a commitment to learn about the trees in my neighborhood, as I participate with the students in my current online class, A Year in Flowers. This was the next logical step in my quest to find nature in the city.

I had already spent several years learning about the plants in my neighborhood. My plant blindness was fading. After taking classes and going on field trips with the Washington Native Plant Society, and with Seattle’ resident plant expert, Arthur Lee Jacobson, I recognized most of the plants in the few blocks around my apartment building. Here a hedge of sarcococca humilis, var. Hookeriana, already emitting its sweet perfume in January. On the corner, a witch hazel, all yellow curlicues. At the entrance to the alley, a stand of wild violets, re-emerging with their heart-shaped leaves from the mud.

But when it came to trees, I was at a total loss. I could lump the evergreens into major categories: pines, firs, cedars. I still had a lot to learn about species. But the deciduous trees were the bigger problem. In January, they were just so many trunks, so many branches. Without their leaves or fruit, I was stumped.

I began by trying to recognize the same trees when they appeared in different settings on my daily walks with my dog. It helped to give them names based on their appearance. The lumpy bumpy tree. The freckled grey bark tree. The cavorting branch tree.

My usual tools at this stage of my research: the field guides were not useful. I paged through three of them looking for the tree I called the grey freckled bark tree. I had put days into the search when it occurred to me that maybe the freckles were not part of the bark but lichen.

Now there are easy ways to identify a tree, especially in Seattle. The City of Seattle, through the Department of Transportation, has compiled a Street Tree Inventory which you can view as a clickable map.

Or you can start from the other direction: If you think you know the tree genus, you can look it up in Arthur Lee Jacobson’s excellent book, Trees of Seattle. After some remarks that help you identify the trees, Jacobson supplies some locations where those trees are located.

There are problems with both of these approaches. One is that the streets on the street inventory are self-reported so they may be incorrect identifications. And I have the older edition of Jacobson’s book. Many of the trees he mentions have since disappeared, especially the ones near my apartment on Capitol Hill, cut down because of new construction.

But I also spurned these as initial approaches because it feels a bit like cheating to me. I like to make myself work a little harder. I find it is the effort I put into the identifying process that helps me remember what I’ve learned. It’s like the difference between making small talk and getting to really know someone over a series of coffees and meals and conversations.

So I spend a lot of time studying the bark and branching patterns of the deciduous trees around me. Some trees are easy: the liquidambar in front of the apartment building are still bearing their knobby fruit capsules (sometimes called space balls). The hawthorn down the street finally shed its leaves during the last windstorm but is still sporting dark red haws. And who can forget the Empress tree? Even though there won’t be any lilac-colored, vanilla-scented flowers until May and strange pods until July, it is unforgettable once identified.

While walking a little farther afield with my dog, Flora one day, I happened upon a tree with the same grey bark and white freckles as the tree I was trying to identify. But this one still had leaves on it, all of them dried and crunchy. I took off a leaf and went home and used a field guide which was designed like a key. Gradually I made my way to the beeches and decided my grey freckle bark tree was a beech.

I mentioned this to my friend Dan and he said, “Oh a copper beech. They don’t shed their leaves until spring. The new buds push out the old leaves.” He knew because he had one in his yard. And indeed, when I looked up copper beeches I learned all about abcission (the process by which trees shed their leaves) and marcescence (some trees hold onto their leaves through the winter, notably oaks, beeches and hornbeams). The leaves won’t fall off until wind snaps the brittle petioles. One theory about why this is advantageous for a tree is that it discourages herbivores from nibbling on the emerging twigs. A mouthful of brittle, dried leaves is not appealing.

Looking up the name beech, I discover that its species name (Fagus) derives from a Latin word for edible that comes from the same root as beech. The name beech is also cognate with book. This may be due to the lovers’ practice of scratching entwined initials within a heart on the bark. Because the tree retains the same bark for its entire life, rather than shedding it like madrone or birch, or growing new protective layers like most trees, the writing remains for the tree’s lifetime. The beech is a book, recording forever the moment in time when RF and FH decided to memorialize their love.

And when I looked up beeches in Arthur Lee Jacobson’s Trees of Seattle book, I found there was another one a block away. On my next walk, I found that tree. It had the same smooth grey bark with white freckles on it. Lichen, I learn. Lichens love beeches because they don’t shed their bark.

Alas, when I turn to the Street tree inventory, it identifies my grey freckle bark tree as a Midland English Hawthorn. That’s clearly wrong. I know where the hawthorn tree is. Just a block away. So at this point, I’m going to let hold my identification lightly in my mind and heart and wait for the tree to reveal itself to me when the leaves emerge.

How do you identify strange trees in the winter? If you’d like a challenge and some companionship along the way, you can sign up for the Year in Flowers class. It’s $20 for a month, $120 a whole year of lessons.

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