In Praise of Hawthorn


May is such a beautiful month. Not only have the trees leafed-up in every shade of green imaginable, but the banks along rural Dorset lanes are a riot of colour as our native wildflowers come into bloom. Bluebells, Greater stitchwort, Yellow archangel, Red campion (which is actually pink, not red) Primrose, Cow Parsley, Wild Garlic, and many more. All vie for our attention, putting on a show that is surely worthy of a Chelsea ‘Best in Show’.

And it gets better, for any day now Hawthorn, known also as Whitethorn, May or Haegthorn (meaning hedge thorn) will add a froth of delicate creamy-white blossoms to the mix…

Hawthorn (Crataegus) is one of the mainstays, if not the mainstay, of our native hedgerows. It also copes well on exposed hillsides, where its twisted branches become shaped and angled by the prevailing south westerly winds. Though it can live up to 400 years, Hawthorn never grows very tall. The cut wood has a beautiful orange hue, but is rarely used for making furniture or decorative items as it is considered bad luck to cut it down. It is also bad luck to pick the flowers before the first of May.

When they first appear, the tiny round pearly buds hang in clusters amongst deeply lobed, pale green leaves, giving the impression of a liberal sprinkling of creamy-white hailstones. But when fully open, the branches and leaves are almost completely obscured by the snowy-white flowers, cascading in waterfalls towards the ground till you feel the branches will surely break under their weight.

Each flower comprises five snowy-white, dish shaped petals, speckled with dark pink-tipped stamens which become darker (almost brown) within 24 hours of the flower opening, and standing proud at the centre of each flower, a pale yellow-green stigma. The individual flowers are exquisite, but easily lost in the sheer mass of blooms that cover the hedge, or tree.

But lest I get carried away by the beauty of Hawthorn, let me tell you she is more than just a pretty face. Nesting birds and small mammals find protection deep inside the thorny hedge, and the berries (haws) provide much needed winter food for blackbirds and thrushes – so long as migrating redwings and fieldfares don’t reach them first! Hawthorn also provides food for over 150 species of insect including bees, so is a valuable addition to a wildlife garden if you have space.

by Brigit Strawbridge
Twitter: @B_Strawbridge


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