blossom

Notes from the Apothecary

May, 2016

Notes from the Apothecary: Hawthorn

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What would May be without May Blossom? The sweet yet pungent, delicate creamy petals that appear as if from nowhere; a pale messenger of summer’s imminent return. Since I was a little girl we have brought hawthorn flowers, or May Blossom, into the house at or around Beltane, of course always asking the trees permission, and thanking it for its gift. The smell would hover around our hearth for days, and the resulting bare branches once the blossom had died would be burnt on the next bonfire.

Hawthorn has more folklore surrounding it that any tree I know, and is particularly mentioned in Celtic and Faerie mythology. The Eildon tree; by which Thomas the Rhymer met the Queen of Elfland and thus vanished into the hollow hills, is supposed to have been a hawthorn, and indeed hawthorn trees are often found at the boundaries of things. They mark the edges of fields, the end of one person’s land and the beginning of the next, and they mark the edges of the world, where the veil is thin and we can step through and see beyond the mundane.

The Kitchen Garden

Hawthorn is readily available in most temperate climates, and need not be cultivated in a garden unless required as a hedgerow, which is its primary agricultural use. Cunningham tells us that once upon a time witches would have had hawthorn hedgerows. I find this a touch fanciful, but agree that a hawthorn hedge for a witch’s garden would be absolutely perfect.

The main part of the plant that is used for culinary purposes is the berry, or the haw. Don’t eat the haws whole and raw, as there are tiny fibres that can upset the digestive tract, and there is very high concentration of tannin which can also cause problems.

The berries can be cooked and used in a variety of ways though, including jelly, jam (in the UK jam and jelly are not the same thing!) and ketchup.

My friend makes an amazing apple, chilli and hawthorn jelly which is just delicious. The benefit of using the haws is they are packed with nutrients. For more ideas have a quick google, but I found plenty to be going on with here.

Apparently hawthorn wine is a thing, and will be investigated later in the year…

If you have any sort of heart condition, you must speak to your doctor before consuming hawthorn because…

The Apothecary

…hawthorn literally increases the amount of blood pumped out of the heart, widens blood vessels and increases nerve transmission. It can also lower blood pressure which, while usually a good thing, may be problematic for some.

Further research has indicated hawthorn may have positive impact on cholesterol, lowering the LDL which is commonly known as ‘bad cholesterol’.

Going back in time to 1931, Mrs Grieve wrote that ‘Both flowers and berries are astringent and useful in decoction to cure sore throats.’ She also concurred that the plant was a great ‘cardiac tonic’.

Hawthorn berries have also been used as a remedy for indigestion, diarrhoea, stomach cramps and even anxiety, although I imagine the anxiety relief may be a symptomatic relief i.e. if suffering palpitations or similar, the hawthorn would help regulate these.

Once more, please do not take without consulting a doctor.

The Lab

The sweet smell of may blossom is so sweet and sickly at times, it reminds you of rotting flesh. This is because the chemical trimethylamine is present in the petals, and this is one of the first chemicals found in decaying animal tissue. So if you feel that the hawthorn has associations with death and the underworld, there is an actual, scientific reason for this!

Hawthorn wood is extremely hard, and has many uses, including making parts for boats. In this way, it transcends earth, sea and sky.

Because of the dense nature of the wood, it burns at very high temperatures so is good for campfires on a cold night!

The Witch’s Kitchen

For me, hawthorn is the ultimate liminal plant. It is all about boundaries, edges, the moment before transformation, anticipation, pause, balance and reflection.

I love that hawthorn blossoms at Beltane, because for me, Beltane is the Celtic fire festival of the start of summer; the light part of the year. It is half a turn away from Samhain, and as such, just like at Samhain, the veil is thin and we walk side by side with our ancestors. The hawthorn tree reminds us of the liminal nature of Beltane; that we have one foot in winter and one in summer; one in this world and one in the next.

Hawthorn is useful when doing any work that demands a cross over into other realms. Dream work, work with the ancestors, divine meditation and path-working will all benefit from the boundary guarding attributes of this sacred tree. Any activity where your body needs to stay grounded whilst your mind, spirit or energy wanders; these are the activities where a hawthorn wand, hawthorn blossom or even the berries can be beneficial.

Hawthorn is associated with the roman goddess Cardea, who is the goddess of the hinge, literally that by which doors open. Cardea has two compatriot deities; Forculus, the deity of doors and Limentinus, the guardian of thresholds, whose name shares the same roots as the term ‘liminal’. These deities, and the tree itself, remind us that many actions may be required for one thing to happen. The door is nothing without the hinge, and cannot exist without the threshold. These gods were particularly involved in the marking out of boundaries and sacred spaces, so a hawthorn wand or staff is absolutely ideal for these purposes.

Hawthorn lives at the hub of all the elements. Like most trees, it is born of earth, watered, lit by sun and reaches for the sky. But because hawthorn is a boundary guardian, it has great power in all the elements. If I had to choose one element I would associate it most strongly with, it would be fire, due to the time of its blossoming. However, I would also suggest that different parts of the tree can be used for different elements: The red berries for fire, the white flowers for air, the leaves for water and the branches for earth. This is my own personal interpretation, and I encourage you to find how the tree works for you best, perhaps by spending time in the woods or by holding part of the tree while meditating.

The Celts used Hawthorn to determine whether a File (a bard or satirist) had spoken ill of a king or leader. The File would face the kingdom with a hawthorn tree at their back. They would hold a piece of the tree in one hand, and a stone in the other, and speak words from their poem or satire aloud. They would then place the wood and stone beneath the tree, and if their words were false, the ground would swallow the offerings.

As such, hawthorn is associated with the power of words, justice, clear judgement, honesty and natural magic of all kinds.

Home and Hearth

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If you celebrate Beltane, why not crown a May Queen with a wreath of the blossom? Use wire or similar to make a rough circle the right size, then weave blossoms into the frame, using thread or string if necessary to keep them in place. The crown won’t last long, but neither do the blossoms on the trees, and neither does summer. It reminds us that the world and the seasons are ever changing, and to grab opportunities when they arise, and not let them pass by.

In late summer, gather some of the berries and use them to represent south or fire on your altar or in your sacred space. Always leave plenty of berries on the tree though, as they are a vital food for birds, particularly song birds, including the pictured robin, and the blackbird, lon dubh, who is also a guardian at the gates to the Otherworld.

I Never Knew…

‘Thorn’ in a place name (e.g. Thornhill) refers to the hawthorn tree. As such, there are more English place names with this tree in than any other, and the hawthorn is the most frequently mentioned tree in Anglo-Saxon boundary charters.

Image credits: Top, CRATAEGUS MONOGYNA – AGUDA by Isidre Blanc via Wikimedia Commons. Bottom, Robin (Erithacus rubecula), Daventry Country Park by David Merrett via Wikimedia Commons.