In a hollow, heeled to the wind
bowling in from the Atlantic,
a stout tree crouches
as if cast adrift.
its gnarled knotty spine exposed.
A tangle of thorny branches shore up
the sharp green canopy,
sprawling in endless bad hair days.
Wind tossed tendrils
In the lee of its spread
JULIA WEBB-HARVEY | Hawthorn | Penhale Sands, north Cornwall
With its twisted boughs and hostile thorns, it is easy to think that the hawthorn has nothing to offer when it is no longer a tree. It is not even that impressive as a tree, mostly acting as a barrier-keeper in hedgerows. Its creamy brown wood is tough to work with as the grain meanders through its twists and turns and it has a hardness that a woodturner said, ‘eats tools.’ This hardness means that hawthorn burns hot, too hot, with a searing heat that smelts iron. It yields blood red berries, haws, which are inedible whilst its neighbour, the blackthorn, produces sloes that are a gift steeped in gin.
What possible use can such a tenacious tree be?
The hawthorn has a remarkable political and cultural history due entirely to its natural characteristics. Hawthorn is content both as a loner and in tight company. It grows rapidly for the first year or so and then just seems to solidify, making it an ideal candidate for a hedgerow. When hawthorn was graced with a name, Crataegus, it is no coincidence that its origins come from the Greek word kratos for strong.
The hawthorn had a commanding role in our cultural heritage before pagan rituals were outlawed by the Crown. It is the only British plant to be named after a month, the May Tree. When drifts of creamy white flowers adorned the hawthorn’s boughs it signified the arrival of summer. In medieval times the blossoms were gathered in garlands and hung outdoors, and rural Britain danced in celebration. Woe betide anyone who would bring the flowers inside as this was said to bring death. Perhaps this is due to the hawthorn’s perfume – despite its blousy blooms, the flowering hawthorn’s scent is stale with high notes of decay.
The lone hawthorn is holder of myth and legend. The lone tree is said to mark the entrance to the faery underworld and these sacred gateway-trees are protected by the faeries. They would curse anyone who raised an axe to its trunk.
The hawthorn is living testament to our political history. When the Parliamentary Enclosure Acts were passed, the landowners raised an army of hawthorn creating a frontline some 200,000 miles long, stripping Britain of swathes of common ground. Our hedgerows today are descendant from those acts and trees.
Nature has also given us a reward in a health benefit of the hawthorn. Those inedible deep red haws are used in western herbalism. The prepared berries provide cardiovascular relief, with properties that are said to dilate the arteries and nourish the heart.
When the tree is no longer a tree, the hawthorn is guardian of our cultural and political history and healer of hearts. Hawthorn is much more than a humble hedge-dweller.