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Tree 15: Hawthorn

Latin name: Crataegus monogyna
Family: Rosaceae
Other names: May-tree, Queen of the May, Quickthorn, Faerie tree
Origin: Europe, northwestern Africa, West Asia
Height: up to 15 metres
Lifespan: often up to 400 years, oldest on record over 700 years
Autumn leaf loss: Deciduous
Gender Type: Monoecious (Male and female flowers on same tree)

Hawthorn is a small tree or shrub recognised by its dense, thorny growth. Often multi-trunked, its brown-grey bark has knots, fissures and lots of small scales. Deeply lobed, toothed leaves are about 6cm in length. Its pale green leaves are the first to show in the spring, followed by an explosion of pink/white blossom in May. Flowers have 5 petals, grow in flat-tipped clusters, and are highly scented. The ’haws’ (berries) are dark red/ orange and contain only one seed.

Hawthorn is native to the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere and thrives in a range of soils, is full hardy and can live in very exposed locations for up to 400 years! It teems with wildlife! It is a great source of food and protection to insects, birds and small mammals. Over 200 species of plant-eating insects depend on it; its flowers are eaten by dormice and provide nectar and pollen for bees. The antioxidant-rich berries are eaten by small mammals and migratory birds.

Hawthorn has proved very popular for hedging and wildlife gardens. Also, being a finely grained, hard timber it has many possible uses. For example, as it burns at high temperatures, it makes good charcoal and firewood. The leaves, buds and flowers are edible and good in salads. The haws are high in pectin, making them ideal for use in e.g. jams. Fruits and flowers are used in herbal medicine and claimed to have antioxidant and blood-thinning properties. Its spicy, almond scent has long-been used in perfumes.

In mythology, Hawthorn was a pagan symbol of fertility and it has ancient associations with Mayday, being the ancestor of the Maypole and provider of leaves and flowers for garlands. However, in spite of having pretty blossom, it was never taken into a home, as illness and death were thought to follow. In medieval times, its blossom was described as smelling like the Great Plague, perhaps not surprising as it contains a chemical that is released from decaying animal tissue! The adage ‘Cast ne’er a clout ere May is out’ almost certainly refers to the opening of Hawthorn flowers- not to the end of the month!