What Tree? Common Hawthorn

What Tree? Common Hawthorn

Common Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)

This month what better tree to shine a spotlight on than the Common Hawthorn – it bursts into life in May, colouring the landscape with its creamy white blossoms and earning its alternative name of the ‘May Tree’. “Ne’er cast a clout till May be out” is an Old English saying which is believed to mean “Don’t remove warm clothing until the hawthorn is flowering”. These clusters of delicate flowers emit a pungent fragrance, attracting pollinators such as bees and butterflies, and marking the arrival of warmer days. Often overlooked, these trees have a rich tapestry of cultural, ecological and medicinal significance. Steeped in folklore and tradition, its blossoms are a symbol of hope and renewal. In contrast its thorns are believed by some to ward off evil spirits.

In the thirteenth century, the Scottish poet Thomas the Rhymer is said to have met the Faery Queen by a hawthorn, from where he followed her into the Faery Underworld. He emerged unharmed, but found that he had been absent for a period of seven years. In Ireland many of the trees that were said to be inhabited by faeries were hawthorn trees.

Given its propensity for blossoming in May it was often key to the May festivities, being used for garlands and ‘May bushes’ which were decorated with additional flowers. However there was a strong taboo against bringing the branches inside – to do so would lead to illness and death. In more recent times botanists have identified the chemical trimethylamine in hawthorn blossoms, also formed in decaying animal tissue, which may explain the reluctance for having this within the home.

Britain’s most famous hawthorn is the Holy Thorn of Glastonbury. According to legend, Joseph of Arimathea thrust his staff into the ground on the hill overlooking Glastonbury Tor, and from this spot a hawthorn sprouted. Although the original tree is no longer there, descendants from it still thrive, and a sprouting branch from the tree outside St John’s church in Glastonbury is sent to the reigning monarch every Christmas.

Historically, hawthorn hedges were often used to delineate boundaries and provide protection for livestock. Its thorny branches provide excellent nesting sites for smaller birds, but also for wood mice and slow worms who take shelter in its protective thickets. Shield bugs and yellowhammers feed on the haws, the red fruits that appear in the autumn months. These haws have been a staple in traditional medicine for centuries. They are known for their cardiovascular benefits, containing compounds that may support heart health. Additionally, the leaves and flowers have been utilized in herbal remedies for ailments ranging from digestive issues to anxiety.

Appearance and Identification

The common hawthorn is native to Europe, North Africa and Western Asia. Standing at around 5-8 metres it boasts a compact and rounded crown. Its distinctive, gnarled bark and thorny branches give it a resilient demeanour. The leaves are deeply lobed, appearing darker green on the upper side, with three to seven lobes making up each leaf. They turn yellow in the autumn before dropping.

Hawthorn leaf

The tree is monoecious, producing flowers which grow in flat-topped clusters called corymbs and have five petals, coloured creamy-white or pink. Once pollinated these develop into deep red fruits known as haws.

Hawthorn flower

Hawthorn berries

Hawthorn timber is finely grained and very hard. It is creamy-brown in colour and can be used for cabinet making or in turnery. Due to its reputation for burning at high temperatures it is often used for firewood or as charcoal.

Propagation and Control

The common hawthorn does not grow well in water-logged soil and will not flower in deep shade. While it is a valuable tree in many respects, it is essential to manage its growth, especially in areas where it may become invasive. The tree’s prolific production of seeds can lead to the establishment of dense thickets if not controlled.

Regular pruning is an effective method for shaping the tree, maintaining its health, and preventing the formation of overcrowded branches. However, care should be taken as the thorns can be sharp, necessitating appropriate protective gear during maintenance.

Hawthorn may be prone to aphid attack, gall mites and the bacterial disease fireblight, which gives it the appearance of having been scorched by fire.

Source and Reference Materials

Information detailed in this post has been obtained from the author’s own knowledge and photographic library where possible. Additional source of information and photographs include:

Van den Berk, B.V. (2004). Van den Berk on Trees. Van den Berk Nurseries.