Species of the day: Hawthorn

28 April 2020 | Posted in James Duncan , Plants
Species of the day: Hawthorn
Hawthorn © Roger Wilmshurst

By James Duncan

Learning and Engagement Officer

With its distinctive leaves, the Common Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) is a familiar sight amongst spring hedgerows and woodland edges. Its colloquial name of 'May-tree' is entirely suggestive of its typical flowering period and serves as the most reliable method of separating its gleaming creamy-white blooms from Blackthorn, which in contrast produces flowers prior to its leaves. Owing to its prickly nature, Hawthorn has for centuries been used to form barriers and boundaries for both livestock and humans. Indeed, 'haw' derives from the old English word for hedge. Unfortunately hedge removal has very much exceeded that of hedge planting since WWII - historically we've now lost around half of all British hedgerows in this time. The ongoing fragmentation of these vital habitats continues to be a threat to the wildlife so heavily dependant upon them. Of course, long-established hedges have by far the most value to both wildlife and landscapes and none more so than Hawthorn. It's simply a magnificent habitat, supporting a myriad of wide-ranging species. Many hundreds of these depend on it for food, including numerous moth larvae and a range of nectar-reliant insects. The flowering buds are popular with Dormice and the fleshy berries provide a fantastic food source for birds (particularly Thrushes) as they're rich in antioxidant properties. Of course the true range of creatures reliant on Hawthorn is far more extensive, as it also offers thorny, impenetrable shelter and ideal nesting habitat.  

In a twist of irony, where Hawthorn so marvellously supports life, it's readily been associated by humans with death. The taboo against bringing blossom into the home was powerful and doing so was considered to bring nothing but illness and misfortune. The aroma given from the blossom is certainly sickly and acrid and in medieval times was compared to that of the 'Great Plague of London.' This would seem quite far-fetched, until a botanical discovery later unearthed the reason. Hawthorn blossom was found to contain trimethylamine, one of the first chemicals present in decaying animal tissue. It quite literally bears the smell of death, something those living in times of bubonic plague would have been well familiar with. Unsurprisingly, as a result of this trait many of the insect pollinators drawn to the blossom are those attracted by carrion. 

A far cry from the distasteful blossom, the young leaves and shoots have readily been eaten through the ages and referred to as 'bread and cheese.' The deep wine-red 'haws' produced in autumn contain large amounts of a starch called pectin, which when heated with sugar forms a gelling agent, making the berries desirable for both jam and jellies. The antioxidants beneficial for wildlife have long been recommended in herbal medicine, and in particular for conditions of the heart. Harking back to its alternative naming, Hawthorn has always had associations with traditional May festivities and has noteworthy place in legend and lore. It was touchingly referenced in Siegfried Sassoon's WWI poem 'The Hawthorn Tree', telling of his son fighting in France. Here's an excerpt - 

Hawthorn © Derek Middleton

Hawthorn berries © Derek Middleton

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