Falling for hawthorn

It’s early October 2015 and we’re progressing in single file along a narrow ridge at the top of a steep wooded hillside. I’m with three colleagues from Kew and a Peak District National Park ranger. We each carry seed-collecting equipment, in my case a couple of plastic buckets filled with cotton drawstring bags and stringed labels. We pick our way cautiously, conscious of the steep drop to our right. I’m third in the line and concentrating hard to maintain my balance. Suddenly I pitch sideways and hurtle downhill. I can see my boots above my head! Somehow I curl myself into as compact a shape as my height allows and roll into the trunk of a large old tree, about a third of the way down the hill. Winded but unhurt I can see my companions looking anxiously down at me and one of them, Jason Irving (@ForageWildFood) is coming down the hill after me, using the pruning pole he’s carrying as a brake. I unravel myself and we clamber uphill to rejoin the expedition. Appropriately, we find out that evening that the area we had been walking through was known locally as The Fall!

Thus began the first afternoon of a collecting trip for Kew’s UK Native Tree Seed Project, a lottery-funded initiative to build a genetically comprehensive collection of the seeds of UK trees, to support research and conservation. The call had gone out earlier in the year for volunteers from across the organisation to join trips across the country. In July we had attended a training day at Wakehurst to practise using the equipment and to learn more about the species from which we would be collecting seed. We had spent the morning beside the River Manifold collecting rowan berries (Sorbus aucuparia), choosing at least ten trees growing in relatively close proximity, filling several cotton bags with the slightly sticky fruits. The target species we were aiming for that afternoon was native ash, Fraxinus excelsior, whose rustling bunches of ‘keys’ we clipped off using the parrot-headed pruning tool. At each site, in addition to recording the location of the collection using GPS and marking the trees from which we had taken seeds with a small metal disc gently hammered into the trunk, we collected the end of a small branch from one tree, including leaves and seedcases, from which a herbarium specimen sheet would be created. This involved sandwiching the sample of plant material between sheets of newspaper laid inside a wooden frame held together with webbing belts similar to yoga belts. As the week progressed the ‘press’ became fuller and heavier, a record of the various species collected.

On the subsequent days we harvested sloe (Prunus spinosa) in Lathkilldale, alder (Alnus glutinosa) in Topley Pike Wood and downy birch (Betula pubescens) in Yorkshire Bridge Wood. But one tree eluded us: the midland hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata). At each collecting site, our team leader, Dr Chris Cockel, cut open a haw from the several hawthorn trees we found, to check if it contained two seeds as opposed to the one seed found in common hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna). Although we found a couple of trees on one of the days, there were insufficient to constitute a population, making them unsuitable for the project.

Fast forward five years to yesterday. Planted a few feet from the boardwalk (a raised timber path created a few years ago to wind through the conservation area at the southern end of Kew Gardens) I see two saplings of the Glastonbury Thorn. Distinguished from common hawthorn by flowering twice a year, a sprig from the tree is sent to the monarch every year to be placed on the royal Christmas table. When the tree was vandalised a decade ago, cuttings were propagated in Kew’s Arboretum nursery overseen by Tony Kirkham, Head of the Arboretum. A young tree from one such cutting was planted in Glastonbury, on Wearyall Hill, in 2017.

Legend links the original Glastonbury Thorn, a type of C. monogyna, to Joseph of Arimathea, the wealthy man stated in John’s gospel to have arranged the burial of Jesus. Joseph is thought to have subsequently travelled to Britain, to Glastonbury. When he set his walking staff down, it is said to have miraculously taken root, growing into the tree that became known as the Glastonbury Thorn.

It seems that for a tree relatively modest in stature and appearance, there are many legends and customs associated with hawthorn. We are all familiar with the advice not to ‘cast a clout ’til may be out’. I adhere to the theory that the may referred to is the hawthorn blossom rather than the month of May. Given the high temperatures often experienced in May, I think we’d all expire with the heat if we clung to our winter woollies until 1st June.

Until I began reading about hawthorns for this post I ignorantly assumed that the blackthorn so often referred to in Irish folk tales was the same tree. It is another species altogether: sloe (Prunus spinosa) mentioned above. Like the hawthorn it bears five petalled white flowers in spring, but blackthorn flowers first, from March, and does so on bare wood. Both species are often found in ancient hedging and in fact both belong to the rose family (Rosaceae).

In autumn 2020 I contributed copy for a picture spread in the December issue of ‘Garden Answers’ magazine, ‘Decorate with Hips and Haws’. In the course of my research I discovered that waxwings, winter visitors to the UK, love red berries and particularly the fruit of the hawthorn, haws. According the the RSPB website, they will typically descend on hawthorn plants in supermarket carparks. Now that’s a sight that would cheer me up after a masked and hand-sanitised dash around my local Sainsbury’s!

I also found a recipe for hawthorn tea which I confess I haven’t yet tried but which is said to benefit the heart and circulation system. Using one teaspoon of berries per cup, pour boiling water over the berries and steep for 15 minutes before straining through a fine mesh and sweetening to test with honey and perhaps flavouring with a cinnamon stick.

When I take the shortcut across Osterley’s front lawn to reach the gardeners’ bothy every Friday, I pass two spreading hawthorn trees which bear strikingly large dark red fruits in autumn. These are Cockspur thorns (Crataegus crus-galli, literally a cock’s leg) and named, presumably, for their long curved thorns which can measure 3cm to 8cm. The species originates in the eastern USA. On bright autumn mornings I’m often late reporting for volunteer gardening duty because I’ve paused to admire and photograph these handsome trees!