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Mark the fair blooming of the Hawthorn Tree,
Who, finely clothed in a robe of white,
Fills full the wanton eye with Mayís delight.

Chaucer

There is definitely magic in the air when the Hawthorn trees are in blossom. They are an introduced species in Australia, and reportedly are often treated as a noxious weed. I find this sad, despite environmentalist leanings, considering their general usefulness and the reverence with which they are held in the British Isles. They seem very much at home in the localities in which they have naturalised, such as Victoriaís Central Highlands, and are usually found on land already well domesticated, so I canít see the harm in them. Once you start looking for them, they seem to be everywhere - as hedges, in groves, on hillsides, occasionally by a spring or a creek, sometimes as single trees near where old farmhouses used to be. There are even a couple right in the heart of my hometown, on the doorstep of the Centrelink office, a rather incongruous place to find them! A few years ago, the ornamental crabapple at my motherís house suddenly and inexplicably sprouted a Hawthorn from below the graft. Itís already taller than the crabapple, which is nearly 30 years old. No wonder people also call it Quickthorn. Iíve since discovered that Hawthorn is a commonly used rootstock for fruit trees such as crabapple, medlar and pear. 

My favourite Hawthorns are in a grove in the Central Highlands, and I visit them at different seasons to observe their annual cycles and photograph them. In the early spring, the shiny new leaves are just starting to sprout again after the winter. Each year, I eagerly await the Hawthornís flowering, checking for the first appearance of the buds, tiny white balls tinged with green which herald the unfurling of the richly scented five-petalled blossoms. The symbolism of the Hawthorn tree and the seasonal festival of Beltane are inextricably entwined. Hawthorn is also known by its country names of Whitethorn, Mayblossom or May, which correlates with its time of blooming in the Northern hemisphere (usually October-November in the Southern hemisphere). In the mild maritime climate where I live, some varieties of Hawthorn have occasionally been known to flower as early as Spring Equinox, a full six weeks before Beltane. Further inland, in the mountains, many trees still might not be in full bloom by the ďcorrectĒ date, depending on the vagaries of the season. To me, this seems like a good reason to vary the date of Beltane celebrations slightly according to location, climate and season, even the phase of the moon, rather than having it at exactly the same time each year as is the modern custom. However, having a Spring Equinox and Beltane celebration one on top of the other would seem a bit odd, Hawthorn blossom notwithstanding, because Spring weather can be quite erratic and probably wonít feel anything like Summer until at least Beltane.

Hawthorn is a favourite for garlands and decoration at Beltane, along with other greenery, such as young oak leaves and other flowers. It is also used to decorate maypoles. The scent is very heady and sensuous, and has been associated with female sexuality and fertility, which is logical, given some of the traditional symbolism of Beltane! Hawthorn petals bear a remarkable resemblance to confetti, as anyone who has ever looked at the ground under a blossom-laden Hawthorn will attest. Quite possibly this is one of the origins of the modern custom of sprinkling confetti at weddings. However, paper confetti is a very poor substitute for fragrant blossoms with magical associations. As churches and wedding venues nowadays ban confetti because of the ugly mess it makes, this seems like an excellent excuse to revert to the old ways. Sprinkling blossoms and flower petals over handfasted couples is a much more romantic custom. If Hawthorn is not in season, apple blossom, jasmine or rose petals can be used, or a combination of any of these.

I collect and dry Hawthorn blossom annually to use in incense blends or in teas, and also to remind me of Beltane until the following season when the trees are adorned again. I like to lie in the grass under the blossom-laden trees in the late spring, and drink in that haunting and wonderfully erotic scent. I donít suppose the fate of Thomas the Rhymer (who was spirited off by the Queen of Elfland) is likely to befall me, being a woman. All the same, itís probably best not to fall asleep, just in case another denizen of Faerie might decide to whisk me away!

