by James Alexander-Sinclair

I can't really let May pass without mentioning the hawthorn (aka Crataegus monogyna). It is after all the May tree.

Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) flowerI can't really let May pass without mentioning the hawthorn (aka Crataegus monogyna). It is after all the May tree.

For those of a mystical bent it carries more folklore and strange stories than many trees. It's all bound up with spring, rising sap and frolicsome fairies (incidentally, if you feel that you need protection from fairies then you should carry twigs of hawthorn, ash and oak tied together with red thread).

Among other interesting stories: hawthorn used to be called 'bread and cheese' because the young leaves were added to peoples' sandwiches; it supports at least 149 species of insect and the berries feed more than 23 species of bird; hawthorn is pollinated by dung flies and midges attracted to the mildly unpleasant smell and the fact that the anthers are purple and brown (apparently looking like decaying flesh to the average carrion fly); a sprig of hawthorn worn in your hat will supposedly protect you from lightning.

Since medieval times is has been used as a heart remedy, a diuretic, for kidney problems, blood pressure and in Chinese medicine it is a digestive aid. It also provides food for many moths including the Mottled Pug, Scalloped Hazel and Brimstone.

Most of us see them woven through field hedges all over the countryside in late-spring, covered in white flowers which, come the autumn, turn into deep red berries, or haws. They also make spectacular trees that reach about 5m in 10 years - although if left alone they can reach 18m. They're fantastically gnarly and twisted and every wild garden should have one. There are a couple of varieties that make excellent garden trees. In particular Crataegus laevigata 'Paul's Scarlet', which has spectacular double pink flowers, and Crataegus laciniata which is much more compact.

Fortunately we have moved on enough that we do not feel obliged to ritually sacrifice the King and Queen of the May at the end of each growing season.

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Talkback: Hawthorn
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Gardeners' World Web User 01/01/2008 at 00:00

Gardeners' World Web User 14/08/2008 at 12:31

fifteen year old oak in the garden has horrible growths on the acorns, not seen before, bright green a frilly.A sewer runs under the garden, any connection as it overflows often? Also no dandelions where there were millions!! should I worry, because I do ?

Gardeners' World Web User 28/11/2011 at 18:31

The flowering of Hawthorn always signals the start of summer to me, I love the sight of the hedges like blowsy brides kicking thier skirts up. It never faisl to cheer me up. I always wind the windows down on my car to inhale the smell, even if it is odd!

GARDEN LOVER 02/07/2012 at 18:02

 When is it a good time to prune Hawthorn?  My one is getting a bit out of hand in my small garden, it is leaning to one side and blocking other plants in my border, but I don't know when to prune and how hard to cut it back.  I would like to cut it back hard because it has got so out of control, but at the same time i love the way it brings birds into my garden.  Any suggestions?

Gary Hobson 02/07/2012 at 20:05

Hawthorn can become quite large trees, and very nice to have, if anyone has the space. As you'll know, hawthorn produces masses of blossom, and fruits, and is a good site for nests. On Gardeners World, just a couple of weeks ago, Carol Klein said she thought hawthorn was one of the best trees to have in a garden (but they can get big).

Hawthorn is a robust and tough plant. I don't think that moderate (possibly even severe) pruning at any time would do it that much harm. If you prune at this time of year make sure there are no birds nesting in it before you start.

But the best time to prune is during the Winter when the plant is dormant. I've occasionally tried to get rid of rogue plants, by cutting them right down; they always spring back.

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