If you have ever walked the Sussex Downs on a late winter’s afternoon when the light is fading, you may have noticed an occasional single tree silhouetted against the horizon, leafless, gnarled and knotted, often contorted into strange shapes by the prevailing wind. Sometimes it may look like an old man, bent double, making his way home, or – more eerily – like that dark and spindly figure in the distance that pursues the story-teller in M.R. James’ ghost story, Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad. Always running, never gaining any ground.
Mostly, the familiar hawthorn tends to escape our attention except during a brief period in the spring when it is covered with brilliant white blossom and lightens a hedgerow with its flowers. But to ignore it is to ignore the extraordinary weight of folklore, myth, history and literature that is linked to it – more than any other tree, except perhaps the oak. The puzzle is: why?
The hawthorn duality
Perhaps it’s because the hawthorn is in itself a puzzle. To past populations it represented the duality of good and evil – bounty, healing and joy, but also the fairy underworld, pain and death. And extraordinarily, its power lingers on in the modern, rational world. Visitors to the sites of holy wells in Ireland and Cornwall will still often find a “clootie tree” near the well, hung with ribbons and scraps of cloth. Each strip represents a wish or a prayer that the supplicant hopes will come true with the ageing and disappearance of the material. It is horribly ironic that many of the objects now tied to a clootie tree are plastic and not only create a mess of non-biodegradable rubbish but also negate the original idea.
“Clootie” is supposedly derived from the old Gaelic word “cluit”, describing the division in a cloven hoof. Hence the association of the hawthorn with the cloven-hoofed devil and paganism. So it’s not surprising that the Christian church frowned upon the old tradition of calling upon the spirits of a well or spring to grant wishes by hanging cloth from a nearby hawthorn tree and, in the 16th century, pilgrimages to “holy wells” were banned in Scotland.
Ireland’s Fairy Folk
The tradition has continued to this day in Ireland, with versions of clootie or wishing trees seen recently within the very Christian confines of Sussex church graveyards.
In Ireland, the hawthorn has, since pre-Christian times, been associated with the Fairy Folk: the “little people”. Not the pretty simpering fairies that illustrate Victorian fairy tales – but much darker, and very quick to curse. It is said that a hawthorn tree standing alone and not planted by human hand must be the entrance to the Underworld, to the land of the Fairy Folk. So any attempt to cut it down will inevitably attract bad luck, and examples abound both in Ireland and in the West Country.
There is a wonderful clip from a BBC broadcast in 1964 of villagers in Downpatrick talking about the fate that befell the man who cut down their fairy tree to make way for a road. Some apparently believe to this day that the demise of the DeLorean car manufacturing project in Northern Ireland was due to a fairy tree having been cleared from the site during the building of the factory.
Life and death
The taint of bad luck and death that hangs over the hawthorn is also attributed to the scent of its blossom which is often compared to the smell of decomposing flesh. Once more, that duality: the beauty of the white blossom contrasting with the scent of death. It has only recently been discovered that the flowers contain a chemical, triethylamine, which mimics the smell of corruption to attract insects. In centuries past, it was regarded as bad luck to bring hawthorn into the house, many believing that it would presage a death in the family.
In contrast to its dark reputation, the hawthorn has also been used for millennia by country people as a symbol of the coming of spring, of growth, of joy and of healing. May Day was traditionally celebrated with boughs of may blossom hung outside houses and made into a crown for the Queen of May. The flowers rarely appear until at least the middle of May so historical references to their use in May Day festivals was puzzling – until it was realised that the change of calendar in the middle of the 18th century from the Julian to the Gregorian meant that, in effect, we “lost” ten days. Under the old calendar, hawthorn would indeed have been in full flower at the beginning of the month.
For many in past centuries the hawthorn represented the bounty of the land. Children on their way to school would pick and eat the new young leaves, known as “bread and cheese”, and the berries, or haws, made nourishing jams and jellies. They also provide a precious source of food for wildlife at a time of year when often little else is available.
The tree has long had a reputation as a healer; the bark, flowers and berries of the hawthorn were used in the Middle Ages to treat an extraordinary range of ailments, from high blood pressure to boils and anxiety. Some modern studies have pointed to its effectiveness in reducing high blood pressure and the pain associated with angina, and hawthorn is approved for treating congestive heart failure by Germany’s Commission E, an expert panel that evaluates herbal remedies.
Such a small tree, and yet one that carries such a weight of legend, folklore, and contradiction. Devil tree or granter of prayers? Healer or death dealer? A celebrant of light and the spring – or of winter and the dark Underworld? Whichever it might be, the next time that you pass by a single hawthorn tree high on the Downs, do so with caution and avoid lingering too long in its shade on a summer’s day.
Just in case.