Hawthorn – Craetagus monogyna, also known as Quickthorn, Whitethorn, May Tree, May Blossom is one of the abundant and useful hedgerow shrubs that are scattered throughout and are native to the UK. She is one of my favourite shrubs / small trees, and I have a few in my garden, along with Blackthorn, Rose, Cherry, and Rowan. There is much myth, magic and medicine around these hardy native plants.
There are many species and hybrids of hawthorn, and it is easily identifiable by its beautiful frothy white blossom that fills our hedgerows over April and May. It is a beautiful tree, and makes a great addition to a garden, as it can even be grown in a tub! It is also used all over the UK as a hedge plant, used as boundaries and edges of fields, along with its sisters Blackthorn, Blackberry, wild cherry and Rose. It is a broadleaf deciduous tree (meaning it has flat leaves that drop in winter).
It has an almost identical flower to Blackthorn. The way to tell the difference is; Blackthorn flowers from January to March, it is one of the first plants to flower as we move through Winter into Spring, being a really important source of food for many species of bees, insects and animals. The Blackthorn puts its flowers out before the leaves, then, as the Blackthorn flowers are fading, the leaves of the Hawthorn are starting to appear, followed by the flowers as Blackthorn flowers disappear to make way for her leaves.
Both shrubs have sharp spikes on dark almost black (particularly Blackthorn) gnarly twisted branches, but Blackthorns are more deadly! Blackthorns fruit in the Autumn are sloes, dark purpley blue berries that are very bitter to eat, with a large stone in the middle – they make amazing sloe gin! But beware when foraging for sloes, as catching yourself on a Blackthorn spike can easily turn septic!
Hawthorn also has sharp thorns, much like Blackthorn, but they don’t seem to be as infection producing! The bark is dark and filled with fissures and ridges.
The leaves come out as a beautiful lush fresh green, darkening as the season moves on, they are up to 6cm long, have 5 – 7 deep lobes and teeth on the leaf tip. They turn yellow before falling in autumn.
The flowers are small and white, sometimes pinkish, with a single pistal and 5 petals. Hawthorns are hermaphrodite, meaning both male and female reproductive parts are contained within each flower, the flowers are highly scented. As they drop they make way for the berries.
In the Autumn Hawthorn produces vivid red berries, of all different hues, called Haws, which have a single seed, and remain on the branches until the next spring, unless they are eaten. They are great for making jams and jellies, and are packed full of health benefits (see “medicine” below). Both sloes and haws are a vital food source for many bird and animal species.
Hawthorn is a very hardy undemanding tree. She will adapt to her environment and grows almost anywhere, in rock crevices, on cliff tops, and other unreachable places. You will often see lone hawthorn tress, twisted and bent over at ridiculous angles growing away quite happily, silhouetted in fields. She grows in woods, hedgerows, forming large dense thickets.
Over 300 plant-eating insects depend on hawthorn!. The ecological value of the tree is very high because it provides protection and food for many animals, from Hawthorn shield bugs, birds like Yellowhammers that feed on the berries, to wood mice, toads and slow worms that shelter in the thorny thickets. It is the food plant of the caterpillars of moths, it’s a valuable source of pollen and nectar to bees and many other insects. The haws are rich in antioxidants and are eaten by migrating birds such as redwings, fieldfares and thrushes as well as small mammals. Because of the fissures that run through the bark it provides shelter for many insects and bugs, which in turn are food for birds and mammals.
Folklore and Magic – The Fairy Tree
You may see many single Hawthorn trees growing in the middle of fields and on farmland, farmers won’t cut them down, as it was believed bad luck to harm them. The Hawthorn is under the protection of the fairies, and so it is believed if the fairy tree was cut down or harmed, the fairies would seek revenge. A lone hawthorn tree, growing on a hill is a portal to the world of faery, and tales of kidnapping and re-emergence of mortals after a statutory seven years abound.
Part of the ancient and sacred triad of ‘Oak, Ash and Thorn’ the Hawthorn is a tree of magic and enchantment, though throughout the ages it has given very mixed messages of fertility and chastity.
