Thursday, September 18, 2014

the Thorn Tree and its associations

 The Facts and Fables of the Hawthorn

the hawthorn in September
Summer has all but ended. We still await the equinox to declare it officially over, but autumn is clearly making itself felt. A series of heavy rainfalls have seemingly washed the green from the landscape which is now tinged with yellow, the cooler temperatures and shorter days reminding us of what's to come. Our fig trees are laden, the quinces are heavy on the bough and bright berries glow on hedge and shrub (above deer height, for the lower fruits have been devoured).

the berries or 'haws' are really pomes which contain stones like those in plums

I was admiring the scarlet berries of the hawthorn today and it occurred to me that I have not done this tree/shrub justice in my recent post on trees at Le Ripe. This is a tree with a story, or rather many stories. 

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

First, the plant is edible: the haws can be eaten raw but are more often used to make jelly or wine and are consumed one way or another from Mexico to Iran to China. When tender the leaves can be eaten in salads, as can the petals and buds which are called 'bread and cheese' in the English countryside. In addition the traditional medicine of various cultures claims medicinal properties for the hawthorn, as a digestive aid and as a cardiovascular tonic.

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
From before the Christian era the hard wood of the hawthorn was considered suitable protection against evil spirits and vampires (in Serbia in the past, hawthorn wood was used for vampire-slaying stakes!), while its frequent occurrence near age-old springs and wells testifies to its association with superstitions concerning the 'otherworld' and fairies. Even today in parts of Celtic Britain hawthorns grow beside 'clootie wells' and are often still draped with strips of cloth rather like votive offerings or Tibetan prayer flags. 

Clootie tree or hawthorn tree hung with rags in Scotland, a modern version of an ancient custom
Subsequently in the Christian era, as so often happens with ancient myth, the hawthorn was assimilated into the story of Christ as the tree which furnished the crown of thorns.

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

In short, the hawthorn is a tree long associated with folklore, folk medicine and ancient belief systems. Already such a pleasing plant, it becomes all the more fascinating and worthy of our respect.


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