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 (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 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.
Later in the year, copious amounts of bright red berries are produced, known as cuckoo’s beads.
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).
Mature trees support many interdependent species of wildlife, not just birds but bees and other insects, small mammals and epiphytic plants.
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.
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.
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