Sunday, May 22, 2011

hawthorn - the may tree

First a couple of oak apples which we don't usually see as fresh as this but May is the month when it all happens here springwise. In the space of a few weeks the bare earth becomes covered in a sudden lush growth.

Hawthorn is at its most prominent in the landscape when it blossoms during the month of May, and probably the most popular of its many vernacular names is the May-tree. It is often to be found as part of a hedge rather than freestanding so is usually unseen until it actually flowers.

In Celtic lore the fairies had an affinity for the hawthorn which was one of the Three Sacred Trees, along with Oak & Ash. Thomas the Rhymer, the famous thirteenth century Scottish mystic and poet, once met the Faery Queen by a hawthorn bush from which a cuckoo was calling. She led him into the Faery Underworld for a brief sojourn, but upon reemerging into the world of mortals he found he had been absent for seven years. Themes of people being waylaid by the faery folk to places where time passes differently are common in Celtic mythology, and the hawthorn was one of, if not the, most likely tree to be inhabited or protected by the Wee Folk. In Ireland most of the isolated trees, or so-called 'lone bushes', found in the landscape and said to be inhabited by faeries, were hawthorn trees. Such trees could not be cut down or damaged in any way without incurring the often fatal wrath of their supernatural guardians.

The blossoms were used for garlands, and large leafy branches were cut, set in the ground outside houses as so-called May bushes and decorated with local wildflowers. Using the blossoms for decorations outside was allowed, but there was a very strong taboo against bringing hawthorn into the house.

Mediaeval country folk also asserted that the smell of hawthorn blossom was just like the smell of the Great Plague in London. Botanists later discovered that the chemical trimethylamine present in hawthorn blossom is also one of the first chemicals formed in decaying animal tissue. In the past, when corpses would have been kept in the house for several days prior to burial, people would have been very familiar with the smell of death, so it is hardly surprising that hawthorn blossom was so unwelcome in the house.

It has also been suggested that some of the hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) folklore may have originated for the related woodland hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata) which may well have been commoner during the early Middle Ages, when a lot of plant folklore was evolving. Woodland hawthorn blossom gives off much more of an unpleasant scent of death soon after it is cut, and it also blooms slightly earlier than hawthorn, so that its blossoms would have been more reliably available for May Day celebrations.

Hawthorn leaves are actually edible, sometimes referred to as 'bread and cheese' and the blossom and berries are used to make wines and jellies.

The hawthorn may be spread widely here but the trees can be few and far between, making it a good tree to look out for on a May walk. Most of the blossom is just about done here now and another white flowered tree, the Elder, is beginning to take over.

The other prominent white flower in the hedgerows during May is Cow Parsley, as seen above, whilst the small blue flowers are Wood Bugle.

Much information by Paul Kendall: treesforlife

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

bluebell wood

The driest March on record was followed by the driest April though water still comes down off the hill in small streams and the colours of green are fresh. The bluebells have been undisturbed by any strong winds or rain so remain upright but the ground is very dry. There is the sound of humming insect life and birdsong and then the wind picks up. We walk up and away from the bluebell wood and out onto the heathland.