With its beautiful flowers and sharp thorns, the hawthorn (Crataegus) is a paradox of a plant. It has long been revered for its magickal properties and has been loved and respected throughout history. It is found throughout Britain, Europe, western Asia and North Africa and grows to between 5-15m tall. It has long been popular in Britain as a hedge plant and many animals and birds make their homes in its dense thorny twigs. The fruit are sometimes known as ‘haws’, and this is where the hawthorn gets its name. The thorns are usually 1-3cm long, so you know when you’ve been pricked by one!
Hawthorns have been known to live for 400 years and clumps of twisted, old trees can be found in towns, reminders of where old hedgerows were situated. The light, hard wood from the Hawthorn provides the hottest fire known.
Hawthorn is the sixth tree of the Celtic Tree Ogham. It represents love, fertility, the heart, protection, the release of blocked energy and preparation for spiritual growth. For this reason, hawthorn has an affinity with the Celtic festival Beltane - the Hawthorn’s May blossom was used to decorate and celebrate this fertile time of year. Before May customs were discredited by the church, Hawthorn played a valuable part in May Day celebrations, when the union of the May Queen and the Green Man blessed the fertility of the Earth.
In many parts of Britain, the folk customs lived on and marriages continued to take place at this special, abundant time of year. Newly married couples would find garlands of mayflowers decorating their beds, representing fertility and lasting love. The Maypole was traditionally a living Hawthorn tree, brought into the village and danced around in order to bring life, love and fertility to a community.
A sprig of Hawthorn is said to promote happiness in the troubled, depressed or sad. Legend has it that young women bathed in the dew of Hawthorn as a beauty aid. Hawthorn has long been associated with the faery realm, and there is much lore and legend linking this special plant with spirituality. Solitary Hawthorns often marked old sacred groves or meeting places, wells, springs, underground water and faery places. Where groups of Hawthorn trees grew in threes, they would be treated with great respect. Enchantment was said to be the result of lingering under these trees.
It has long been considered bad luck to uproot or disturb a Hawthorn tree and cuttings were only made on 1st May, or Beltane. Hawthorn is also recognised as a protective plant and charms were made by twisting the branches into globes which were hung in houses and in babies’ cradles. In Ireland, people would tie ribbons and rags (‘clouties’) to Hawthorn trees situated near sacred wells, as gifts to the faeries and tree spirits. These gifts were said to attract love and healing to the giver and symbolise a wish made. A pink ribbon was used to wish for love, a blue ribbon to wish for protection, a green ribbon to wish for wealth and a purple or indigo ribbon to wish for greater knowledge.
Love and respect for this plant did not die out with the arrival of the Christians – Jesus’ crown of thorns was said to be a wreath of Hawthorn and the Burning Bush seen by Moses a Hawthorn bush.
Hawthorn also has culinary and herbal uses. The berries have been used as a cardiac tonic for centuries and the leaves as a substitute for oriental green tea. A tea made of the leaves and blossoms is said to aid anxiety, appetite loss and poor circulation. Dried Hawthorn berries are used as a digestive aid in naturopathic and traditional Chinese medicine. Hawthorn is also used as an aid to lower blood pressure, and treat some heart related diseases. The haws are often used to make jams, which are considered a delicacy. Try integrating some of the magic of the Hawthorn into your life this Beltane. You can deck your house with May blossom, create a maypole or tie rags and ribbons to a Hawthorn tree and make wishes for the coming year – just don’t forget to thank the faery folk!