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Hard-Hearted Hawthorn

By Audrey Stallsmith


By the road, near her father's dwelling,
There groweth a hawthorn tree:
Its blossoms are fair and fragrant
As the love that I cast from me.
It is all a-bloom this morning
In the sunny silentness,
And grows by the roadside, radiant
As a bride in her bridal dress.

But ah me! at the sight of its blossoms
No pleasant memories start:
I see but the thorns beneath them--
And the thorns they pierce my heart.

"The Hawthorne" by Victor James Daley

On the way home from church on many autumn Sundays, Dad's driving would become somewhat erratic as he scanned the roadside for haws.  We kids would gobble the raisin-like "berries" eagerly enough when he found some, though we weren't nearly as good at spotting them ourselves.

I must admit that the haws were mostly seed, which had to be spit out, and their sparse flesh somewhat mealy.  But nobody complains about found fruit.  I don't know what type those wild haws were--and doubt that Dad does either.  But I would guess, due to the dark color of the berries, that they might have been crataegus douglasii or black hawthorn.

In England, the hawthorn holds almost mythical status.  The type native there, crataegus oxyacantha derives its name from the Greek kratos ("hardness"), oxus ("sharp" ) and akantha ("a thorn"). 

More towns in England have "thorn" in their names than any other tree, perhaps due to the fact that hawthorn--which makes a good living fence--marks many boundaries.  "Haw" is, in fact, simply an old term for "hedge."

The small tree has what can only be called an ambiguous reputation, however.  Although its May flowers bloom bridal white, it does have wicked thorns--not to mention something putrid in the fragrance of those pristine blossoms.  They are, in fact, generally pollinated by carrion flies.  And, apparently, you can draw more flies with rotting flesh than with honey!

Some held this to be the smell of the Great Plague.  It was, at any rate, the smell of death.  So bringing hawthorn flowers indoors could render your luck very bad, indeed!  And the smoke of the tree's burning supposedly ushered souls into the afterlife.  You would probably want to avoid it on May Day as well, as witches could reputedly turn themselves into hawthorns then.  Which probably explains why the plant is also known as hagthorn. 

Some also hold hawthorn to be the source for thorns with which mocking soldiers crowned Jesus.  An entirely possible supposition, as crataegus aronia grows wild in the Middle East.  Some have even speculated that the burning bush which called a reluctant Moses to his duty was a hawthorn. Also quite possible, since its wood burns long and hot! 

Because it was considered a fairy plant, some believed hawthorn could also bestow good luck.  A certain Thane William actually constructed his castle around a hawthorn tree in 1454.  He was supposedly advised to load a donkey with gold and build his tower around the third hawthorn tree at which the animal stopped. 

As he called that keep Cawdor Castle, we might question how good that luck was.  But historians hold that this particular Cawdor Castle was built too late to be the one inhabited by the real-life Macbeth, who lived between 1005 and 1057.  And who was apparently not nearly as nasty as Shakespeare made him out to be!

Perhaps Joseph of Arimathea reversed the curse when he supposedly stuck his staff into the ground on Britain's Glastonbury Hill, and that walking stick grew into a hawthorn tree.  There are many problems with this story, and no Biblical indication that Joseph was Mary's uncle--as the legend claims.  Perhaps that's why Cromwell hacked down that hawthorn.  Others sprouted in its place, however, so thorns still grow at Glastonbury--holy or not! 

As hawthorn is nicknamed Mayflower or simply May, we can assume it to be the inspiration for the ship that brought the pilgrims to the New World.  And, in its further defense, we must point out that hawthorn has proved to be an excellent heart stimulant.  In The Green Pharmacy, James Duke reports that "it helps prevent heart problems, gently strengthening the heart muscle, improving blood circulation through the heart and reducing the heart's need for oxygen."  As an astringent, it can also be used to treat both sore throat and diarrhea, and a poultice made from its leaves will draw out boils and splinters.

The edible leaves were often referred to as "bread and cheese," while the berries flavored liquors and jellies.  Hawthorn's hard, fine-grained timber is also excellent, both for making small wooden articles and very hot fires.  And its roots have been used as grafting stock for other fruit trees. 

Peasants once hung rags on hawthorn bushes in May to soak up all that good luck.  Reportedly, modern witches still follow this custom, but have reverted to ribbons, as being perhaps somewhat more bewitching!

Despite its somewhat equivocal reputation, hawthorn stands for hope in the Language of Flowers. An appropriate association, if it was actually present on the original Good Friday. Although those thorns were only supposed to form a mock crown, on Easter morning the risen Christ might be said to have gotten the last laugh after all!

Crataegus succulenta image is from the National Geographic Society, courtesy of the Southwest School of Botanical Medicine.