Hawthorn Lore

The Hawthorn Fairy by Cicely Mary Barker
The Hawthorn Fairy by Cicely Mary Barker

The Hawthorn tree rules from May 13th to June 9th on the “Celtic” tree calendar, which happens to correspond with when the hawthorn tree flowers. Because the hawthorn blooms in May its branches and blossoms were traditionally used to decorate homes in the UK to celebrate May Day, or Beltaine in Scottish Gaelic, and it is said that the original May Poles were made from hawthorn. It was also customary to tie a ribbon or shred of personal clothing to the branches of a hawthorn on May Eve in the hopes that a wish would be granted. Some say the wish is granted by the fairies who reside in the tree, others say it will be granted when the fabric either disintegrates or falls off. The hawthorn’s spirits were again honored at the end of the day when left over food from May Eve dinner were left under the tree as offerings.

By the craggy hill-side,
Through the mosses bare,
They have planted thorn-trees
For pleasure here and there.
If any man so daring
As dig them up in spite,
He shall find their sharpest thorns
In his bed at night.

– “The Fairies”, W. Allingham (1850)

The fae were strongly connected to the hawthorn tree. Hawthorn is the thorn referenced in the Celtic Fairy Triad, Oak, Ash, and Thorn. The three are considered to be gateways to the otherwold, or faerie in the Celtic tradition, however, the hawthorn tree is the most sacred of the three. A lone hawthorn in a field was called a fairy tree and to cut down or even take from a fairy tree with out first asking permission from the fae living in it would bring bad luck to the person who brought harm to the tree. Furthermore, to sit beneath a fairy tree when the veil between the two worlds is thinnest was to risk being taken by the fae into the faerie.

It just so happens that the veil is thinnest on Beltaine, when the tree blossoms, and Samhain, when the haws are ripe. It is also interesting to note that on Beltaine we celebrate the coming together of the feminine and masculine, the great rite, and dance the may pole. June is traditionally the marriage month and also when the hawthorn blossoms begin to fall from its branches. In ancient Greece wedding couples wore crowns made of hawthorn blossoms and Hymen, the Greek goddess of marriage, carried a torch made of hawthorn. The Roman goddess Cardea not only was associated with the hawthorn, but also marriage and childbirth and her festival was celebrated in May. Romans would place hawthorn leaves in the cradles of newborn children in hopes that Cardea would protect them. The scent of the hawthorn blossom includes trimethylamine, which is also released by the body during both sex and death. On Samhain we honor our dead, loved ones who have passed beyond the veil and it is said that haws will not fully ripen until the witches have flown over on Samhain. Medicinally, the hawthorn aids the heart, metaphysically, it is celebrated when our hearts are the most full.

Mark the fair blooming of the Hawthorn tree
who finely clothed in a robe of white
fills full the wanton eye with May’s delight.

– Chaucer

In the beginning the hawthorn tree was considered to have highly protective powers. This most likely stemmed not only from the use of hawthorn as hedges, protecting homes and land from neighboring cattle and robbers, but also from the thick thorns that grow on young hawthorn stems. Children were no strangers to the saying, “Beware of an oak, it draws the stroke. Take care of the ash, it courts the crash. Creep under the thorn, it will save you from harm.” The rhyme tells where to find shelter if caught in a thunderstorm, warning to avoid oak and ash trees and to find shelter under the hawthorn. Trees were planted near homes to protect against evil spirits. Branches were even hung in the rafters to keep ghosts from dwelling there.

There was also once a tradition of hanging a “globe” of sorts made from hawthorn twigs, called a bush, in the kitchen on New Year’s with the hope of bringing good luck and protection into the home throughout the coming year. The previous year’s bush would be burned during the New Year’s celebrations and the ashes would be spread through the fields to bring forth a promising harvest.

However, with the spread and growth of Christianity, the hawthorn began to lose it’s protective lore. By the 1800’s the belief that to bring a hawthorn branch into the home would bring death and misfortune along with it was well established. This change in lore was in part due to the belief that the crown of thorns placed on Jesus’ head upon his death was made of hawthorn. It was further exacerbated by the fact that, when cut, hawthorn branches release a smell that is similar to death, which we know now is due to the trimethylamine. During the Great Plague of London in the 1600’s, it was recorded by Francis Bacon that the smell that came with the plague was the same as the smell that came from the hawthorn. It’s not a huge leap to assume that these bits of lore were the beginning stages in the turn of the hawthorn’s image from love to death.

Because of this, the hawthorn is now seen by those who follow the modern “Celtic” astrology to be a sign of opposition. A celebration of both life and death, light and darkness, protection and misfortune.

