In Praise of the Hawthorn

Of all our native trees, the Hawthorn moves me the most. Perhaps that’s because, with its blossoming, it marks the shift between Spring and Summer and brings such a sudden surge of hope and beauty – the first real splendour of the hedgerows. Though its flowering time is never certain and it’s more likely to be out nearer the old May Day of the Gregorian Calendar, (which fell on the on 12th May), rather than the 1st of May – when it does finally bloom, “there is no uncertainty at all about it;” wrote HE Bates, “its flowers are the risen cream of all the milkiness of May-time.”

Hawthorn_blossom_-_geograph.org.uk_-_799885As a child walking to our tiny village school, 720 feet up in the downs I was taught by the other village children to eat what we called “bread and cheese” – the fresh young leaves of the hawthorn in Spring. Several trees grew along the footpath at the back of the church – they were my sort of scale and comfortingly familiar – but where I loved them the best was on the downs where they would grow in sparse scatterings down the steep sides of sheltered and secret combes: nothing else grew there. Hawthorns seemed to favour lonely places Some became fat and rounded bushes, others turned into little trees. If I hold an image of England it is of a group of sheep lying in the shade of an old may tree among its hollowed out roots, as though they have always belonged together.

The hawthorn is such a humble and unassuming part of our countryside – commonplace, taken for granted and considered scrub by gardening snobs – and yet more deeply woven into our folk lore and history than any other tree. For me the most beautiful stone carvings in the country are in the 13th century chapter house at Southwell Minster. They are worth crossing counties to see. Known as “The Leaves of Southwell”, they depict our wayside trees but especially the hawthorn in all its crisp freshness, intertwined around birds, fruit and animals and also sprouting from the mouths of “Green Men”.

Our spring festivities and fertility celebrations echo our Pagan past through the Hawthorn – in the Maypole, as crowns for the May Queen, as wreathes and button holes. Everything is to do with celebrating the outdoor world of Spring. But as soon as a branch of it comes indoors then all the old superstitions of bad luck come to haunt us. In parts of North Wales the Hawthorn is even called Mother-die: suggesting that if you bring hawthorn into the house your mother will surely die. That may be extreme but still, no country dwellers I know bring hawthorn indoors. We have not forgotten everything.

So at this time of year, I begin to return to my Pagan past. When the May blossom is making the whole world white and the cow parsley clouds are spilling over the edges of the lane, when the downland combes (where modern farming methods have not infiltrated) are still studded with cowslips and early purple orchids, part of me seriously questions why on earth I am bothering to garden the patch of ground around our cottage. The borrowed landscape beyond it is far and away more beautiful. Vegetables I can accept for practical reasons, but I wonder about my controlled, contrived beds of flowers and shrubs. Why am I spending hours battling with bindweed when Gerald Manley Hopkins so revered weeds in his poem Spring, “ When weeds in wheels shoot long and lovely and lush” ? Far better to sit back on a spring evening and stare at our three Wilshire Horns. They are lying under an ancient hedgeline where several hawthorn trees, have grown up into the most perfect trees I ever saw, smothered in heavy dollops of blossom. Heaven on earth!

Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Richard Croft

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