Hello there and welcome to a new series on Foxglove and Bee; Nature and Folklore!
Each ‘episode’ will look at a particular species in nature and the folklore surrounding them and their significance throughout the years.
In this episode, I shall be looking at Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna).
Hawthorn in Folklore.
Hawthorn is one of the first heralds of Spring and is often thought of a symbol of happiness. It is one of the first deciduous to bud in the spring, and it’s fluffy white flowers absolutely cover the tree, and is really visible beside roads, in gardens and in hedgerows.
The Maypole, used in May Day celebrations, was made from Hawthorn and leaves and branches were used when making the costume for the Green Man, which represented Nature in many folk festivals.
In farming communities it was thought that cows would provide a good yield of milk if hawthorn branches were placed by their byres. I assume this is because of their abundant milky white flowers.
After the wars of the roses, Henry VII used Hawthorn as one of his emblems, as it is believed that Richard III’s crown was found in a Hawthorn bush, when he was defeated at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.
*The Sutton Companion to British Folklore, Myths and Legends by Marc Alexander
Hawthorn is also associated with fairy folk. If you fell asleep under a hawthorn tree you risked being abducted by fairies, never to be seen again!
As Hawthorn is known to flower in May, it is a prominent feature in nature’s calendar and as such, is often known as the May-tree. And fun fact – ‘it is the only British plant which is named after the month in which it blooms.’ (Trees for Life).
Hawthorn blossoms cover the branches, in white , and sometimes tinged with pink and they are very pretty. So it is no surprise that the flowers were often used in decorations. However, they were only allowed to be included in outdoor decorations. They certainly weren’t allowed to be brought into the house. According to Trees for Life, in the 1980s, ‘the Folklore Society’s survey of ‘unlucky’ plants showed that 23% of the items referred to hawthorn, more than twice as many instances as the second most unlucky plant.’ (Trees for Life).
This was because the flowers were associated with illness, and if they were brought in the house, death would soon follow. In mediaeval times, the smell of the flowers were believed to smell like the Great Plague in London. Scientists have now discovered that this is due to trimethylamine, a chemical that is also one of the first to be produced in decaying animal tissue, and whilst victims of the plague were waiting to be buried, people would have been familiar with the smell. So you can empathise with those who refused to have hawthorn blossoms in the house. (Trees for Life).
Thankfully, we now know that it is unlikely that having hawthorn blossoms in the house will invite death. We are also aware of the vital part hawthorn plays in our natural world.
According to the Woodland Trust, it is thought that a single Hawthorn Tree supports 300 species of insects, as well as providing food for Dormice, and fabulous nesting habitat for birds – in fact we have a Blackbird’s nest in our Hawthorn. In the autumn when the branches are heavy with haws (their fruit), many migratory species of birds such as Redwing and Fieldfare as well as Blackbirds depend them for nutritional support throughout the harsher months.
- Trees for Life Paul Kendall 2020.
- Woodland Trust 2020
- The Sutton Companion to British Folklore, Myths and Legends by Marc Alexander