Tree was a force for good


Despite the best efforts of the north wind, trees are hanging on to their blossom. Handsome horse chestnuts are looking their best, with spires of waxy flowers studded among bright leaves.

Poet and priest, Gerard Manley Hopkins, saw everything with a fresh eye. In 1874 he noted: “I see how chestnuts in bloom look like big seeded strawberries.”

Rowan trees are bearing posies of thick, clotted cream. Apple and pear blossom is plentiful, although cold, wet days are far from ideal for pollinating insects. But hawthorn is flowering very late, especially for a tree so closely linked with the month that it used to be called mayflower, or simply “may”.

Darling buds

Hawthorn provided May Day garlands – thought to protect the wearer from sorcery – and flowering branches to hang over cottage doors. The tree was a force for good, so long as it was kept outside.

Hawthorn blossom was never brought indoors, because sickness or death would follow it over the threshold. Yet may leaves sprouted in church, from the mouths of Green Men carved in stone.

Hawthorn was dedicated to goddesses of love. Sacred thorns guarding ancient sites were never cut down, for fear of offending the “hidden people”. Cornishmen believed that when folk buried treasure, they planted a thorn over it.

As well as its power as a charm, hawthorn was used in folk medicine. Flowers and haws were taken as a heart tonic, while an infusion of flowers and leaves soothed sore throats.

But mostly, hawthorn formed strong hedges to keep stock in their pasture. Saxons called hedges “haga”, from their name for the hawthorn’s fruit.

Some solitary hawthorns became landmarks, their names mentioned in old charters. A few are still in the same places today, descendants of those original trees.

The most celebrated is Glastonbury’s Holy Thorn, which flowers twice, in May and December. It’s not a native tree — legend says that it was planted by Joseph of Arimathea, the uncle of Jesus.

A Holy Thorn has stood on Weary-all Hill for centuries, a beacon for pilgrims. A poem of 1502 described its Christmas blossoms as “a great marvel”. Puritans disapproved; a Roundhead took an axe to the holy tree. He didn’t realise that villagers had taken cuttings.

In 2010 something similar happened. Although the tree has great significance for Glastonbury, someone hated it enough to climb the hill and slice through its trunk. In January this year another Holy Thorn, propagated from the old tree by experts at Kew Gardens, was planted close to the Abbey.

Common hawthorn is the one we see most often. It’s a native with many local names including thornbush, for its lethal spines; quickset, because it grows fast; and whitethorn, for the colour of its wood. Bread-and-cheese is an ironic name from the days when springtime was the “hungry gap” and people resorted to eating leaves.

Although that sounds shocking, young hawthorn leaves are nutritious and tender.

Try their nutty flavour in salads, with cheese on toast, or in a bacon roll. Only in spring, mind – in summer the leaves will be tough as boot leather.