From people to places, from work to play, from tradition to folklore, the hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) is very much a part of our past and part of our everyday lives.
Common hawthorn is a rich habitat for all kinds of wildlife, from Hawthorn shield bugs and yellowhammers that feed on the haws, to wood mice and slow worms that shelter in the thorny thickets.
The old saying ‘Ne’er cast a clout till May be out’ has been around since at least the 18th century. A ‘clout’ is an old word for a piece of clothing and ‘may’ is a colloquial name for hawthorn which flowers in the merry merry month of May. In other words, don’t discard your winter woollies until the hawthorn has blossomed.
The Glastonbury thorn is and found in and around Glastonbury in Somerset. Unlike ordinary hawthorn trees, it flowers twice a year (hence the name ‘biflora’), the first time in winter and the second time in spring.
The names of our towns and villages often reflect local landscape features.
- Charlton Horethorne in Somerset; a charlton is a ‘farmers’ settlement’
- Thornfalcon in Somerset; falcon is the the surname of the Norman family given the land by William the Conqueror
- Thorne is a market town in South Yorkshire
- Thornbury in South Gloucestershire; ‘bury’ is a fortified place
- Thorner in West Riding, Yorkshire; a thorn bank
Surnames, like place names, often reflect local landscape features. Famous ‘thorns’ include:
- Nathaniel Hawthorne – (1804–1864), novelist and short story writer, a key figure in American literature
- Sir Nigel Hawthorne CBE (1929 –2001) was an English actor who portrayed Sir Humphrey Appleby, the Permanent Secretary in the 1980s sitcom Yes Minister, and the Cabinet Secretary in its sequel, Yes, Prime Minister
- Reuben Thorne (born 1975) is a New Zealand rugby union player, and former captain of the national team, the All Blacks
- Damien Thorn, primary antagonist of The Omen series of films
- Billy Bob Thornton (born 1955), American actor
- Joseph William Thornton, founder of Thornton’s chocolate brand in 1911.
From Scotland to Japan, hawthorn bark mixed with iron sulphate was, and still is, used to dye cloth black.
In Oliver Rackham’s study of Anglo-Saxon charters, the hawthorn was mentioned more frequently than any other tree, even than the oak. It often marked the boundary between cultivated land and the open common.
Scientists are watching hawthorn’s response to climate change, as it is very temperature-sensitive, and the timing of the first leaves and blossoms varies widely from year to year.
In herbalism, hawthorn is a tonic for the heart, but it is bad luck to bring it indoors. Its clusters of creamy white blossom are said to smell like the Great Plague of London, or in Ted Hughes’ damning words: ‘a nauseous, sweet aniseed scent,’ but the blossom is also said to aid love and fertility, as long as it is kept outside!
Hawthorn is the fairy tree – the tree of enchantment and magic. If you look after the hawthorn, the fairies will look after you, but if you destroy a hawthorn the fairies will bring you misfortune. it is said that John DeLorean found a lone hawthorn tree in the field where he wanted to set up his car factory in Dunmurry, Northern Ireland. His builders refused to destroy it and so DeLorean himself bulldozed the tree, and we all know what happened to that business!