This is the first in a series of articles that I plan to write on different native trees from every aspect, including the nature of their wood.
I'm starting with probably my favourite, the enigmatic and ancient hawthorn tree, which has shared and shaped our history since the beginning. I love everything about it, from the sinuous and sculptural shapes that it takes, through its various qualities and folklore, to the hypnotic beauty of its dense, yet challenging wood.
The Hawthorn Tree
|Small Hawthorn, near Husthwaite, Yorkshire|
Common name: common hawthorn, hawthorn
(from Old English hagaþorn, hæguþorn, from haga ("enclosure, hedge") + þorn ("thorn")
Scientific name: Crataegus monogyna
(Crataegus: from the Greek kratos - strength and akis - sharp, referring to the thorns. Monogyna is derived from Greek mono - one and gyno - female, meaning 'with one ovary' (or pistil.)
Family: Rosaceae (rose)
|Ancient Hawthorn, Skipwith Common, Near Selby|
A deciduous tree native across Europe, and one of Britain's most ancient trees, it can present as a shrub or small tree up to 14 metres (45 feet) tall with a dense crown. It is often found in hedgerows, but can also be found as a solitary tree, or in mixed woodland. It is highly adaptable and consequently does not have a typical shape, instead growing to fit its circumstances, sometimes fusing with itself and other trees in strange and intricate shapes.
The bark is brown-grey, knotted and fissured with slender twigs covered in thorns. The flowers of the hawthorn used to be known for blossoming around, or just before, May Day, (until the calenday was revised in 1752, bringing May 1st forward by 13 days,) hence the hawthorn's alternate name 'May,' or 'May Tree,' and its associations and close links with fertility and May Day celebrations.
|Pink and White Hawthorn Blossom side-by-side, Holy Trinity Church, York|
The flowers are highly scented, with five petals growing in flat-topped clusters, and are normally white, although there are rarer pink varieties. Once pollinated by insects, the flowers develop into deep red berries known as haws.
|Pink Hawthorn Blossom|
|Hawthorn Berries: Haws. Photo Wikimedia Licence CC 3.0|
Hawthorn can be very long-lived, with the oldest specimens in Britain, such as the Hethel Old Thorn in Norfolk, reputedly being over 700 years old.
Hawthorn Tree Lore
|Ancient Hawthorn Skipwith Common Near Selby|
The hawthorn is steeped in tradition, ancient practises and folklore. Heavily associated with the faerie realm, solitary hawthorns in particularly are often referred to as faerie trees and oftentimes hung with cloughties / clooties (cloths/rags tied to the tree as a prayer, blessing or acknowledgement of the spirits of the land.) Strong beliefs still prevail in many parts, particularly in Ireland, that ill fortune will befall anyone impetuous enough to damage or cut down a faerie tree. Roads have even been known to be re-routed to avoid incurring the wrath of the local faeries.
|St Helens Well, Market Weighton, tree hung with clooties|
The five petals of the hawthorn flower are considered to make a pentagram, a potent magical symbol, and are sometimes known as the Elven Cross. The heady scent of the mayflowers is also believed, if inhaled deeply enough, to transport an individual to the 'other world.' A famous example of this comes from the story of 'Thomas the Rhymer' or 'True Thomas,' the famous 13th century Scottish Mystic and Poet, who met the Faery Queen by a hawthorn bush, then being led to the Faerie Realm for a brief visitation. Upon his return he found, to his amazement, that seven long years had passed.
- Bringing hawthorn blossom into the house has long been a taboo, and scientific research has shown that there may be some wisdom in the prohibition, as the blossom contains the chemical trimethylamine, which is present in decaying animal tissue (interestingly, the other species of hawthorn in the UK, the Midland Hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata,) which is now relatively rare, but may have been much more common when this folklore developed, gives off a pungent 'decomposing corpse' smell when the blossom is first cut.)
|'Tanglewood' - hawthorn, Hob Moor, York|
- Although blossom is taboo indoors, globes of woven hawthorn twigs would be brought into the house to protect it against fire.
