Countryside Ranger Column: The hawthorn and its symbolism

YOU might be forgiven for thinking fall is a bit of a frugal time for wild foods, but don’t despair! There are plenty if you know where to look.

This month we want to draw your attention to an often overlooked species – hawthorn … the inconspicuous yet beautiful hawthorn flower.

Hawthorn, or Crataegus monogyna, is a member of the rose family and an easily identifiable species most commonly found in hedges.

Its leaves are small, deeply lobed and about as wide as they are long, and at this time of year the berries are red and slightly shiny.

A word of warning: Hawthorns have sharp thorns along their branches, so be careful when picking the berries and avoid feeding in trees near roads due to the risk of pollution.

Hawthorn flower

Hawthorn can be home to over 300 insects, and its dense, thorny foliage provides excellent nesting habitat for many species of birds. Its flowers are eaten by dormice and provide nectar and pollen for bees and other insects.

The hawthorn is a pagan symbol of fertility and has ancient associations with May Day celebrations – its leaves and flowers were used in garlands, and villagers were sent to pluck a living hawthorn to bring back for the May Pole.

Hawthorn flowers were never allowed in the house, as they are believed to bring disease and death.

In medieval times, the hawthorn flower was said to smell of the great plague, and some believe that the crown of thorns worn by Jesus was made of hawthorn.

We now know that one of the chemicals in hawthorn – trimethylamine – is one of the first chemicals to form in decaying animal flesh, so it’s hardly surprising that the flowers have been so often associated with death. Next spring, sniff the flowers and see what you think! This chemical attracts flies, which are one of the main pollinators of hawthorn.

Since the Middle Ages, hawthorn has been used by herbalists to regulate blood pressure, stabilize an irregular heartbeat, strengthen heart muscle, and improve hardening of the arteries. This is now well documented and backed by hard science – if you’re interested, a quick Google will bring up dozens of newspaper articles on the subject.

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