Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Hawthorn: The Faerie Tree

Hawthorn Tree Hob Moor York

This wild, beautiful, gnarly and throny little ancient tree is also known by many other names, such as Whitethorn, Hægthorn, Queen of the May, Quickthorn, or just May, and can grow to a ripe old age. It is one of our oldest, most sacred, and beautiful trees. Often known as the 'faerie tree,' the hawthorn has rich and varied folklore associated with it. Mostly growing in strange and hauntingly beautiful shapes, it can be found in the wildest and harshest spots.

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
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
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, Holy Trinity Church, York
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
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
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
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.

Hawthorn in blossom, near Tadcaster, North Yorkshire
Hawthorn in blossom, near Tadcaster, North Yorkshire

"At the beginning of each summer, when the milk-white hawthorn is in bloom, anointing the air with its sweet odour, and miles and miles of golden whin adorn the glens and hill-slopes, the fairies come forth in grand procession, headed by the Fairy Queen." 
- The Story of Thomas the Rhymer.

In ancient times there were many Goddess cults associated with the hawthorn, and the Faery Queen may well ba remnant of those beliefs.

Some more hawthorn lore: 
  • 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
'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
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 Island,' 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


"And every shepherd tells his tale
Under the hawthorn in the dale."
- John Milton

Row of Hawthorns, Yorkshire Wolds
Row of Hawthorns, Yorkshire Wolds

"The hawthorn bush, with seats beneath the shade
For talking age and whispering lovers made"
- Oliver Goldsmith

"In hawthorn-time the heart grows light."
- Algernon Charles Swinburne

"Gives not the hawthorn bush a sweeter shade
To shepherds looking on their silly sheep,
Than doth a rich embroidered canopy
To kings that fear their subjects' treachery?"
- William Shakespeare

"How right it is to love flowers and
The greenery of pines and ivy and hawthorn hedges;
They have been with us from the very beginning."
- Vincent Van Gogh

"Poetry and imagination begin life.
A child will fall on its knees on the gravel walk
at the sight of a pink hawthorn in full flower,
when it is by itself, to praise God for it."
- Florence Nightingale

White Hawthorn Flowers Photo Wikimedia Licence CC 3.0
White Hawthorn Flowers Photo Wikimedia Licence CC 3.0

"There is a road from the eye to the heart that does not go through the intellect Men do not quarrel about the meaning of sunsets; they never dispute that the hawthorn says the best and wittiest thing about the spring."
- Gilbert K Chesterton

"The world is like a little marsh filled
With mint and white hawthorn."
- Mary MacLane

Lone Hawthorn tree in blossom, near Osmotherley, North Yorkshire
Lone Hawthorn in blossom, near Osmotherley, North Yorkshire

"...the hawthorn, the may, the first glory of the hedges...its flowers are the risen cream of all the milkiness of Maytime. Its scent has the exotic heaviness of a summer in it, very like the pungent vanilla half-sweetness of meadowsweet."
- H.E. Bates

Lone Hawthorn, Hob Moor, York
Lone Hawthorn, Hob Moor, York

"The fair maid, who on the first of May,
Goes to the fields at the break of day,
And bathes in the dew from the hawthorn tree,
Will ever strong and handsome be."
- Old English Nursery Rhyme

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
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
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
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
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.

Thanks for reading


Justbod Team

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Sources and Further Information: 


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

Offline Publications:

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



  1. This is very interesting reading, seeing forward to the next tree information. Thank you so much,, deeply appreciated

  2. The article on Hawthorn trees is very interesting, seeing forward to the next tree information. Blessed Be.

    1. Thank you so much Christene - glad you like it ☺

  3. As a child I used to lister to an old recoding of John McCormick singing :The Faire Tree." My mother spoke of avoiding the thorn tree as well.

    1. What lovely memories Anna ☺ Don't know if you've seen this, which I've just found on Youtube fter a wee search: John McCormack - The Fairy Tree