A range of flowers in Colins Paddock

Map of the Down

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Wild flowers at Magog Down prev  :  next

Hawthorn - Crataegus monogyna

hawthornVisiting the Down in late April, I was reminded by the already swelling flower buds of the hawthorns just how much those "darling buds of May" have insinuated themselves into the literature and folklore of these islands.

Before the calendar changed in 1752, hawthorn could reliably be expected (at least in lowland areas) to be in full bloom by 1st May, and the gathering of its flowers formed part of traditional May Day celebrations - with all their overtones of magic and fertility ritual dating back to pre-Christian times. But not all the legends associated with hawthorn were of pagan origin: an old tradition speaks of its branches being used to plait Christ's crown of thorns, and the famous Glastonbury Thorn was reputed to have grown from a staff pushed into the ground by St. Joseph of Arimathea when he visited Britain. The Glastonbury tree is of a rare variety (C. monogyna var praecox) which produces leaves and flowers around Christmas time as well as in May - small wonder that it should attract pious legends!

The scent of may blossom is complex and includes the odour of trimethylamine - one of the first compounds formed when flesh begins to decay. This attracts carrion loving insects to pollinate the flowers - and gave rise to the belief that hawthorn flowers carry the smell of the Plague of London! This doubtless helped to reinforce widely held superstition that it is unlucky to bring may blossom into the house.

I guess that most of us have enjoyed chewing young hawthorn leaves in the spring. The berries too can be a pleasant nibble (their flavour has been likened to that of avocados) - but mind your teeth on the stones inside! They have astringent, diuretic and tonic properties - and have been used (with brandy) in the preparation of a reputedly excellent liqueur.

Hawthorn wood is fine grained, very hard, and polishes beautifully. Highly valued as a fuel, it makes a hotter fire than the wood of any other native tree.

Hawthorn has long been valued as a fast growing hedge plant which, if well managed, is impenetrable to livestock. It has been estimated that during the agricultural enclosures of the 18th and 19th centuries some 200,000 miles of hawthorn hedges were planted. Many of these hedges have subsequently been lost and it is good to see that new ones have recently been planted at the Magog Down. The new hedges include other shrubs as well, but hawthorn has been the dominant species used - there simple is nothing better!

David Yarham
July 1999

See also...

Report of the visit from Cambridge Natural History Society in August 2017


News about a visit by the local branch of Butterfly Conservation charity taking place in August 2016


News about the very special area of Colin's Bank, published in February 2015

Pasque Flower

One of our Friends sent us this beautiful picture of some Pasque Flowers taken in amongst the Cowslips in May 2016.pasqueflower_jb_may2016_crop_453

Photo by Jill Butler