Sadly, the blossoms donít last very long, and are soon fluttering to the ground. After the petals drop, each fertilised flower swells and has grown by early Summer into a hard green berry. By Autumn Equinox, the haws or berries are a shiny red and hang in tantalising clusters - I enjoy eating them, although this probably has more to do with the fun of collecting and eating wild foods than how they taste in their raw state. They are reported to be excellent when made into ketchups, jellies and wine, but the ones I collect never make it that far. By Samhain, the fruit has usually gone, polished off by birds or fallen to the ground, and the leaves are yellowing and have started to drop. In Winter, the trees stand silhouetted against the horizon with their gnarled and twisted branches, tufted with lichen. I have no doubts about why they are known as Faerie trees. Each is amazingly different in shape to its neighbours and has a distinctive individual character. I can almost see the ghostly fingers of the Hawthorn devas reaching out on a moonlit winter night to caress the face of an unsuspecting passer-by.

In Celtic myth and folklore, Hawthorn trees are frequently associated with springs and holy wells as guardians and also as gateways to the Otherworld. Their sharp spines no doubt symbolise their protective functions. Thomas of Ercledoune, the hero of the traditional Scottish ballad Thomas the Rhymer, is reported to have received his initiation under a Hawthorn Tree, and spent seven years in the Realm of Faerie as a result. Hawthorn forms an integral part of Christian as well as Pagan lore. One of the most famous varieties of Hawthorn is the Winter flowering Glastonbury thorn, said to have blossomed from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea when he rested at Wearyall Hill. In the Middle East, there is another variety which as legend has it, was used for Christís crown of thorns. 

There are somewhere in the vicinity of 1,000 varieties worldwide, but most people are familiar with English Hawthorn and Common Hawthorn. Some herbalists say that English Hawthorn is Crataegus oxyacantha, and others refer to  Common Hawthorn by  this name. Iím not yet convinced that the two are merely the same thing, as Jacqueline Memory Paterson says English Hawthorn has pink-red or pink tinged blossoms and 2 or 3 seeds per berry, and Common Hawthorn has white blossoms and one seed per berry. Iíve only recently discovered for myself that some trees have berries with only one seed, but havenít established to my own satisfaction which variety this is. To confuse matters even further, white Hawthorn frequently turns pink as the blossoms age. So the mystery remains for the time being, but may have something to do with the ease with which the species hybridize.

Western herbal medicine uses both C. oxyacantha and C. monogyna. The leaves or blossoms in a poultice have a reputation in first aid for drawing splinters. The blossoms are one of the most popular cardiac tonics in modern herbal medicine, used for palpitations, angina and hypertension. Hawthorn is also reported to have sedative, diuretic and astringent properties, and has been used to treat insomnia, diarrhoea, kidney disorders and excessive menstruation. Oriental medicine uses the berries of C. pinnatifida, mainly as a digestive stimulant and to clear stagnation. Hawthorn is considered fairly safe, but consult a herbalist or a reputable herbal for correct doses and usage. Hawthorn is also part of the FES Quintessentials range of flower essences, produced in California.  It has been recommended in flower essence therapy for cancerous conditions, heart disease and for the emotional states such as extreme stress and grief which may have a bearing on the subsequent development of cancer. I have sometimes used the flower essence to add some extra oomph to incense or magical blends containing Hawthorn blossoms, or where the correspondences are appropriate.

 
RECIPES

Beltane Punch (alcohol-free)

  • 1 litre orange juice
  • 1 litre apple juice or apple and pear juice
  • 750 ml red grape juice e.g. Shiraz (not sparkling)
  • 500 ml kombucha (or substitute weak black tea)
  • 500 ml rosehip tea, made with 2 TBS rosehips
  • 1.5 - 2 litres sparkling mineral water (fresh from a spring if at all possible)
  • spices: a few cloves, 1 quill cinnamon, a few coriander seeds, 2-3 cardamom pods, a few pimento (allspice), 1 blade mace.  Use whole spices rather than ready ground.  Quantities can be modified according to taste.
  • 1 vanilla bean
  • small knob fresh green ginger, peeled and smashed
  • fresh Hawthorn blossoms
  • fresh apple blossoms (if still available)


