Hawthorn Flowers: Cast Ne’er a Clout Ere May is Out

Hawthorn in flower

For anyone who needs a translation of ‘cast ne’er a clout ere May is out’, I’m offering, ‘don’t stop wearing warm layers of clothing before the hawthorn has bloomed’.

Hawthorn tree covered with blossom

Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna, a UK native) is one of the first deciduous trees to leaf in spring. Its small, leathery leaves are lobed, rather like tiny oak leaves.

Following the leaves, masses of tightly rounded buds (technically held in fascicles) appear and seem to wait an age before opening. When they do, we’re in for a treat. The hawthorn pictured above is two or three times as tall as I am.

Hawthorn flowers with pink tipped stamens
Stamens tipped with pink anthers

Hawthorn most commonly has five petals and purple-pink anthers when the flowers are fresh. The flowers are fragrant with an edge that is softened when combined with the scent of wild chervil that often grows under them locally. Add the song from wild birds nesting inside, protected by thorny branches, and you have a combination that is lovely to the senses.

Hawthorn in flower on the edge of Darwen Moor
Hawthorn in flower on the outskirts of Darwen Moor

Later in the year, copious amounts of bright red berries are produced, known as cuckoo’s beads.

Hawthorn flowers age to pink

For now, the flowers are frothy and delicate-looking, usually white or creamy, sometimes ageing to blush pink before the petals drop.

Various shades of pink flowers are less common; rarer still are fully double flowers like miniature roses, hawthorns being members of the rose family (Rosaceae).

Deep pink hawthorn flowers

Mature trees support many interdependent species of wildlife, not just birds but bees and other insects, small mammals and epiphytic plants.

Double hawthorn flower with pink buds
Tiny pink buds opening to fully double flowers

Hawthorn roots readily – one of its folk names is quickset – so it has often been used as an impenetrable hedging plant. The brown-grey bark fissures and becomes lichen-coated with age.

In winter when the bare structure of the tree can be seen, hawthorn often has a twisted, contorted habit, raising branches expressively to the sky. I’m fascinated by the ones that have fluted, muscular trunks and the way some plants have melded together as they’ve grown, but all that is hidden for now.

Double hawthorn with deep pink to red flowers

Hawthorn has attracted more than its fair share of legends and stories, both Christian and pagan. Some areas of the UK still celebrate the bawming of the hawthorn at midsummer. The tree is dressed with ribbons while people sing and dance round it, which may have been the origin of dancing round the maypole. The dew drops that form on flowers were once prized as a beauty treatment and hawthorn is even reputed to mend a broken heart.

Not all the lore is sunny. Merlin was said to have been trapped in one. Some people believe it is unlucky to bring hawthorn flowers indoors. The Celts believed that the hawthorn was a gateway tree marking the edge between the human and the faerie worlds. Dire warnings against cutting or uprooting hawthorns, especially solitary ones, have led to roads being diverted and may explain a lone hawthorn in the middle of a field or by a gatepost.

Hawthorn on a public right of way
Hawthorn by a public right of way marker

Several of these pictures were taken on Bailey’s Field in Darwen, a marshy, mossy, nature-filled, minefield-dotted ‘brownfield’ site where local people can watch the owl, the heron and the kestrel hunt, but which was recently re-confirmed for a housing development. Future buyers have to trust that these veteran, wildlife-supporting hawthorns do not have any special powers.

“Such locations are dismissed as wasteland, or, in that deliberately derogatory phrase of politicians and developers, as ‘brownfield sites’ – an absurd misnomer which ignores the fact that these are the most jazzily colourful and biologically rich zones of the cities.”

  • – Richard Mabey

38 Replies to “Hawthorn Flowers: Cast Ne’er a Clout Ere May is Out”

  1. I thought I saw hawthorns in California, but now I’m not sure! I certainly don’t remember anything like these. These are so beautiful, and their legends make them fascinating besides. Needless to say, I am in awe of the buds. And of course I needed that translation. “Cast ne’er a clout ere May is out” might not be clear in meaning but I love its sound. It goes with the moor, I think. So sorry to think of that housing development — the presence of special powers remains to be seen.

    1. I was watching the kestrel there only yesterday and there are patches of wild bluebells too. There is still some hope that, humans having failed the wildlife, land itself will prove to be the greatest resistance. Time will tell.

  2. It’s been fantastic this year for hawthorn, but quite late here in Wenlock. Last week you could look across to nearby hills and then all of a sudden see their wooded bits turned bright white. I’m very much liking your double flowered versions. I’ve not seen them before.

    1. They have pretty much reached their peak here over the last week or so. We have had lots if sunshine to lure them out.

  3. Ah, but is it the hawthorn it is referring to or the month of May? Controversial Susan. I love the deep pink kind, and the smell is so distinctive. Late to bloom this year, but now the lanes are white once more. And talking of white this is perfect for my colour challenge this month 🤍🤍🤍

    1. I did consider linking in, but couldn’t resist adding the pinks and was not sure it would count. I’ll share some more whites soon, I promise!

      1. My thought is that there only needs to be some element of the colour in a photo to count – possibly a focal point. I am sure that you have a lot of whites in your archives, particularly roses!

    1. So far as I’m aware they are the same plants, but double check if there are shorter cultivars from wherever you source it. If you want them in a bush form, you prune them harder, but left alone, they’ll reach their natural height, much like a hedge you can keep smaller or grow taller or a tall shrub rose you can train as a climber.

  4. Hawthorn tine is so special – a lovely post. But there was no temptation to go casting clouts this year was there? Luckily, that seems to have changed….

    1. It does. I set out for a walk under the blackest sky a few hours ago, but it was far too warm for a coat. Luckily the clouds seemed to blow away.

  5. A good array of photographs with fine prose information. This year would certainly bear out your interpretation of the adage rather than the month of May one.

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