Hawthorn - Guardian of the earth
As you walk out onto the Downs taking in the spectacular views, breath-taking scenery and the beautiful array of colourful flowers you may come across a lone Hawthorn tree full of blossom, windswept and covered in lichen. The same tree in winter may be filled with red berries and delightful birds feeding upon them, its whitish grey bark standing out amongst the green undulating hills. Hidden amongst the blossom or red berries are long pointed thorns which the forager may miss and just like the stories be pricked by them.
John Keats reflects on the innocence of trees:
‘Trees old and young sprouting a shady boon for simple sheep.’
Chaucer expounds on its beauty:
‘Among the many buds proclaiming May,
Decking the fields in holiday array,
Striving who shall surpass in bravery,
Mark the fair blooming of the Hawthorn tree
Who finely clothed in a robe of white,
Fills full the wanton eye with may’s delight.’
The naturalist may admire it as a valuable habitat supporting insects, birds and mammals with flower, fruit and shelter. The Bard may well acknowledge as Kipling once did its role as a witness through the ages:
‘Oak of the clay lived many a day if ever Aeneas was born,
Ash of the loam was a lady at home when Brut was an outlaw man,
Thorn of the Down saw New Troy Town before London was born,
Witness hereby the ancestry of Oak and Ash and Thorn.’
It is easy to see why magic surrounds this tree which has been with us across time as it merges innocence with harshness out on the Downs or Moors.
A pricked finger serves as a warning, its blossom and berries help induce sleep whilst many a songbird takes you into another realm with the beauty of its song whilst perching on its branches.
In Ireland it is recognised as the Faerie tree harbouring the elementals and it is not hard to see why this is so. Stories abound of what may happen to you if you were to harm the tree.
So firstly, let us reflect on the pragmatic roots of these tales not to remove the magic but to explore the themes that this magic indicates.
A lone tree in an otherwise flat landscape is surely home to the elementals as its role is paramount in creating further biodiversity out on the landscape. When names and relationships are given to landscape features, we create an intimacy with them and thus wish to protect them. Therefore, a warning about destroying special trees in the landscape is perfectly justified for they are of such value.
You may not be struck by lightning or whisked aware to faerie lands when you destroy these precious trees but the impact you make on the landscape has far-reaching effects on the physical landscape and therefore the psyche of the inner landscape- the soul.
When country folk or indigenous people speak of Faerie land or elementals we are entering into more subtle unexplained realms.
When we see the increase in chronic problems and mental health issues who is to say how the destruction of nature has not only affected our planet but also our own inner health. These effects long understood in the metaphor of story are only just starting to be understood in the scientific world.
The folklore of Hawthorn
Huath is Whitethorn. A meet of hounds is White thorn, it is formidable owing to its thorns.
Pack of wolves.
A difficult night, Hawthorn.
Whitening of face.
Book of Ballymote 1391
Hawthorn represents the inevitable back lash, both positive and negative of taking action in one’s life. It is also the abode of the heart where we are nourished, protected and loved. You can take shelter in the hawthorn thicket to strengthen your heart and resolve.
‘Earth has no sorrow that earth cannot heal.’
The Hawthorn has two sides to it. On one hand it is a healer of the heart, a tree of protection and a supporter of life. It is also a guardian of sacred wells (to which cloth is tied to), a love charm and is said to help cattle thrive and a food source for weary travellers, which is why it is known as the bread and cheese tree.
On the other hand, it is a tree that protects and harbours the elementals taking people into Other- realms with a more a sinister side to its nature. This is the winter thorn standing in the thicket as a speared warrior dedicated to the powerful archetypal earth guardian.
Huath, its Ogham name, means frightful or horrible, reminding us of the inevitable backlash our actions can bring.
It is said in the old stories that devastating satire was pronounced whilst holding the thorn of the tree.
Maybe this is why there is a custom of adorning and worshipping Hawthorn known as ‘bawming the thorn’.
The lessons therefore of Hawthorn are intrinsically linked with cause and effect, how our actions impact on the world around us and indeed in our own inner landscape. More recent traditions whether it be Christian or even in the more recent ‘New Age’ movement we find an overt focus on the light and the heavenly realms which is in danger of cutting us off from our roots.
If the fallen angels did come to the earth it makes perfect sense that they would take the forms of reptiles and giants. For the reptiles are the most primitive forms of life on this earth and the giants in mythology are the raw elements of the earth- its guardians.
By reaching down into the depths to discover our primitive self, one can put down strong roots and build a foundation that is unshakable in difficult times, being aware of our innate connection to the earth, soil and rocks.
Ecology of Hawthorn.
Crataegus monogyna (common hawthorn) Crataegus laevigata (midland hawthorn)
Droiheann (old English) Hagaporn ( Anglo-Saxon) Huath (ogham)
There are two types of Hawthorn known in this country. The first is common and widespread, the second (known as Midland or simply woodland Hawthorn) is restricted to the South and East and is an ancient woodland indicator, an uncommon sight. The latter has a bushy habit and shallowly lobed leaves, able to flower in the shade. This distinction was first made in France in 1790.
Hawthorn, especially since the 1500s, has been an important underwood species grown for fuel and its bark used for ink. Before barbed wire hawthorn was our main fencing, and early forestry writers recommend hawthorn as a nurse tree when sowing a new plantation.
However the tree can colonise chalk downland too effectively becoming a permanent habitat thus threatening the delicate balance of our downs. This is known as being ‘bushed over’.
The hawthorn is generally welcome, tolerating shade and grazing effectively (although new growth takes three weeks for the thorns to harden up and protect the plant from mammals like deer). The tree supports many insects, birds and mammals providing cover, nectar and fruit.
Uses of Hawthorn
Hawthorn wood is hard wearing ideal for knife/dagger handles making them lucky. Its root wood is also used to make beautiful small boxes and combs. It is also good firewood.
As a herb its berries, leaves and flowers are great for heart problems, especially high blood pressure, insomnia and helping one relax.
In the recording below we enter the plant kingdom and meet the primordial Mother known as Banbha.
Poetry of flowers
Join me to explore the flora of the British Isles on this blog. My intention is to attempt to capture the unique quality and beauty of each species of flower, tree or shrub. For every species featured I will be growing many more wildflowers to celebrate the joy of their existence, their intrinsic conservation value and bewildering array of uses. For nearly 30 years I have noted, studied and explored wildflowers in the field much to the patience of the walker beside me. To share this passion is a heartfelt plea to respect, preserve and care for all British Wildflowers no matter how common they seem.