In the past, a real fear of faerie folk was common, and scraps of ragged cloth and other little trinkets tied on the branches were gifts to appease them. Often planted to mark and protect holy wells, the thorn trees are still decorated, petitioned and venerated as ‘Cloutie Trees’ to this day (‘Cloutie’ meaning ‘rags or ragged cloth’).
All hawthorn is associated with the Roman Goddess Flora – and the less well known Cardea (Cardia). She was said to have used a hawthorn wand for her enchantments and hawthorn branches hung at windows as a protection of a baby whose blood had been sucked by some creature of the night. Also dedicated to the greek Goddess Persphone as a symbol of hope, and Celtic Goddesses Aine and Brigid with the Manx – Celtic God Manannàn Mac Leirr.
The excavation of pre-historic burial sites near to cave dwellings, has shown that hawthorn bunches were tied to the bodies of the dead although the purpose of this is unknown.
Much of the folklore attached to it seems to come from the fact that the tree is smothered in long branches of early, white blossom around the time of Beltane – the First of May. If this seems early and the blossom is not ready – remember that the British calendar was changed and went forward 12 / 13 days in 1752 – trees have long memories and so work to the ancient dates! This is evident too in Hawthorn’s place in the Ogham Tree Calendar – beginning now on 13th May – it would once have started on May 1st.
At Beltane – ‘The Greening’ – the symbolism of the hawthorn or May Tree as being able to ‘open the heart’ is not lost in the celebrations where fertility as seen in the old Maypole dances was key. Fertility for the people and for the land. The pole itself, in older pagan times was a symbol of male potency, and new ones were cut and brought into the villages each year, ready to be decked with long ribbons and garlands of hawthorn as the centre of festivities.
Branches of may blossom were gathered early in the day, (it was important for the maidens to capture the dew and bathe their faces in it to keep their beauty!, a tradition that is still done today!) with great reverence and ceremony, with the proceedings were often blessed by the presence of a ‘Green man’ or ‘Jack in the Green’.
The sprays were taken to decorate the outside of houses, barns and May Queens! They were carried in procession from house to house so that each would be given a share of the Thorn Spirit’s blessing. This is the only time when it is “allowed”, without repercussion from the fairies, to bring the may blossom into the house! Many modern pagans, myself included get hand-fasted (married) at Beltane.
The best beloved and famous hawthorn tree in Britain is the ‘Glastonbury Thorn’ or ‘Holy Thorn’, said to have originated when the staff of the visiting Joseph of Arimathea was struck into the ground and sprouted.
An old quote goes:
‘Hawthorn bloom and elder flower
Fill the house with evil power’
(Source – ‘The Folklore of Plants’ Margaret Baker 1996)
It has been recorded by Francis Bacon in his ‘Sylva Sylvarum of 1627′ as smelling of the plague. This superstition probably has a strong foundation, given that the little white flowers contain quite a high proportion of trimethylamine, which gives off the slightly fishy, decaying smell of death, or “carnal lust” (sperm!)!! Which would be another reason for them being associated with fertility and sex! I have found that on the trees, the blossom smells lovely, but once brought into the house, the smell soon changes!
‘Hawthorn was never brought into the house during the month of May. Indeed, it was never taken into our rooms. There was a strong feeling against it in every cottage and farmhouse, for it was a portent of death in that year.’ From ‘Country Things’ by Alison Uttley 1946.
The great Abbey of Westminster in London stands of the site of a group of ancient hawthorn trees, evidence once more of Christianity sensibly using pagan sites of worship in order that the people could simply continue in their place whilst being taught different values.
In a complete opposite, in Roman and Greek lore, rather than being a symbol of fertility, the hawthorn was a sign of chastity and purification and marrying during the month of May was thought very unlucky – in some European countries it is still avoided. Parts of the plant were used as talismen or charms to protect virginity.
- A hawthorn wand is especially effective against malevolent spirits. The wand is best cut ‘green’ in order that the bark will peel easily, so, when choosing your wood, ensure a suitable gift for the faery defender of the tree.