- Due to its dense foliage and abundant thorns, the hawthorn has been used, alive and dead, throughout history to create protective spaces for animals, plants and humans, thus adding the quality of protection to its associated symbology.
- Fertility is another primary attribute linked to hawthorn, the tree being common at weddings and woven crowns and mayflower garlands gracing many a May Day celebration, which, of course, is our modern day name for the ancient pagan festival of Beltane.
|Lone Hawthorn near Masham, North Yorkshire|
- A nickname for the leaves of the hawthorn tree are 'bread and cheese.' They are edible and thus called either because they were thought to be as nutritious and filling as bread and cheese, or because they were often the 'bread and cheese' of poor folk fallen on hard times, depending on the source.
- The site of Westminster Abbey was once called 'Thorney Islan,' possibly after a sacred grove of hawthorn trees, showing the continuity of worship on this site.
- One of the most famous hawthorns is the Holy Thorn of Galstonbury, the original reputedly sprouting from the planted staff of Joseph of Arimathea, the uncle of the Virgin Mary.
- The hawthorn has several traditional medicinal uses including treatments for heart problems, hypertension and angina, as it contains chemicals which are sedative, anti-spasmodic and diuretic. The berries are also rich in Vitamin C.
- There are many recipes available for hawthorn flowers, leaves and berries from Mayflower Sorbet through to Hawberry Brandy - see the sources at the bottom of this article.
- Hawthorn - huathe - is the sixth symbol of the Celtic Ogham script, and makes up the 'Faery Triad' along with Oak and Ash. "Of all the trees that grow so fair, old England to adorn, Greater are none beneath the sun than Oak, and Ash, and Thorn." - Rudyard Kipling.
Hawthorn Tree Quotes
|Row of Hawthorns, Yorkshire Wolds|
"The fair maid, who on the first of May,
Wood from the Hawthorn
Hawthorn wood is very dense and a pale, creamy brown-through-red colour. It often contains beautiful patterns created from the different shapes that this little tough tree has known in its life. Spalting from fungus can add extra delight to this mix.
|Different blocks of hawthorn wood|
Traditionally, as only smallish items can be created, the wood has been used for items such as tool handles, particularly the handles of personal and special knives, which, if made from hawthorn, are known to be lucky. It has also been used for other small decorative items.
|The patterns of hawthorn|
It is an extremely fine firewood, burning at high temperture, both unseasoned or dry, and is an excellent wood to make charcoal.
In the past I have made a great many items from hawthorn, including: didgeridoos, knife handles, picture frames, coasters, small and medium sculptures and, most recently, tealight holders.
|Hawthorn Tealight Holders from Justbod|
It is one of my favourite woods, and always a interesting journey to work with. I adore its natural beauty and the variance in the patterns that it creates. Very challenging to process, as the wood is very dense, and contains multiple directions of contrasting tensions from the twists and turns created by the living, growing tree, hence it cracks easily as it dries. It can also contain pockets of bark and voids. I have probably had to discard far more wood than I have ever used.
|Some of the sculptural shapes of hawthorn|
Balancing this is the beauty of its natural curves. It is always worth the effort, and I love discovering the varying patterns, colours, shapes and structures within the different sections of a branch. Hawthorn always sparks my imagination with new ideas and inspirations from its enigmatic soul, hardy nature and rich and deep ancient presence within our lives.
|Visit our Tree of Life page|
Wikipedia: Crategus Monogyna
Tree and Landscape: Hawthorn
Woodland Trust: Hawthorn
Trees For Life: The Mythology & Folklore of Hawthorn
Sacred Texts: Thomas The Rhymer
Wikipedia: Thorney Island
Traditional Music: Oak and Ash and Thorn
The Complete Book of Trees of Britain and Europe by Tony Russell
A Tree In Your Pocket by Jacqueline Memory Paterson
The Hedgerow Handbook by Adele Nozedar
The Celtic Tree Oracle by Liz and Colin Murray
Ogam by Erynn Rowan Laurie
The Healing Energies of Trees by Patrice Bouchardon