This week, Steph takes a closer look at the Hawthorn, a.k.a. the May Tree, and how it has inspired ancient traditions and artists alike.
We’re in the last days of the merry month of May. Bluebells, cherry blossoms and daffodils have already greeted us earlier in spring, along with a stronger smelling herald of the season. It takes one of its names from the month of May. At the Whitworth we are very close to hawthorn trees; they are present on Oxford Road and in Whitworth Park and their scent is not one you are likely to forget! It’s not something you would necessarily want to spritz on yourself. This putrid, reeking scent has apparently done hawthorn no favours in some respects.
The origins of some folk beliefs can be rather hard to track down but it appears that some more recent folklore in some parts of England claims that hawthorn is an unlucky plant to bring into the house. This superstition is sometimes said to be associated with a major plague outbreak, usually cited as the Great Plague of London in 1665. It states that the unpleasant scent of hawthorn blossoms reminded people of the plague. Strong, pleasant smelling flowers and herbs, by contrast, were employed in times of plague to make posies in the hopes that their scent would stop foul air or miasma from transmitting the disease to a person. A ‘pocket full of posies’ would not really have helped anyone escape the plague. Posies were also sometimes employed as tokens of affection. The reason behind the stench of the blossoms of common hawthorn, which is native to Britain, really does have a connection to death; the flowers produce trimethylamine, which also happens to be one of the first chemicals released in decaying animal tissue. How lovely!
You would think, with its less than wonderful aroma, that hawthorn might be excluded from festivities and kill all notions of romance but that isn’t necessarily the case. Hawthorn is the only tree to be named after the month in which it traditionally blooms in Britain and so it also bears the name ‘May tree’ or ‘Maythorn.’ Today you might expect hawthorn blossoms to make their first fragrant appearance in April. Before the calendar change in 1752, which brought Britain in line with the Gregorian calendar, prior to which Britain still followed the Julian calendar and was eleven days behind many countries in continental Europe, hawthorn blossoms came into bloom around the first of May. Hawthorn was therefore utilised in traditional May Day celebrations.
In some of Chaucer’s writings there are instances where characters head out on May Day to gather hawthorn blossoms and leaves, with the intention of using them to make traditional garlands. Hawthorn is thought to have been linked to love, particularly carnal love, as were the May Day festivities in Medieval England. Some, including the church, didn’t entirely approve of certain aspects of May festivities, especially during later centuries. Writers who leaned in a more Puritan direction linked people’s behaviour during such festivities with paganism and Satan. May Day festivities were later banned, along with other holidays, by Oliver Cromwell and his Puritans but revived under Charles II, the ‘merry monarch’! Trying to control May Day celebrations might sometimes prove dangerous; Samuel Pepys wrote that soldiers ‘durst not oppose’ the festivities at Deal in 1660, even when people drinking to the health of Charles II began firing guns into the air!
Hawthorn blossoms, however foul smelling, are still very beautiful. Their scent has not stopped artists from depicting them in paintings and on textiles and the tree most definitely has its uses in helping to shape landscapes, too. Hawthorn is an excellent hedgerow species; the name is thought to originate from the Old English ‘hagathorn’ (‘haga’ referring to a hedge or enclosure). The leaves provide a valuable food for the caterpillars of various species of moths and the scent of the blossoms attract all manner of flies, including a species known as the hawthorn fly, and other more beloved insects such as bees. Dormice also use the flowers as a food source. Hawthorn also provides good, protective shelter for the nests of birds. William Henry Hunt’s watercolour piece beautifully illustrates hawthorn’s associations with spring and new life.
Hawthorn was also credited with some curative powers. A cookery book dating back to the sixteenth century in the British Library’s collection contains a recipe utilising hawthorn, which is supposed help a person remove pesky thorns. This is not the only instance in which hawthorn is recorded as being useful in this respect. Nicholas Culpeper, writing in the seventeenth century, recommended hawthorn for the same purpose, claiming that water distilled from it would aid in the removal of thorns. This idea that something that was in some way ‘like’ the thing that was believed to cause a problem might also be able to cure the issue was a common idea in medicine at the time and it continued in some rural areas into the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Culpeper was an apothecary and astrologer known for his dislike of the College of Physicians and disdain of the expensive remedies promoted by many physicians. These often contained ingredients that would not be affordable for everyone. Culpeper was a champion of using native plants, that might be cheaply acquired, in remedies for illnesses. He claimed that hawthorn had other uses besides the removal of thorns;
‘It is a tree of Mars. The seeds in the berries beaten to powder being drank in wine, are held singularly good against the stone, and are good for the dropsy. The distilled water of the flowers stay the lask. The seed cleared from the down, bruised and boiled in wine, and drank, is good for inward tormenting pains.’
As far as Culpepper was concerned, he didn’t need to provide a description of hawthorn because of how well known it was. His book The English Physician, later known as The Complete Herbal, is still in print today. Hawthorn was not just utilised for medicine in England and the rest of Britain; in China, for instance, a native species of hawthorn was thought to help with digestion. Hawthorn is still used by some people today for heart problems. It should be noted, however, that its efficacy with regard to some issues is not fully known and using some of these remedies could be potentially dangerous, especially if they interact with medications.
Perhaps the most famous hawthorn is the Holy Thorn tree at Glastonbury. There have been numerous hawthorn trees in close proximity to Glastonbury Abbey and numerous trees referred to as the Holy Thorn throughout the centuries. The notion of the Holy Thorn tree is bound up in a legend concerning Joseph of Arimathea who was supposedly roaming around Britain with the Holy Grail and left his staff in the ground at Wearyall Hill. The staff then, according to the story, became a hawthorn tree. This story appears to have first emerged during the Early Modern period and the hawthorn on Wearyall Hill took on the name the ‘holy thorn’ around the seventeenth century, although not without criticism. Culpeper and others throughout the Early Modern period thought that the blooming of the Holy Thorn on Christmas day was unusual but merely a quirk of nature and not confined to Glastonbury. He was careful to list other hawthorn trees which also bloomed in winter as well as May.
Susan M. Drury, ‘English Love Divinations Using Plants: An Aspect’, Folklore 97:2 (1986), pp. 210-214.
Susan S. Eberly, ‘A Thorn among the Lillies: The Hawthorn in Medieval Love Allegory’, Folklore 100:1 (1989), pp. 41-52.
Tim Harris, London Crowds in the Reign of Charles II: Propaganda and Politics from the Restoration until the Exclusion Crisis (Cambridge, 1990).
Marcus Harrison, Plants and the Plague: The Herbal Frontline (Cornwall, 2015).
Richard Hayman, Holy Grail and Holy Thorn: Glastonbury in the English Imagination (Fonthill, 2014).
Essaka Joshua, The Romantics and the May Day Tradition (London, 2007).
- Lloyd Moote and Dorothy C. Moote, The Great Plague: The Story of London’s Most Deadly Year (London, 2006).
Ian Mortimer, The Dying and the Doctors: The Medical Revolution in Seventeenth-Century England (Woodbridge, 2015).
Volker Schulz, Rudolf Hänzel, Mark Blumenthal and Varro E. Tyler, Rational Phytotherapy: A Reference Guide for Physicians and Pharmacists (New York, 2004).
Bill Vaughn, Hawthorn: The Tree that Has Nourished, Healed and Inspired Throughout the Ages (Yale, 2015).
Benjamin Woolley, The Herbalist: Nicholas Culpeper and the Fight for Medical Freedom (London, 2012).