Herb of the Season: Hawthorn By Dawn "Belladonna" Thomas

 

 

Hawthorn

(Crataegus oxyacantha) - Deciduous

Folk Names: Bread and Cheese Tree, Gaxels, Hagthorn Halves, Haw, Hazels, Suath, Ladies' Meat, May, Mayblossom, May Bush, Mayflower, Quick, Thorn, Tree of Chastity

Planet: Mars

Element: Fire

Visualization
A hawthorn bristling with spikes and adorned with dark red berries stands blocking the middle of a traveler's path.

 

 

Botanical

The hawthorn is related to the rose and is usually found planted in hedgerows. The flowers are white with five-fold petals and the small green berries run dark red in the fall. The berries become a fleshy fruit known as 'haws' later in the year. Haw is believed to mean 'hedge'. The Hawthorn is a small tree seldom exceeding 15 feet in height. Although it grows well in most soils, the hawthorn prefers damp sandy earth for germination and is often a bird-sown tree.

It is usually cut back to form low, thick hedges, and is rarely seen as a full-grown tree. It is very distinctive, with its profusion of small, white flowers in May, which turn to bright red berries and darker, fleshy fruits, known as haws, later in the year. The leaves of the trees are on alternate sides of the prickly twisted stalks. They have deep divided lobes and have a similar appearance to small oak leaves. Its bark is grayish-brown, flecked with small scales, and covered with the very hard and sharp thorns that give the tree its name. Its long thorns provide protection against storm and grazing animals for larger trees like oak and ash that grow up beneath it and eventually supplant it. It also affords thorny shelter for birds and other wildlife that feast on its scarlet autumn berries.

When grown in the wild it can take on some very peculiar shapes. It may be this unusual characteristic that encouraged the belief that it had been planted by fairies. Despite its gnarled appearance and formidable thorns, the hawthorn in full bloom is a very attractive tree. The wood of the hawthorn is rarely used commercially since its branches are very knotted. It does not burn well either, and has long been the subject of superstition that says that it is unlucky to bring hawthorn into the house. It is often found growing on fairy hills, the Sidhe mounds described in the legends. It is commonly believed to have been placed there by the fairies as a warning to humans, in order to protect the mound, for no sensible person would ever disturb such a tree.

Bark:
The trunk of the hawthorn becomes gnarled with age and it bark is thick. The bark is dark grey-brown and splits into a pattern of random squares with age. The tree often appears to be old especially in winter. It is an orchard shaped tree and is dense with intertwining branches and shorn thorns or spines. These spines are actually stunted shoots.

Leaves:
In April the leaf buds open with little bundles of pale green leaves on each branch.  They become shiny on top and gray on the bottom. Some varieties of hawthorn leaves turn into a red in the fall but others do not.

Flowers:
The flower buds come out between the new leaves. The flowers grow in clusters of white or palest pink and exude a strong unusual scent. The hawthorn blossoms contain both male and female parts and are fertilized by insects crawling over them.

Fruit:
On the back of each hawthorn flower are five green sepals which make it look like a star. Below the stalk are seeds which will grow into small green berries. In the fall the berries turn a shiny dark red that birds love to eat. Their seeds are then propagated by birds.

Folklore and History
The hawthorn tree was associated with both female and sexuality and destruction. It is both a sign of abstinence and sexual abandon. Hawthorn blossoms were gathered each May Day, also known as Beltane, to place in a wreath around the Maypole. The true date for this festival was believed to be the first morning that the hawthorn blossoms opened. The wreath served as the female symbol and the pole was the male symbol. The gathering of the hawthorn blossoms for this was known as "going a Maying."  Chaucer wrote this about the hawthorn tree:

Mark the fair blooming of the Hawthorn Tree,
Who, finely clothed in a robe of white,
Fills full the wanton eye with May's delight.

It is one of the sacred three of British and Celtic antiquity: Oak and Ash and Thorn.  When these trees grow together it is said to be a favorite place for faeries. In present day Ireland, it is considered woeful to cut down a Fairy Tree. Hawthorns appear to have been found all over the British Isles in ancient times. One tree grew in the confines of Glastonbury Abby, called the Glastonbury Thorn, which was cut down by the Puritans most likely because of its pagan associations. Hawthorn was grown in hedgerows and created a barrier to keep people off the land. John Clare, a poet tells of the changes that he saw:

Ye injur'd fields, ye once were gay,
When Nature's hand displayed.
Long waving rows of willows gray
And clumps of hawthorns shade,
But now alas your hawthorn bowers
All desolate we see!
The spoilers' axe their shade devours,
And cuts down every tree.