Use the best quality pure juices you can find - organic or biodynamic if possible, as they taste much better. Simmer rosehip tea gently in non-aluminium saucepan, stand until completely cold, then strain. Bruise spices in mortar and pestle but do not grind. Add to fruit juices with ginger and vanilla bean and simmer gently until well-flavoured. Let cool, then strain. The vanilla bean can be rinsed, dried and reused another time. Mix juices, kombucha and rosehip tea together and chill well in advance. A few hours before serving, pour into punch bowl and sprinkle Hawthorn blossoms over the surface for the flavour to infuse. Immediately before serving, add mineral water and float a few more fresh blossoms (apple and Hawthorn) on top to decorate.



Potato Salad with Hawthorn Leaves

  • good quality waxy potatoes e.g. Kipfler. Use organically grown if possible - they taste better.
  • mayonnaise, home-made with egg yolks and extra-virgin olive oil 
  • tiny Hawthorn leaves, freshly picked (use the more tender ones from the ends of the branches)
  • fresh Salad Burnet, if available
  • bunch fresh chives, chopped
  • ground black pepper
  • young Oak leaves for decoration


Make mayonnaise and set aside. If making mayonnaise sounds too daunting, buy a good quality ready-made one like Norganic or Thomy. Poor quality mayonnaise will ruin this salad, so donít try to cut corners. Leave skins on potatoes, scrub off dirt with vegetable brush. Put potatoes in cold water, bring to boil and simmer until tender. Do not overcook - potatoes for salad should not be allowed to go mushy. Drain thoroughly. While potatoes are still warm, cut into fairly large chunks, place in large wooden serving bowl and mix in mayonnaise. Strip Burnet leaves from stems, and add to potatoes with Hawthorn leaves (chopped if you like) the chives, and plenty of freshly ground black pepper.  The mild cucumber like flavour of Burnet nicely complements the more astringent flavour of the Hawthorn. If you want to be really fancy, decorate with young Oak leaves tucked around the edge of the bowl.

I created both of these recipes for Beltane 1995, using mineral water straight from the springs at Hepburn, and freshly collected leaves and blossoms from local trees.

 
Oak & Thorn Incense

  • 3 parts Frankincense granules
  • 2 parts Sandalwood chips
  • 2 parts Hawthorn blossom
  • 1 part young Oak leaves
  • 1 part red Rose petals


My favourite incense for Beltane, with a lovely sweet scent. I started off with one of Scott Cunninghamís recipes, and eventually arrived at this blend after lots of trial and error with all sorts of exotic ingredients. It got quite complex before it got simple again, and Iíll probably be using up my experiments for the next 10 years.

Grind ingredients in mortar and pestle. If each ingredient is partially crushed before adding the next, it is easier to mix. If the mixture ends up too dry, a few drops of a compatible essential oil (such as Rose) can be added. If giving as a gift, an incense mixture always looks more attractive if not completely powdered. It can be crushed more finely immediately before use if desired. Store in glass jars or sealed cellophane packets. Burn on charcoal blocks.

 


REFERENCES

Ah Ket, Gregory Herbal Treatments for Common Ailments
Compendium 1986

Cunningham, Scott The Complete Book of Incense, Oils & Brews
Llewellyn 1994

Grieve, Mrs M. A Modern Herbal
Penguin 1984

Gurudas Flower Essences and Vibrational Healing
Brotherhood of Life 1983

Hutton, Ronald Stations of the Sun
Oxford University Press 1997

Ody, Penelope The Complete Medicinal Herbal
Viking 1993

Paterson, Jacqueline Memory Tree Wisdom
Thorsons 1996

Richardson, Rosamund  Hedgerow Cookery 
Penguin 1980

Stewart, R.J. The UnderWorld Initiation
Aquarian 1985

 



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