Get to know the Hawthorn tree.

The hawthorn is a native tree which has long been associated with and utilised by man as hedges which are almost impenetrable,medicinal and culinary purposes, with many other uses such as making walking sticks. There are two species of hawthorn found in the countryside of north west England the common hawthorn  Cretaegus monogyna  and the Midland hawthorn Cretaegus laevigata. Some times the two species cross pollinate producing attractive hybrids which are employed as ornamentals in parks and gardens. The latter is usually encountered as a tree rather than a hedge or low shrub and is much more tolerant of shade,hence it is often found in woodland.

 To differentiate between the two species one needs to look at the flowers produced by the two species. The midland hawthorn tends to bloom a few weeks earlier than the common hawthorn. Those of an inquisitive nature may look at the flower to see that the Midland hawthorn has two or three styles unlike the common species only produces one. When the tree is adorned with foliage it is noticeable that the leaf of the common hawthorn is deeply lobed and longer than than it is broad. During autumn they may be told apart by crushing away the fleshy part and counting the seeds within. The common hawthorn has but one seed while those of the Midland hawthorn produces two or even three. The leaves of hawthorn appear as early as February or March. The twigs are fully armed with dark, stout, sharp thorns.

Above Hawthorn in bloom {Dal}

The flowers which bloom from May till June and are collectively known as may. The old adage " never cast a clout until may is out" does not, as many people believe, refer to the month of May but to the flowers of this attractive tree. The flowers have a heady scent and they are succeeded by the fruits {haws}. During early October hordes of migrant redwings and fieldfares from northern Europe arrive to gorge themselves on the fruits. But face fierce competition from the resident  birds such as the mistle thrush which guard the trees showing a great deal of courage. Indeed, hawthorns depend greatly on birds to aid the dispersal of seed via their droppings. Any that fall to the floor are eagerly taken by small mammals such as the wood mouse and bank vole.

photograph---haws turning red hawthorn in full fruit {Dal}

Medicinal and culinary uses.

The leaves have long been eaten by all age groups but in particular by children in rural areas in days gone by.The leaves are at their best when in bud and just before they open. Whilst at this stage they were added to pie fillings. The young open leaves were placed in sandwiches. and also added to salads. When dried the foliage was once smoked as tobacco. The leaves were also utilised as substitute for tea which was said to dilute the blood vessels especially those near to the heart. The flowers and haws were said to have the same beneficial affect on the circulation system. The flowers and haws were also ingredients of wines, syrups and liqueurs.

They are beneficial to the heart by strengthening it, however, it is not a miracle cure for heart problems and of little or no use at all for acute heart pain. It may well be of benefit to those that smoke and those with ageing hearts by building up the heart's strength, but once the heart is strengthened it is claimed that it will remain so.  

The pulped leaves and/or/haws have been used as a poultice in days gone by, which was considered excellent at drawing out splinters and thorns, such as those of the rose, out of the skin.

A tea {infusion} made from the fresh haws is considered a general tonic which has a high vitamin C  content.  

Myths and Legends.

Vast amounts of hawthorn bunches were once gathered to adorn maypoles, but they were also sold door to door on May day, however, in some regions it was considered to be very unlucky to bring hawthorn indoors, for this would surely lead to the death of a family member in that coming year. Indeed science has proved that one of the chemicals produced by the flowers is also present in the human corpse. Nevertheless , the flowers were made into garlands and sold in knots {bunches} The rhyme -" Here we go gathering nuts in May" is thought to have originally been -"Herewe go gathering knots on May" but the phrase got lost in translation somewhere. The latter is a more apt description for no types of nuts are found in the countryside of England during May.

In some parts it is believed that the crown of thorns placed on the head of Christ at the time of his crucifixion  was made from hawthorn. It was said that due top this painful experience caused, the tree can be heard to groan on Good Friday.

In Pagan times the hawthorn was associated with fertility and many country traditions have evolved from this fact.

Hawthorn hedgerows are an important part of the countryside in England. This evolved from the Land Enclosures which occurrred in 1845. There were hundreds of miles of hawthorn hedgerows planted by priviledged land owners, this was to keep livestock in and to keep people out!. {sadly many miles of these hedgerows have now been lost due to land use cnage and to allow large modern farm machinery access to the fields}. Hedge layering utilising hawthorn was once regularly practised which gave the hedgerows a longer lifespan. There are hedge layering competitions held throughout the country during the year which is hoped to keep this valuable skill alive. Remaining hedgerows composed of hawthorn allow small ammals such as the wood mouse and bank voles to move around the countryside in relative safety.

The name hawthorn derives from the Anglo-Saxon haeg thorn, which translates as hedge thorn. The genus name Cretaegus comes from the Greek Kratos  alluding to strength and refers to the wood. The species name monogyna refers to the one style or pistil produced by the flower.


Photographs on this page  by Dal

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