Summer’s Companion: The Hawthorn

One of our favourite signs of summer’s arrival in Wales has to be the abundant drifts of creamy-white Hawthorn flowers in our hedgerows. This flowering tree or shrub belongs to the rose family and has many alternative names. The name ‘Hawthorn’ derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Hagathorn’ or ‘Haegthorn’, with its origins in the word ‘Haga’ meaning hedge, reflecting its long tradition of use for this purpose in the countryside. Its Welsh name is Draenen Wen (draenen meaning ‘thorn’, and ‘wen’ meaning ‘white’) and its Latin name Crataegus monogyna (deriving from the Greek 'kratos' meaning 'strong' and relating to the hardness of the wood). It also carries the names Maythorn, Whitethorn, Quickthorn and Motherdie amongst others.

Hawthorn by Lizzie Wilberforce

Hawthorn by Lizzie Wilberforce

The timber produced from old hawthorn trees is really heavy and hard. Because of its growth patterns, there are not many commercial uses for the timber, but the wood was used to make handles, and its variable growth patterns can make it interesting to carve with. When transformed into charcoal, it burns so hot that it can be used to melt iron with the aid of a blast. For the same reason it is also a good firewood, producing considerable heat and relatively little smoke; it is considered even better than oak by some.

Parts of the plant are also edible. The berries are palatable, and once the single seed (or ‘haw’) is discarded the sweet fruit can be made into jams, jellies or drinks such as sweet wine. The young fresh leaves in early summer are also edible to humans, and can be used as salad leaves in sandwiches (one local name for the tree is ‘Bread and Cheese’ for this reason). The leaves were also used historically for making tea.

It is an extremely common tree in the British countryside, particularly in hedges. As many as 200,000 miles of hawthorn hedge were recorded to have been planted in the Parliamentary Enclosure period (1750 -1850). It is still used extensively for this purpose; the whips grow quickly, and its dense thorny growth means even a young hedge soon becomes stock-proof. It is easily and well managed by rotational hedge-laying as it soon shoots from a cut stem.

The Hawthorn carries cultural significance, probably a result of the number of uses it has to humans and its widespread distribution. Hawthorn has long been recognised as a sign that summer is on its way. The old phrase ‘Ne'er cast a clout till May be out” is often misunderstood to mean not to ‘cast a clout’ (shed a layer of clothes) until the end of the month of May, when in fact it most interpretations suggest that it means not to do so until the Hawthorn is flowering.

The Hawthorn also occurs elsewhere in rhyme. The old rhyme ‘Here we go gathering nuts in May’ is probably a corruption of gathering ‘knots’ (knots of hawthorn), an interpretation supported by the lack of any actual nuts available for gathering in the Britain as early as May!

hawthorn berries by L Maiden

Hawthorn Berries by L Maiden

The tree also has a long association with fertility rituals because of the timing of its flowering. There are also some superstitions associated with the flowers. In parts of Wales it is also known as ‘Blodau Marw Mam’, literally ‘Flowers Dying Mother’ and one name local to the north of England is ‘Motherdie’. This reflects the superstition that to bring the flowers into the house can be unlucky and can induce death. Although this superstition is applied to a number of plant species, in the case of Hawthorn it is thought to be associated with its scent. Unlike many flowering plants Hawthorn does not produce a sweet smell to attract bees; instead it produces a substance called triethylamine which is a stale decaying smell. Species in this genus are pollinated by carrion insects amongst others. This is why people do not always find the dense, heavy smell of flowering Hawthorn to be pleasant.

Hawthorn is also very important ecologically. It has been shown in studies to provide food for more than 150 different insect species, including the Hawthorn Shield Bug, earwigs, the Common Flower Bug, bumblebees, and more. These in turn are important to their predators which include larger invertebrates such as the Devil’s Coach Horse and Violet Ground Beetle as well as birds such as Wrens and Blue Tits. The berries are an important source of autumn and winter nourishment to small mammals and to birds like blackbirds and other thrushes as well as finches and starlings. Its nectar attracts a wide array of insects and when it is in full flower it is often used by entomologists as a location to study the invertebrate community of an area (particularly woodlands) as it attracts species from a relatively wide area to feed.

For all these reasons Hawthorn also makes a great addition to a wildlife garden- so if you can’t get outside to enjoy it blooming in the countryside this month, why not introduce it at home?