A few final bits of lore:

  • Hawthorn is also sometimes called the “bread and cheese tree”. This is because when the leaves are still young, they are tender enough to eat and have been used in salads in the past.
  • Hawthorn wood burns green and is considered to make the hottest wood-fire known. Do make sure to use branches you find on the ground and not ones straight from the tree.
  • With the fairies’ permission, snap a twig with the first hawthorn flower to dream of your future husband. Then snap the twig from the flower to use as a love charm.
    • For more information on the Hawthorn Tree check out my post “The Hawthorn Tree
      A Dictionary of Superstitions, Oxford: Ed. Iona Opie & Moira Tatem
      Dictionary of Superstitions, Cassell. Ed. David Pickering
      “Hawthorn”, The Goddess Tree
      “Olwen of the White Track; The Hawthorn Tree”, Suzi Crockford
      “Hawthorn”, Mandy Haggith
      “Hawthorn”, Controversical

      The Hawthorn Tree

      The Hawthorn Tree by Arthur Rackham
      The Hawthorn Tree by Arthur Rackham

      Latin: Crataegus, Common Hawthorn: Crataegus monogyna
      Type: Shrub or small tree | Size: 5-15m (about 16-49ft)
      Other Names: may, mayblossom, maythorn, quickthorn, whitethorn, motherdie, and haw

      The hawthorn tree is native to Europe, Northwest Africa, and Western Asia, but has also been introduced to other areas including the UK and the US. Because of their dense, thorned branches, hawthorn trees were a common choice to create hedgerows in Europe, though primarily in Germany. In fact, in German the hawthorn tree is known as “Hagedorn”, which translates to “Hedgethorn”. In Old English, “haw” means “hedge”, which happens to now be the common name for the hawthorn fruit. Hence, the name Hawthorn in Old English also conveniently translates to “Hedgethorn”. Hawthorns are propagated by birds, namely thrushes and waxwings, who eat the haws throughout the winter months.

      The bark on young hawthorn trees is smooth and dull brown with streaks of orange. As the tree grows older the bark becomes rough and cracked with orange peeking through the cracks. The leaves have deep lobes that can reach all the way to the midrib (the middle stem of the leaf) and are dark green on the top and light on the bottom. Haws have the same shape and color as pomegranates but are generally around 1 cm in size and have a single seed. Haws begin to grow in the fall and there is an old saying that they are not ripe until the witches fly over at Samhain. Young hawthorn branches have small but sharp thorns that also grow to around 1 cm, but that merge with the branches as they grow. The flowers of the common hawthorn bloom during the month of May and have five white petals with five red stamen and grow in clusters of 5-25. Hawthorn flowers grow (can you guess?) to also be around 1 cm.

      Common_hawthorn_flowers Crataegus_monogyna_branch Hawthorn_fruit

      Medicinal Properties
      *disclaimer* please consult a professional before using any herbal treatments
      The flowers, leaves, and fruit of the hawthorn are edible and used to treat both high and low blood pressure, as well as high cholesterol. Hawthorn can also treat digestive and intestinal problems, including menstrual problems. AND there is research being done to find if hawthorn can treat congestive heart failure. The flowers can be used as a strong sedative and have been used to treat anxiety. Externally, the flowers can be used to treat acne and skin blemishes. Haws contain Vitamin B complex and Vitamin C.

      The fair maiden who, the first of May,
      Goes to the fields at the break of day
      And washes in dew from the Hawthorn tree
      Will ever after handsome be.
      – Neltjc Blanchan
      Nature’s Garden (1900)

      Metaphysical Properties
      Hawthorn can cleanse the heart of negativity and stimulates love and forgiveness. Use hawthorn flowers in spells for fertility, happiness, and good luck in fishing, as well was protection, love and marriage spells. Hawthorn flowers are also said to be highly erotic to men.

      For more, in depth lore about the hawthorn check out my post “Hawthorn Lore

      Fertility, Weddings, Protection, Death, Communication with the Spirit World, Unity of Male and Female, and Strengthens Healing Spells.
      Victorian Flower Language: Hope
      Deities: Welsh Blodeuwedd, Olwen, Greek/Roman Hymen, Roman Cardea
      Holidays: May Day, Beltaine, Samhain

      “Hawthorn”, Controversical
      “Hawthorn”, The Goddess Tree
      “Crataegus monogyna”, Wikipedia
      “Crataegus”, Wikipedia
      “Hawthorn”, Web-MD

      Photo Credits:
      “Common hawthorn flowers”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
      “Eenstijlige meidoorn (Crataegus monogyna branch)”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
      “Hawthorn fruit” by Elstro – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

      Willow Lore

      The Willow Fairy by Cicely Mary Barker

      According to the Celtic Tree Calendar, the willow rules between April 15th to May 12th. In large part, the willow represents emotional topics, such as death, grief, melancholy, and heartbreak especially when due to lost or unrequited love. Personally, I feel this could link back to its connection with water, which is seen through many parts of the occult/esoteric sphere as representing emotions (ie the cups in tarot and water signs in astrology). However, this wasn’t always the case and it seems (as it is with most lore, I’m finding), this shift happened with Christianity.

