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


reem said...

Nice photos, everytime i enjoy your green country John .I like thus small plants under the trees,and of cours the lovely purple flowers.these white flowers seem just as snow ,my mum had a small plant ,it was beautifull one with its very small leaves and its white flowers,it's called snow ,it still fullblown whole summer .

Yesterday ,i saw olives from UK in the market and i wondered if there"re olives trees in your country ,i guess it's very cold for this tree ,it needs warm weather ,in my town we don't have much trees ,but in Daraa we can see fields ,it's nice view ,i went there ten years ago ,in arabic world this tree is blessing one.

Have good time .

john said...

Choukran Reem. Olive trees do grow here but I had to look up whether anyone can actually grow them for edible olives and apparently we can.

There is a place in Devon which grows them as a crop but it is the only place in the country which does this so far. I must say I was very surprised, though it must be a fairly small operation as we do not really have the right conditions.

We have the expression here "taking coals to Newcastle" meaning to import something into a place which already has the stuff in abundance which seems appropriate.

Only last night I was in a place being amazed at the scale of the Oak trees and being thankful for living somewhere where such things can grow. I would very much miss the trees and dense woodlands that we have if I had to live somewhere else.

Your mums plant sounds very beautiful Reem, I think it is good that certain plants remind us of the people we love. I have a plant outside given to me by my dad which is producing the most beautiful huge purple flowers at the moment.

All the best to you Reem and many thanks.

neil said...

blossoming meadow
harmonys rush
evergreen touches
essences brush
mountains soothing
harmonys kind
sublime and profound
reaching through mind
the root of all stars
cosmic high scent
sound of all freedom
lifes true essence
presenting nourishment
invigorating breeze
brush of springwise
summer trail streams


john said...

cheers neil and thank you very much, it is very nice of you to stop by and write a poem. I am hoping to get something new to put up on the blog soon.

I hope all is going well where you are.

thanks again.

neil said...

no problems john,your lovely pictures deserve a poem at the very least..

I look forward to the next post