The flowering tree that smells like a decomposing corpse

20 August 2021 | Posted in Charlotte Owen , Plants
The flowering tree that smells like a decomposing corpse
Remove Hawthorn © Roger Wilmshurst

Charlotte Owen

WildCall Officer

Hawthorn is one of the commonest trees in the British landscape. It’s no coincidence that hawthorn is also known as the May-tree and it’s the only British plant to be named after the month in which it flowers - although these days, with our warming climate, the ‘darling buds’ are more likely to open in April. If the visual display fails to catch your attention, the distinctive scent certainly will. It’s a sickly sweet aroma that some love and some hate, and we now know that it’s caused by the release of a chemical called trimethylamine. This is one of the first chemicals produced by a decomposing corpse, so it’s not surprising that people have long associated hawthorn with death. But trimethylamine is also a potent insect attractor and a clump of hawthorn in a sunny spot will be humming with life. Bees, butterflies and hoverflies are lured in to feed on the sweet nectar, pollinating the flowers as they go, while the leaves provide food for moth caterpillars with spectacular names, from the orchard ermine to the rhomboid tortrix, light emerald, lackey, vapourer and lappet. All told, hawthorn supports more than 300 different insect species.

Hawthorn is especially common in hedgerows, many miles of which are the legacy of the Enclosure Acts of the 18th century, when the open countryside was divided into neat parcels, each wrapped in the green of a newly-planted hedgerow. Hawthorn was often the plant of choice, since it formed dense and thorny barriers, and the word ‘haw’ comes from the Old English ‘hage’ meaning hedge. Hawthorn also provided firewood and timber for crafting boxes and carving tool handles, while the leaves, flowers and haws are all edible. Beyond its practical uses, hawthorn is deeply rooted in British folklore and tradition, giving rise to lots of old – and odd – sayings. Rather than ‘gathering nuts in May’ people gathered knots of May blossom to create May Day garlands, and stood stems of hawthorn outside their homes, decorating their ‘May-bushes’ with local wildflowers in celebration of spring.

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