The Monthly Wort
The Monthly Wort will provide readers with detailed descriptions of specifically chosen herbs (aka “wort”, meaning a useful herb), splitting it into 4 categories over the span of the month. Herbal History, Medicinal Uses, Magical Uses and Growing/Harvesting. In order to get the full scope of each plant, stay tuned every week as we delve into spiritual and practical experience of Herbalism.
If you’ve been keeping up with the Monthly Wort thus far, you may remember that April’s showcase plant was Blackthorn, a fantastic tree with a seasoned reputation in Ireland. This month, we’re going to be learning about Blackthorn’s beautiful sister, the Hawthorn tree! That being said, we won’t be focusing as much on one specific genus, as this species is fairly widespread and a majority of its varietals have extensive use in modern times!
A Rose By Any Other Name
Otherwise known as Crataegus (also hawberry, may-tree, quickthorn, whitethorn or thornapple), Hawthorn is a shrub kin to the Rosaceae family. Initially, its name was less specific to this genus and was applied to C. monogyna of northern Europe. These days, the name is applied to the entire genus as well as the related Rhaphiolepis in Asia. Crataegus itself is derived from the Greek kratos (“strength”) and akis (“sharp”) based off of its physical description, considering the density of the wood and the signature thorns. In Old English, haw was a term for “hedge”, although the modern association is with the fruit rather than the tree itself. From the Anglo-Saxon term haguthorn, this literally translates to “a fence with thorns”. In Irish, Hawthorn is known as Sceach Gheal, where sceach means “thornbush” or “briar” and geal means “bright/radiant’, both of which are also presumed physical descriptors. In ogam, the ancient Irish alphabet, it is one of the tree letters known as Úath (modern spelling is Huath, pronounced “ooh-ah”), which is the sixth symbol.
According to Brehon Law, which was the body of ancient Irish law in Gaelic areas until it was overtaken by Common English law at the beginning of the 17th century, Hawthorn was known as a Peasant Tree. I am unable to find further sources on the matter, so do what you will with that information.
Fill Me With Red Bells, I Crave the Hawthorn Sweet
I’m rather hungry while writing this blog, so let’s talk about food for a moment. The “haws” or fruit of the Hawthorn (C. monogyna) are just as edible as the sloes of the Blackthorn, if not more so. Picked at the end of the season, following the first few frosts, they can be used in pies, jellies, wines and more! They have been described as tasting like overly-ripened apples, so maybe they’re not as tasty when eaten fresh?
The Chinese Hawthorn (C. pinnatifida) are more tart and have a similarity to crab apples, what with being bright red. They are used in a variety of foods in Asia as well, including sweet and sour sauce! Yum~! Even the leaves are edible, according to some sources, and can be picked while tender and tossed into a salad, even sautéed among other greens. European cultures will consider the leaves, berries and flower buds to be called “bread and butter” because the edibility of the tree’s parts were so available during times of mass famine. That tree sounds like a jam sandwich, I’m getting really hungry now!
Apart from just being plain delicious, the rest of the tree has always had its place in the handyman’s shop. The wood is dense and very rot resistant, much like cedar, and makes it perfect for fencing and ax handles.
Hawthorn: The World Traveler
Hawthorn trees are native to temperate regions in the Northern Hemisphere of Europe, Asia and North America. Although, particularly in the latter, Hawthorns are difficult to identify taxonomically based on their very similar characteristics or evolutionary relationships through genetic analysis, which is why we’ll be talking about a few varieties of the tree. Not to mention that one of the most fascinating talents of Hawthorn is its ability to adapt in nature! With quickness, it can change using hybridization, leaving it with many varieties of wild and cultivated breeds.
Many of these hybrids are used as ornamental trees, and people have trimmed them in the same manners as bonsai trees. The fact that they can survive in many environments also makes them great for landscaping along streets, in parks and down avenues. Missouri even made the Hawthorn its state flower back in 1923.
Most importantly, however, Hawthorn is used as a hedging plant. Much like its darker half, Blackthorn, it is the perfect tree for keeping cattle in and outsiders, well… out. This was particularly popular during the British Agricultural Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, during which the Inclosure Acts required boundaries to be created around fields. There was a boom in Hawthorn propagation following this. If you want to read more about hedging and how to do it yourself, I included some information on that in the last Monthly Wort: Blackthorn, Part 4.
If you thought Hawthorn couldn’t get any more awesome, then you probably don’t realize just how old this species is. The common Hawthorn trees can grow to be very old. In France, there is a Hawthorn tree that is said to have survived from the 3rd century! To top it off, Hawthorn has been found in fossils dating back to the Cretaceous period. We’re talking dinosaurs here.
Plagues and Pestilence
Obviously something of that age has survived through the times when superstition played a heavy role in the lives of people. While we will get into this more in week three, Hawthorn Magic, it can’t hurt to touch on a few, as they also had practical sides to them! The Hawthorn branches, most importantly the flowers, were thought to be very bad luck to bring into a home. In my research, I’ve decided the brass tacks of it all surround the smell of the hawthorn flowers. According to Medieval country folk, they smell like that of the Great Plague in London at the time. Before your head starts spinning around as you try to imagine what that smells like, modern science has already figured it out for us: The chemical trimethylamine found in Hawthorn blossoms is also one of the first chemicals that is formed in decaying animal tissue. If you were all too familiar with the smell of corpses around you, you probably wouldn’t be too keen on having a tree that emulates that same scent lying around the kitchen.
Another fun folktale, which is more of a rule of thumb, is a Scottish saying that goes, “Ne’er cast a cloot til Mey’s oot”, which essentially translates to “keep your clothes on until the Hawthorn blooms”. Much like Blackthorn, Hawthorn is the first tree to bloom in the season, signaling warmer temperatures and, therein, summer clothes. Plus, the rhyme is just damn fun to say.
That’s it for now. This Friday, we’re going to be covering Hawthorn in medicine. I’m enjoying these last two trees immensely and there is just a mecha of information on them out there, so stay tuned, Folks.