|the hawthorn in September|
|the berries or 'haws' are really pomes which contain stones like those in plums|
The writer who taught me most about the whitethorn and its ancient associations is Robert Graves in his White Goddess, yet Graves was more of a poet than a historian and there is much else to learn about the folklore associated with the genus crataegus (family Rosaceae), which boasts at least 200 species.
Hawthorn, Whitethorn, May Tree, Thornapple, Hawberry, May, Quickthorn and Motherdie: the many names imply familiarity and importance.
During the Enclosures in 18th and 19th century Britain, hawthorns were propagated en masse to furnish the hedging needed to enclose fields; which is why today the tree is so ubiquitous in the British countryside. But even before, the tree was important to life in the country - and not just in Britain, for the crataegus flourishes all over the northern hemisphere.
|hawthorn hedgerows near Canterbury, England|
|a contemporary example of traditional use of hawthorn extract|
Yet perhaps most strikingly, since ancient times, the plant has been associated with various religious and mystical beliefs.
According to Graves, in the past it was unlucky to cut the hawthorn unless it was in flower. The tree was associated with chastity and purity which was perhaps why it was borne in wedding processions by the ancient Greeks. For Graves indeed, the tree represented the white goddess (his interpretation of the ancient mother goddess figure), the berries standing for her red lips, the white flowers for her skin, the black wood for her hair. But as I said, Graves was a poet.
|Paris and the goddesses and the apple of discord, from the cover of Robert Graves's The White Goddess|
|Clootie tree or hawthorn tree hung with rags in Scotland, a modern version of an ancient custom|
In addition, the Glastonbury Thorn Crataegus monogyna Biflora, which flowers once in May and once in December, was supposed to have grown from the staff thrust into the earth on Wearyall Hill in Somerset by Joseph of Arimathea, a story linked to the Arthurian legends. Whatever the story, cultivars of an ancient hawthorn tree which grew on Wearyall Hill survive to this day.
|Joseph of Arimathea arriving in England and planting his staff in the ground at Wearyall Hill from which the twice-flowering thorn was supposed to have sprouted. A modern interpretation of an illuminated illustration by Alison Merry|
|Glastonbury Thorn with Glastonbury Tor in the background|