Hawthorn (Crateagus monogyna) is a native species, best known as a thorny hedging plant or large shrub. Left alone and given space, it makes an attractive small tree, growing up to ten metres high. As a bush, it adapts readily to light pruning, close trimming, and traditional hedge-laying. It must have been used like this for centuries, because the likeliest explanation of Haw is that it means “hedge berry”. (The Northern variant Haig or Hague is essentially the same word with a different accent, and the related surname is thought to have originated as “the one who lives near the thorn hedge”).
All its most attractive features are of enormous value to wildlife. In spring the hedgerow bushes are among the first species to come into leaf. Bullfinches will peck at them, and the small, deeply lobed leaves provide shelter and food for at least 150 species of invertebrate – which in turn are a source of food for birds. From May into June the branches are covered in headily-scented white blossom, attracting bees and hoverflies. Through autumn and winter, the clusters of deep red Haws tend to stay put on their stalks and will last well into the New Year. Most humans don’t have much use for them nowadays, so they’re a particularly valuable food source for winter thrushes (see Spotlight October 2013). This suits a wild Hawthorn’s purposes very well: the birds enjoy the berries but deposit undigested seeds often at a good distance from the parent tree enabling it to reproduce satisfactorily without having its space crowded. Meanwhile, the fissured bark of a mature bush or tree provides hiding places for hibernating invertebrates, which members of the tit family in particular will seek out even in bad weather with a full feeder nearby.
Hawthorn is a member of the Rose family, and its “berries” actually have more in common with plums. Dig a thumbnail into a ripe one and you’ll find that the single seed is in fact a tiny stone. If you come across a Hawthorn with two stones in its fruits, fewer spines and less deeply lobed leaves, you’ve got a Midland Hawthorn – Crateagus laevigata – another native species but a bit pickier about where it grows. So far we haven’t found one at St Nicks. There are of course a whole lot of cultivated and imported varieties including pink, red and double-flowered versions. As always, if you’re gardening with wildlife in mind, a native species is best.
Older people today can still remember picking and eating the young leaves, which were often called “bread-and-cheese”, and some people do make relishes and jelly from the berries. Water distilled from the flowers was once used to draw dirt and splinters out of cuts, and the crushed seeds formed the basis of a pain-killer. Modern herbalists still use the fruits to treat problems with circulation.
As one of the sacred trees of Celtic mythology, Hawthorn is steeped in folk-lore. According to the late gardening guru John Cushnie, no Irishman to this day would take an axe to a Fairy Tree, and medieval poets knew better than to go to sleep under one for fear of being spirited away to the Otherworld. It is closely associated with May Day and its underlying fertility rites, giving the alternative names of “May Tree” and “May Blossom”. Nowadays it needs a very mild spring to have the blossom fully out by 1st May, but it would often have opened at the right time before calendar reform put the year back by eleven days. Another alternative name, Quickthorn, is often assumed to refer to the speed with which young plants will form a useful hedge. In fact, it means “live thorn”, possibly distinguishing planted and growing hedges from dead hedges built out of forestry waste. Oh, and at the moment experts seem to think that the famous Glastonbury Thorn is a variety of Crateagus monogyna that does indeed have two flowering seasons in a year, one around Christmas.