I sit soaking up the blessings of May; the lengthening green grass speckled with wildflowers, the tuneful and varied birdsong, a light breeze and a warm sun. I admire the full, leafy hedgerows and particularly the hawthorn blossom.
Hawthorn is otherwise known as May because it flowers in this month but it is often confused with Blackthorn which flowers much earlier in the spring awakening. It is no wonder that they are confused. They are both strong hedgerow plants. They were both used to keep livestock in, often growing thickly side by side here in Britain, with sharp thorns and white blossom in spring. Yet they are very different in many ways.
Blackthorn flowers first while Hawthorn grows the leaves
The stunning white petals on the Blackthorn contrast with the dark black stems and frighteningly long thorns. The oval leaves do not come until after the blossom so that when in full bloom in early spring the haze of white can almost look like snow or frost on the bare branches. For the hawthorn it is the fancy, deeply-lobed leaf that begins to unfurl with the flowers budding up in rosettes a month later.
When do Blackthorn and Hawthorn flower?
It is the blackthorn that flowers first, sometimes as early as March. Blackthorn is associated with the coldest part of spring when there are still biting winds. In fact the term “a blackthorn winter” is one which is harsh and unkind. Whereas the hawthorn flowers in May and is linked to that very month. It is even called May. It is a time of birdsong and sap rising. “Ne’er cast a clout ‘til May be out” is an old saying reminding us not to shed any clothing layers until the hawthorn is blossoming and the weather is warmer.
The Significance of Blackthorn and Hawthorn at Beltane
In fact, both plants take ownership of different parts of the year, even though they flower so close together in time and place. Beltane is a significant day in the pagan calendar. It marks the mid point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. As such Beltane is the height of spring and is when the handover between the these two magical plants takes place. Blackthorn is the plant that is on the darker colder side of the festival and Hawthorn welcomes in the light and warmth of the coming season.
Blackthorn witches and Hawthorn fairies
Not only do they represent different sides of the year, these two hedgerow plants are connected to different magical energies in folklore. The Blackthorn was renowned for its sharp needles. It was linked to dark magic and witches who, it was said, would use the branches for staffs, twigs for wands and thorns as stabbing needles in dummies to cause harm to their victims. It was a plant to be feared. Hawthorn’s place in the magical world was as a fairy tree. People would ask for wishes to come true by hanging coloured ribbons as gifts to the tree spirits and fairies. However, do not risk upsetting those fairies. If someone was to cut down a May tree they were sure to come to harm. There are many tales of farmers who had accidents or villages where the cows had no calves or chickens stopped laying after a tree was felled.
Cutting Hawthorn on May Day
The one day that was famous for the May to be allowed to be cut was on May Day (also Beltane). Historically it was a time of village celebration. Regardless of status everyone met together to drink, dance and make love. People danced around the Maypole making patterns with pretty ribbons, and at it’s top there was a crown of Blackthorn and Hawthorn intertwined. They were celebrating the end of cold days and happier, more fruitful times to come. A May Queen was chosen and wore garlands and a crown of Hawthorn blossom, as did the May King, commonly known as the Green Man. Their union symbolised fertility and love, blessing the earth around them and crops and livestock in the village. The perfume of the blossom is said to act as an aphrodisiac. People married on that day in the hope of being blessed with a happy marriage and children.
Healing energies of Hawthorn and Blackthorn
Hawthorn is known as a plant which is linked to that special day and represents fertility and love. Its healing is loving and giving, soothing the heart and calming anxiety. It helps people to trust, forgive, feel comfort, see joy and to love again. The blackthorn, on the other hand, has a sharper healing power. Just like the biting winds or the long thorns which can pierce and infect the skin, the healing is harsh, like a needle, prodding at something we would rather not think about, until we acknowledge it and begin to come to terms with it.
I have found these beautiful plants in the hedgerow difficult to distinguish in the past. As I have taken more notice of the seasons, observed the flowers, leaves and fruit more fully and, perhaps, grown old enough to take more time over these activities, I have come to make the acquaintance of both of Blackthorn and Hawthorn. I find that they have very different characteristics, almost personalities, and they have been ‘present’ at different significant times in my life recently. They have been called ‘two sisters’ as they grow side by side in the country yet they work differently and, I believe, compliment each other with their powers. Perhaps this year you might like to get to know them too?
The Flower Writer