Hawthorn (Huath in old Gaelic, Sgitheach in modern Gaelic) is the 6th letter of the tree alphabet. A small tree with huge folklore significance, it is also known as the May Tree, due to its ravishing white blossom which graces hedgerows and woods in spring.
Here are some poems, either about hawthorn or contributed by people who came and took part in our walk on hawthorn day.
more knobbles and angles than thorns
all the signs of suffering
chapped skingnarled joints
hawless twigs contorted limbs
would you rather be edging a field of contented cows
layered and pinned but rooted in rich deep soil
or is life here worth enduring
the minch’s merciless gales?
backed against the crag braced for storms
holding to a principle that felt like freedom
in your seedling days
dying for it now
POEM FOR THÉRÈSE
As you know Thérèse,
I’m not the sort inclined
To think that tree you love’s got a mind,
But I could believe those configurations
May be ours as much its own,
Embodying in its form the roots we’ve grown,
Shaped by what we bring to its presence
The thoughts that won’t leave us alone:
The wearying sense that what we see
Is rarely anything other than our own.
But sometimes, old friend,
Someone like you will come,
Beside a place and hear its word alone,
Making it yours without it being your own.
Memorial Benches in the Botanic Garden
On a day too cold for reading
An old lady sits with a book.
Seeing only words of a lost husband.
And the trees are graceful and serene above her pain,
And comfortable with their death marking her dead.
Further on, in the frozen pines
A father who died too soon.
Lingering in the circle of candle-like redwoods I see
Shiverless lovers entwine,
Muffled children clamber.
Snippets of Lore
Other names for hawthorn: may, whitethorn, hagthorn, quickthorn, ladies’ meat.
Haws are also called chucky cheese, cuckoo’s beads and pixie pears.
Another nickname for hawthorn is the bread and cheese tree, because the leaves are good as a tasty spring snack.
H.E. Bates called hawthorn ‘the risen cream of all the milkiness of maytime’.
H is neither a consonant or a vowel in Gaelic but changes the sound of consonants.
Robert Burns loved hawthorn. The Lass of Cessnock Burn was ‘spotless like the flow’ring thorn/ with flowers so white and leaves so green.’
Hawthorn can live to 400 years old.
Hawthorn can flower twice a year. Flowers have 5 white petals and 5 pink-tipped stamens.
Bringing hawthorn blossom inside is taboo. This taboo could have good scientific grounds.
Hawthorn blossom is sweet-scented and pollinated by insects. Important for bees.
The scent of flowers includes trimethylamine, also released during sex and by dead bodies.
In old Italy, the hawthorn goddess Cardea presided over births and mourned deaths. Ovid said taking hawthorn inside would drive Cardea to kill children.
Hawthorn spines are really stunted shoots. Allowed to grow into a tree it becomes less thorny.
Hawthon makes excellent hedges.
Land rights activists loathe hawthorn as thousands of miles of ‘quickset’ hedges were planted during the 18th century enclosures.
Hawthorn is sometimes used as root stock for other fruit trees.
Make wine from hawthorn flowers. It eases insomnia and supposedly cures acne.
Common haws have a single seed. English haws have 2-3. Seed is spread by birds. Thrushes and blackbirds love ’em.
Haws are good for wine, jelly, chutney. They are good for sore throats and upset stomachs.
Haws don’t ripen fully until the witches have flown over on Hallowe’en.
Hawthorn leaves were a tea substitute (or supplement) for people too poor to buy tea.
Hawthorn wood is used for small, lucky knife handles. Its roots were used for combs and delicate ornaments.
Hawthorn wood burns green and makes good charcoal and fuel wood, though it is bad luck to burn it.
Circles of hawthorn were planted as groves for worshipping the earth goddess.
Hawthorn strengthens healing spells, especially at wells and springs. Hawthorns are often cloutie trees.
Hawthorn linked to Brigid, earth goddess, who was adopted by church as St Brigid, saint of wells and springs.
Hawthorn exemplifies ‘the tussle between pagan nature worship and the strictures of the church’.
Joseph of Arimathea’s hawthorn staff took root at Glastonbury and blossoms at Christmas every year.
It was a hawthorn bush that God was supposed to have spoken to Moses through on Mount Horeb.
Jesus’ crown of thorns is sometimes claimed to be hawthorn. The tree is thus interpreted as either sacred or blasphemous…
Hawthorn is a symbol of fertility and traditionally used to decorate weddings.
Hymen, Greek goddess of marriage, carried a torch of hawthorn.
Greek goddess Hera touched hawthorn and had an immaculate conception of twins Ares (Mars) and Eris (Venus).
Hawthorn-decorated May ceremonies were traditionally scenes of ‘lascivious revelry and sexual merriment’.
Chaucer said: ‘Mark the fair blooming of the Hawthorn Tree/ who finely clothed in a robe of white/ fills full the wanton eye with May’s delight.’
On May morning, gather hawthorn to make garlands to decorate houses and byres for good luck.
The fair maid who the first of May / Goes to the field at break of day /And washes in dew from the hawthorn tree / Will ever after handsome be.
Snap, but don’t break off, a twig with the first hawthorn flower to dream of your future husband. Then snap off the twig as a love charm.
Sit under a hawthorn on May morning to be whisked to fairy land.
Thomas the Rhymer was last seen kissing the elf queen under a hawthorn tree, with a cuckoo singing.
King Arthur overpowered the Hawthorn Giant Yspaddaden, so that his daughter Olwen, the hawthorn goddess, could marry Arthur’s nephew Culhwych.
Some of the old Irish connotations of hawthorn are: pack of wolves, meet of hounds, difficult night, whitening of face, frightful.
Hawthorn can symbolise satire, or the backlash of a magical spell or wish.
Destroying a hawthorn brings misfortune. If you fell a hawthorn, you’ll lose all your cattle, your children or your money.
Hawthorn is the clan badge of the Ogilvies.
Hawthorn was the badge of the house of Tudor, because Henry VII lost his crown and it was found in a thorn bush.
There are loads of good luck hawthorn spells, e.g. plait a crown of thorn and leave it out for the fairies, who will bring blessings.
Bawming the thorn was an old ritual of dressing a hawthorn with ribbons at midsummer, for luck.
Make a globe of hawthorn twigs at New Year to protect your kitchen from bad spirits all year.
The next New Year, burn the old hawthorn globe and scatter the ash on fields/gardens for good growth.
Hawthorn on board ship protects against storms at sea.
Hawthorn wood in rafters protects against ghosts and ghouls.
More dubious tree-related weather forecasting/advice: mony haws, mony snaws.
Hawthorn weather-related advice 2: Many haws, many thaws, many rotten old yows.
Advice: Beware an oak, it draws the stroke. /Avoid an ash, it courts a flash. /Creep under a thorn, it will save from harm.
The soundest hawthorn weather-related advice of all: Cast ne’er a clout ere May is oot.