- At Beltane, or May-day, weave a small crown of Hawthorn blossom and leave it for the faeries before festivities begin. If a faery should find and wear it, the giver will be granted untold blessings.
- Protect a newborn baby from any pernicious spirit with leaves of hawthorn in the cradle.
- Hawthorn is known as a psychic shield that can lift the spirits, and a little charm of the wood is a thoughtful gift for a friend going through a time of particular vulnerability or depression.
Dried flowers, berries or leaves can be burned in incense at a ritual working for the same purpose.
Hawthorn – in folklore and magic opens the Heart – as it does in medicine! Leaves, flowers and fruits all have their place in herbal cures – infusions and tinctures being used as a tonic to help with heart problems, angina, irregular or slow heart beat, poor circulation and high blood pressure, and blocked arteries. It is my go to healer for anything to do with the heart or circulatory system. The berries contain Vitamins C and B complex, and full of antioxidants.
Preparations of fruits and leaves have been proved to gradually improve and stabilise the movement of the heart muscle and to dilate small the blood vessels so enhancing the circulation. I always have a ready supply of hawthorn tincture in the cupboard and take it regularly.
In Chinese medicine the berries are considered beneficial as a diuretic, to help with kidney stones, bladder problems as well as indigestion.
It is safe to make your own infusions and herbal teas with hawthorn – as the benefits are gentle and gradual, these should be drunk two or three times a day over at least three months for best effect.
A simple herbal tea can be made by pouring boiling water into a cup with two teaspoons of crushed, dried berries, leaving it for 20 minutes or so to infuse, stirring occasionally, then straining before drinking. Sweeten with honey if liked. Dried leaves or dried or fresh blossom can also be used.
*NB* not recommended if taking any other medicine for hypertension / high blood pressure.
Hawthorn was one of the Ogham trees used as a remedy by the Druids – it’s thought that they gave it as a strengthening tonic in weakness and old age.
Additionally, hawthorn is used in the form of an energy medicine for the heart. As a flower essence, Hawthorn helps open the heart to giving and receiving love, and can help in healing heartache. It encourages self-love and self-acceptance. As with many heart-acting energy remedies, hawthorn helps us to develop courage. The very meaning of the word courage draws our attention to the heart: cor is latin for heart. And courage is truly an open-hearted state.
Hawthorn flower essence is further indicated for helping someone come into their strength and power (courage again?); and for calming a type A personality. A flower essence is a totally safe and gentle way to connect with and take hawthorn.
Making Hawthorn Flower Essence
- Freshly picked hawthorn flowers
- a small glass dish of spring water
- 3 small (50 – 100ml ) dark dropper bottles
How to make homemade hawthorn flower remedy:
- Gather fresh hawthorn flowers, try not to touch them with your hands, snip them gently with scissors and allow them to fall into the bowl or paper bag. (The best time is on a dry morning, after the dew has evaporated but before the heat from the sun becomes too strong.) Before you do this, connect with the tree you have in mind, ask it’s permission, you will get a definate “no” if the tree doesn’t want you too!…be observant, and leave a gift for the trees fairy guardian.
- Pour 20z of spring water into a clean, glass bowl. Sprinkle the hawthorn flowers on the surface until it is completely covered.
- Leave the bowl in direct sunlight for 3 hours, if you can meditate by the infusing water for some time, placing your intent into it even better.
- Remove the flowers by straining the water through a coffee filter. return the flowers back to the plant or to the earth with thanks.
- Pour 2oz of the liquid into clean, dry dark dropper bottles, add 2oz of brandy and shake gently. This is your Mother Essence, and will keep for years.
- Next you need to make the Stock Essence. Take another small dark dropper bottle, half fill with spring water, top up with brandy and add 2 to 3 drops of the Mother Essence.
- And finally you make the Dose Flower Essence. In another small dark dropper bottle, again half fill with spring water, and top up with brandy, then add 2 to 3 drops of the Stock Essence. This is your Hawthorn Flower Essence ready!
- They make beautiful, thoughtful gifts.
