Friday, May 30, 2014

Bizarre facts on hawthorns

I found a nice hawthorn tree recently, growing in miserable soil and still bearing fruit. I need to get some going in my nursery before too long. They're great trees.

That said, my friend Louise recently sent me some terrifying info on hawthorns that I figured I'd pass on.

Thomas the Rhymer, the famous thirteenth century Scottish mystic and poet, once met the Faery Queen by a hawthorn bush from which a cuckoo was calling. She led him into the Faery Underworld for a brief sojourn, but upon reemerging into the world of mortals he found he had been absent for seven years. Themes of people being waylaid by the faery folk to places where time passes differently are common in Celtic mythology, and the hawthorn was one of, if not the, most likely tree to be inhabited or protected by the Wee Folk. 


In Ireland most of the isolated trees, or so-called 'lone bushes', found in the landscape and said to be inhabited by faeries, were hawthorn trees. Such trees could not be cut down or damaged in any way without incurring the often fatal wrath of their supernatural guardians. The Faery Queen by her hawthorn can also be seen as a representation of an earlier pre-Christian archetype, reminding us of a Goddess-centred worship, practised by priestesses in sacred groves of hawthorn, planted in the round. The site of Westminster Abbey was once called Thorney Island after the sacred stand of thorn trees there.

Hawthorn is at its most prominent in the landscape when it blossoms during the month of May, and probably the most popular of its many vernacular names is the May-tree. As such, it is the only British plant which is named after the month in which it blooms. As 'Thorn' it is also the most common tree found in English place names, and the tree most frequently mentioned in Anglo-Saxon boundary charters. It has many associations with May Day festivities. Though the tree now flowers around the middle of the month, it flowered much nearer the beginning of the month, before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1752.

Cuckoo in hawthorn near Glastonbury Tor
The blossoms were used for garlands, and large leafy branches were cut, set in the ground outside houses as so-called May bushes and decorated with local wildflowers. Using the blossoms for decorations outside was allowed, but there was a very strong taboo against bringing hawthorn into the house. In the early 1980s the Folklore Society's survey of 'unlucky' plants revealed that 23% of the items referred to hawthorn, more than twice as many instances as the second most unlucky plant. Across Britain there was the belief that bringing hawthorn blossom into the house would be followed by illness and death, and there were many instances of hapless children being scolded by adults for innocently decorating the home. 

Mediaeval country folk also asserted that the smell of hawthorn blossom was just like the smell of the Great Plague in London. Botanists later discovered that the chemical trimethylamine present in hawthorn blossom is also one of the first chemicals formed in decaying animal tissue. In the past, when corpses would have been kept in the house for several days prior to burial, people would have been very familiar with the smell of death, so it is hardly surprising that hawthorn blossom was so unwelcome in the house (click here to keep reading)


Fairies, the Black Death and priestesses. Sold yet?

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3 Comments:

At May 30, 2014 at 1:57 PM , Anonymous Coffee to Compost said...

Smells like death, huh? Gonna have to do some fast talking to get me to buy one. :)

 
At May 31, 2014 at 12:35 AM , Blogger Survival Gardener/David The Good said...

It also cleans windows and is available NOW for only 3 easy payments of $19.95! Act now! Supplies are limited!

 
At June 1, 2014 at 9:32 PM , Blogger Sam Singleton said...

Thanks Louise!!!

 

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