The Goddess as death bringing Crone was connected with the hawthorn in the legend of Cu Chulainn. After pronouncing her death curse on the hero, in the form of a crow, she sat in a hawthorn on the plain of Muirthemne. That is why it is called 'the hawthorn of the Crow.'

Deities
There are several goddesses associated with the Hawthorn tree: Cardea or Maia, Olwen, Flora, and Blodeuwedd.

Cardea (Roman), cast spells with the Hawthorn, and was usually appeased in some form at marriages. This was especially true if the marriage occurred during the May month (month of the May tree or Hawthorn, not the calendar month of May), as this goddess opposed such unions. Cardea protected infants from night birds who snatched children from their cradles and sucked their blood. She was first thought to do this using a hawthorn at Alba Longa where people emigrated from the Peloponnese. Cardea was thought to be the mistress of Janus who was keeper of the doors. She is known as the guardian of hinges, she has the power to open what is closed away and conceal what is open. She looks both forward and backward in Time. She is the Benefactress of craftspeople and lives in a starry castle at the hinge of the universe behind the North Wind. She is also known as the Keeper of the Four Winds.

Maia: Known as the May tree, the hawthorn represents the White Goddess Maia. Maia was the mother of both Hermes and Buddha as separate versions of the Enlightened One. She was the Goddess of love and death, both the ever young Virgin giving birth to the god, and the Grandmother bringing him to the end of his season. Maia is the Greek goddess of spring, from whom we derive the name of the month of May. Her traditional day of celebration is Beltane, when joyous men and women, wearing vibrant green, dance around a maypole to welcome spring. In the Celtic tradition of Beltane, it was mostly a time of unashamed human sexuality and fertility, where customs such as archery tournaments, dances, feasting and music were conducted to celebrate the coming of spring. The Druids instituted May bonfires to assure successful planting and plentiful harvests

Olwen: In Celtic tradition the Hawthorn was sacred to Olwen and represents fertility. One of her titles was 'She of the White Track' because of the hawthorn's white blossoms. Her father's name, Yspadden Pencawr, literally means giant hawthorn. Olwen was described as having streaming yellow hair, anemone fingers, and rosy cheeks; from every footstep a white trefoil sprang up. The "white lady of the day," she was called, the flower-bringing "golden wheel" of summer

Flora is a goddess of the flower of youth and its pleasure. Her sacred month is April.  She was honored annually at the May Day festival called Floralia. This festival began in 238 BCE as a festival of unrestrained pleasure. The festival began on April 28th and lasted for six days. This is the anniversary of the founding of her temple to May 3rd. The female body was especially honored at the Floralia. It was not a frivolous party. This was to acknowledge Flora the queen of all plants. The origin of the maypole and the collecting of May baskets of lowers came form her festival. Since she was the goddess of flowering in nature, this included human nature. The blooming of flowers leads to fruit as intercourse lead to conception. It was thought to honor Flora was to pass medallions around, scatter beans and seeds, and make love to people going by.

It was noted that Flora was a "Lady of Pleasure" but she was prominent and important in Roman religion. Some said her name was the secret soul name of Rome itself and without her the city would die. St. Augustine and other fathers of the Christian church abominated Flora and her festival. They said it was an orgy of nude dancing and promiscuous behavior. In an ancient myth Flora was said to provide Juno with a special flower that allowed her to become pregnant without male assistance. Juno then gave birth to Mars. It was also told that Flora was the bride of the west wind and that her gentle breath called forth the flowers to bloom.

Blodeuwedd the maiden is also associated with this tree. She was conjured up from nine kinds of spring flowers. She traditionally represented the light part of the year which gave balance to the autumn, when the autumn god was made from nine kinds of fruit. It is Blodeuwedd who the May Queen represents when she is dressed in blossoms at the Mayday festivities.

Magical Uses
To carry a sprig of hawthorn was to have protection against storms at sea and lightning on shore.  In some regions hawthorn was taken into the home and placed in the rafters for protection against spirits, ghosts, and storms. This is a rhyme about the protection of the hawthorn:

Beware of an oak,
It draws the stroke,
Avoid an ash,
It courts a flash,
Creep under a thorn,
It will save you from harm.

As a faerie tree, the hawthorn works to guard the wells. If the wells have no water there will be no life. The young girls waited for the first hawthorn blossom. Whoever found the first one would partly break the branch but leave it hanging. That night she would dream of the man she would marry. The next day she would go back to the tree and picked up the broken branch and keep it until her husband appeared.

The flowers can be made into a decoction to heal facial blemishes. This is the poem relating to it:

The fair maid who the first of May,
Goes to the field as the break of day,
And washes in dew from the Hawthorn Tree,
Will ever handsome be.

Sources
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