Adults: 4 drops of hawthorn flower remedy under the tongue, or in a glass of water or fruit juice, three times a day, or as needed.
Hawthorn tincture is the heart and circulatory healer supreme! The best hawthorn tincture is made in two parts, using the flowers and leaves in the spring, then adding the berries in the autumn when they are ripe.
In Spring; Gather the flowering tops and leaves when the blossom is young and fresh, and put them into a glass jar – a kilner or jam jar is best, depending on how much you want to make. I always make as much as I can – it keeps for several years! Make sure the jar is full, but not too tightly packed. Fill the jar with vodka, or brandy, (this year I’ve used a mixture), put the lid on tight and shake the jar to remove any air bubbles. Put the jar in a cupboard for about 6 weeks, checking and giving it a shake every so often. Then strain off the liquid and bottle it, put it in a cupboard until the autumn.
In Autumn; Go and forage the berries, try and get the equivalent of what you got in flowers, enough to fill a similar sized jar. Put the fresh berries in a blender and just blitz them a little to break them up, place in a wide mouthed jar (this is important because hawthorn berries have so much pectin the whole mixture will set solid, and you will find it impossible to get it out of a narrow necked bottle!) and fill with either your hawthorn flower tincture, or more brandy or vodka. Leave the jar in a dark place for another 6 weeks. When ready, use a knife to chop up the mixture and squeeze out through a muslin, jelly bag, or squish though a sieve…this will require a bit of muscle!
If you used fresh brandy or vodka to do this, now is the time to combine the hawthorn flower tincture with the berry one, and bottle and label your tincture.
Dose; 1 teaspoon, 5ml, once a day as a general tonic, or 3 times a day for circulatory problems. I usually take mine in a little water.
Caution; Only take hawthorn alongside beta-blockers and other cardiovascular drugs if you are under the professional supervision of a medical practitioner.
Hawthorn Berry Syrup
- Decoct the Hawthorn berries by adding 2 ounces of dried berries to 1 quart of water. Bring to a boil and let simmer over low heat until the liquid is reduced to 1 pint or half as much water as you started with.
- Strain the herbs from the liquid and pour the liquid back in the pot.
- Add 1 cup of honey for every 1 pint of liquid while the liquid is still warm but not hot. It’s best to use raw honey and to preserve the live enzymes in the honey by not heating it up.
- Mix the honey and liquid together well.
- Pour into bottles. To help preserve you can add a small amount of brandy. Store in the fridge. Syrups will last up to six months in the refrigerator.
Hawthorn Cordial Recipe
This hawthorn cordial recipe combines the nourishing qualities of hawthorn with delicious spices that help digestion. Enjoy in small amounts after an evening meal.
- 1 cup dried hawthorn berries (80 grams)
- 1 apple, chopped, seeds removed
- 1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
- 3 cardamom pods, crushed
- 1 vanilla bean, cut in half lengthwise
- 1 cinnamon stick
- zest of 1 lemon
- 2 tablespoons dried hibiscus
- 1/3 cup unsweetened 100% pomegranate juice
- 1/2 cup honey, or to taste
- 2 cups brandy
Place all of the herbs, spices, and fruit in a large glass jar. Add the pomegranate juice and honey, then fill the jar the rest of the way with brandy (approximately 2 cups). Infuse this for 4 weeks, shaking often. Strain. This can be stored in a dark, cool location and is best consumed within 1 year.
As always, forage responsibly. Never forage from the roadside because of pollution, and don’t over pick from one spot or tree. Harvest gently and mindfully, being careful to not harm the tree or plant, only take what you need and always leave some for nature. For more herbal remedies, and articles, check out my other blogs, my Green Witch Facebook page and my YouTube channel.
Disclaimer: As with all herbal remedies, please consult your medical provider before embarking on taking any herbal remedy, homemade or otherwise. Take responsibility for your own health, do your own research on things, use your inner guidance system and intuition regarding all things. Never take any herbal remedy for more than 6 weeks without a break.
Stay well, stay connected, green blessings,
Love Sam xxx