Every May the Irish countryside brightens with the dazzling white flowers of the Hawthorn tree (Crataegus monogyna) or Sceach Gheal in Gaelic. Jacqueline Memory Paterson (2011) reminds us that this prolific plant was very much associated with fertility and marriage. Many people got married at this time of year wearing garlands of blossoms made by the children of the area. The happy couple made sure to dance around the Hawthorn encouraging a fruitful and blessed betrothal - something that is still done in some parts of Ireland today.
Cunningham (2001) has listed the folk names for hawthorn. They include May Bush, Mayflower and Hagthorn. Bread and Cheese tree is another folk name and is explained in The Hedgerows Handbook as such because the young leaves “are so filling that they used to be called ’bread and cheese’.
A recipe using the leaves from Roger Phillips wonderful foraging book Wild Food:
Hawthorn and Beetroot Salad
3 dl (1/2 pint) hawthorn leaves
2 cooked beetroots, diced
Wash the hawthorn young leaves and combine with the diced beetroot.
Add the dressing and mix well.
A great way to introduce foodies to something that may be on their doorstep.
But Hawthorn also has many more sides to it. As mentioned, Cunningham (2001) listed Hagthorn as one of the folk names and it is possible it was called this because some people believed the tree could be found growing in a witches garden. The word ‘hag’ often being associated with ‘witch’. I have a Hawthorn tree in my garden so I am not sure what that makes me!
It has been traditionally used in the partitioning of fields and, because of the thorns, may have kept the livestock in their place. Grieve (1976) quotes “The German name of Hagadorn, meaning Hedgethorn, shows that from a very early period the Germans divided their land into plots by hedges; the word haw is also an old word for hedge.”
Finally, it cannot go without adding some information about the Hawthorn and fairies. The fairy folk play an important part in Irish mythology and folklore. In Irish folklore, according to Mercier (2023), there is a belief that the trees in the vicinity of the ring forts or fairy mounds found in many fields contain magic properties. For this reason people would have been very hesitant in cutting them down for fear of the fairies putting a curse on them. A great example of this long held belief in modern times is an infamous incident, on the west of Ireland in Co. Clare, where a new motorway was being built. A Hawthorn tree was due to be destroyed to make way but nobody would touch the tree. So strong was the superstition that the motorway plans had to be changed. A great article in the Irish Times newspaper from 1999 outlines the folklorist, Eddie Lenhan, involvement in the case.
And the tree is still there today.
Cunningham, S. (1985). Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of magical herbs. Llewellyn Publications.
Deegan, G. (1999, May 29). Fairy bush survives the motorway planners. The Irish Times. https://www.irishtimes.com/news/fairy-bush-survives-the-motorway-planners-1.190053
Grieve, M., & Leyel, C. F. (1976). A modern herbal : the medicinal, culinary, cosmetic and economic properties, cultivation and floklore of herbs, grasses, fungi, shrubs and trees with all their modern scientific uses. Penguin Books.
Memory Paterson, J. (1996). Tree Wisdom : The Definitive Guidebook to the Myth, Folklore and Healing Power of Trees. HarperCollins .
Mercier, S. (2023, June 21). Men Who Eat Ringforts: Understanding Environmental and Heritage Destruction in the Modernist Lawscape. Social Science Research Network. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=4487415
Nozedar, A. (2012). The hedgerow handbook : recipes, remedies and rituals. Square Peg.
Phillips, R., & Hurst, J. (1983). Wild Food. Pan.