Now is the month of Maying, when merry lads are playing,
I have been inspired by May to write a blog post. I always pick hawthorn blossom to make herbal medicine for some of my clients and in doing it, I feel like summer is really beginning. It is usually the first day I can get out without a coat (still wellies though) and the sun is on my back as I work my way down our hedges. I have hedges that I pick for blossom and other hedges closer to the house for the berries. When we moved to our smallholding we planted many hedges and about 3,000 trees. By the time I get to the bottom of one hedge the sheep have usually spotted me and I get mobbed by woolly bodies and strong voices demanding better food than whatever it is they have at the moment. They complain that grass is not sufficient and they should still be having The Bucket of Treats. The sheep love the new hawthorn leaves which have unfortunate effects on their fleeces as they gorge on the lush freshness of it. I’m always glad shearing is close to prevent the fly-strike that follows mucky bums. Oh, the delights of sheep keeping.
Our new 2018 Shropshire hand dyed colours have been inspired by hedgerows. Becca has been brewing these colours since last year. The hawthorn features three times in our colours as it is such a staple of the hedge.
It is thought that “hawthorn” comes from the Old Germanic word “hægðorn” meaning hedge thorn. “Haw” was an Old English word for hedge. This shows the antiquity of our use of hawthorn as a hedging plant, indeed in the early Middle Ages people were obsessed with boundaries and barriers. I have shredded several petticoats on barbed wire, but I wouldn’t try my luck getting through a hawthorn hedge. When the early monastic scribes came to write Old English words, they found a gap in their alphabet for the sound “th”. They filled this with a “þ” plundered from the Norse Futhark. They changed thurs or thuriaz (a giant) to “thorn”. The Irish Tree alphabet Ogham ascribes the properties of fertility, happiness and protection to hawthorn or “huath”.
Hawthorn has long been associated with May and it has folk names of May and Maythen. Blossom festooned branches would be used in May celebrations and many a traveller has eaten “bread and cheese”, the folk name for hawthorn blossom and the name we gave to our natural white yarn. Bringing hawthorn into the house was considered unlucky except on May Day.
“Quickthorn” refers to the speed at which the hedge grows. The greens within the leaves are astounding. Hedges are laid in late winter before growth starts. It always terrifies me after one of our hedges is laid that it won’t come back but inevitably they do. These hedges provide a strong stock-proof and home-providing barrier. A well-laid hedge is a thing of beauty.
Hawthorn has so many legends and myths attached to it; the crown of thorns that Jesus wore, Joseph of Arimathea planting the thorn at Glastonbury and Henry VII taking it as an emblem. It was believed to give protection against witches. It is said to be governed by Mars and to help people who find it difficult to give or receive love. It will also help heal a broken heart. In medicine, it helps to regulate heart contractions, blood pressure and flow.
Our bright red colour has been named “Hagthorn”. While this may be a corruption of the older hægðorn, I like to think of it as a reference to the hags, crones, cunning women and healers who have used the berries to heal physical and psychological problems of the heart. The berries arrive in autumn and outlive the presence of the leaves, bringing colour to the beginning of winter.