Hawthorn or May
“The fair maid who, the first of May / Goes to the fields at break of day / And washes in dew ‘neath the hawthorn tree / Will ever after handsome be.” Well, I can’t say fairer than that, although I will add the caveat that this old country rhyme comes without warranty of any kind, either explicit or implied and is repeated here without any guarantee as to its truthfulness. Nor is any warranty offered with the equally old saying, “Cast not a clout / Till May be out” … but I will nail my colours to the mast this time and declare that I am absolutely certain that this couplet does refer to the plant commonly called May and not to the month of the same name.
May … the plant … is, of course, Hawthorn. And the flowering of hawthorn is traditionally held to mark the actual transition from winter to summer, marked throughout much of these islands in past times with May Day celebrations, although these formerly moveable festivities … arranged at short notice when the hawthorn burst into blossom … have become regarded as celebrations of the first day of the calendar month, where they survive. And on the subject of these festivities, many villages used to elect a May Queen … especially in ‘Merrie England’ … and that word ‘Merrie’ was a synonym for ‘fairy’ in its heyday; so the May Queen had overtones of the magic worked by fairies, which is unsurprising when one learns that the Fairy Queen was also known as the ‘White Lady’ in Wales in times past, where hawthorn was sacred to the Welsh sun goddess Olwen, the “white lady of the day.” Where she trod she left white footprints on hawthorn, and her father, Yspaddaden Pencawr, was “Giant Hawthorn.”
It’s hardly surprising, then, that hawthorn was believed to be possessed of some very special qualities. Apart from its ability to grant perennial beauty to any pretty young woman … and the young lady who washes her face in the morning dew beneath its blossom had better be quick about it lest she be whisked of into the fairy realm … the blooms were used in spells for fertility, for happiness and for good luck in fishing, a somewhat erudite and unexpected virtue. Hawthorn was widely held to give protection against predatory fairies and other inhabitants of the supernatural world; and it was often planted around the burial mounds of important people, although a more practical, protective use of the spiny plants was to plant hedgerows of hawthorn to form a protective barrier around small hamlets, forcing highwaymen and other would-be thieves to approach the houses only through the one easily-defended access point. The gardener today can still avail himself of this protection, for a hawthorn hedge will readily confine to an approved footpath the shortcut-seeking paperboy or deliverer of the many flyers that pop through our letterboxes. And gardeners and non-gardeners alike may care to test the truth of the belief that hawthorn clears the mind of negative thoughts and mental confusion, offers clarity and confers patience.
Hawthorn was also used to protect the groves where the priestesses of the pre-Christian Mother Goddess practised their rituals; and, in what may well be a hangover from these times when hawthorn was held to be such a sacred plant that it was never cut, felled, trimmed or exploited for its flowers or bark, there exists to this very day a belief that it is unlucky to bring hawthorn flowers into the home. Indeed, if one wishes to commit matricide, bringing a branch laden with flowers into the maternal home will bring this about … and again, I will add the caveat that this old country belief comes without warranty of any kind, either explicit or implied and is repeated here without any guarantee as to its truthfulness.
Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society