      The weeping willow’s scientific name is Salix babylonica, despite the tree being native to China and not Mesopotamia, home of the legendary Babylon. This misnomer comes from the biblical Psalm 137:

      By the river of Babylon we sat down and wept
      when we remembered Zion.
      There on the willow-trees
      we hung up our harps,
      for there those who carried us off
      demanded music and singing
      and our captors called on us to be merry:
      ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’
      How could we sing the Lord’s song
      in a foreign land?

      In recent years, however, biblical scholars have discovered that the reference to willow trees may instead be a mistaken reference to the Euphrates poplar which was, at the time, much more common in Mesopotamia than the weeping willow. Though, the poplar and the willow do both come from the Salicaceae family, also known as the willow family, which makes the mistake somewhat understandable and more likely a mistranslation somewhere down the line.

      Many mark this as the beginning of the willow’s connection to grief. It was most likely further solidified in England when, not having many palm trees around, churches would collect and display branches from pussy willows with their fluffy blossoms to represent palms on Palm Sunday, the final Sunday before Easter, the day Jesus was crucified (in case you needed a reminder).

      And, indeed, for centuries, art, music, and literature has used willow trees to symbolize not just death and heartbreak, but a tragic death or the mortal separation of lovers or the forlorn victim of unrequited love. In the 19th century, willow branches were carved onto tombstones and printed on mourning cards. In the 17th century, the folk song “The Seeds of Love” was first recorded and entails a forsaken lover’s lament:

      For in June there’s the red rose bud,
      And that is the flower for me;
      But I oftentimes have snatched at the red rose-bud
      And gained but the willow tree.
      Oh the willow tree will twist,
      And the willow-tree will twine,
      And I wish I were in that young man’s arms,
      Where he once had the heart of mine.

      For several centuries, the idea persisted that a rejected lover should wear a wreath or hat made of willow. As of 1909, it was recorded that in Wales it was still asked of suitors on the morning of their sweethearts marriage to another person, “Where is your willow cap?” or “We must make you a willow cap.”

      The Willow-Catkin Fairy by Cicely Mary Barker

      However, as I said, this wasn’t always the case. At one point the willow was thought to have a strong magical potency and was used to make wands. Travelers were also known to carry willow rods for magical protection and luck. In fact, up until the 1990’s, the willow was considered a source of protection and even good luck on May Day in some areas. In Essex, Yorkshire, and Herefordshire, it was recorded that the willow was a “good” tree and kept witches (namely “marsh witches”) away from a home if planted by the door or twigs hung on the door, the same as Hazel, and protected against the Evil Eye if brought into the house (interesting to note, Vickery’s source here doesn’t specify which part of the tree, but a source from Shropshire states that the catkins, also called “goosy goslins” or “gullies” aren’t to be brought into the house or no “feathered goslings” will be hatched). As well, in Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day, willow (or sally) rods were burned until they charred then used to draw a sign of the cross on each family member’s arm.

      The ancient Greeks connected the willow with inspiration and creativity. It was said that Orpheus received his gift for poetry by touching the willows in a grove sacred to Persephone and the mountain where the muses lived was called Helicon coming from the word helike meaning willow. (There is also a nymph named Helice which, from her name, was a willow nymph and who nursed a baby Zeus back to health in Crete. Not really pertinent, just thought that was interesting.)

      Because of its relation with water and water’s close relation with the moon, the willow has in neo-paganism begun to be connected with not only the moon, but also the night, dreams, intuition, and the sacred feminine. It is claimed that to place a piece of willow beneath your pillow will help your dreams to become more vivid and meaningful. It is also said that willow wands will help to level out ones emotions, opening up emotional numbness and reigning in emotional excess. As well, willow is used for when you need to shed a light on the things your having trouble seeing. With its connotations with death and mourning, as well as protection, this creates an interesting blend of exploring our shadow selves and the parts of our psyche that we are otherwise too afraid to confront even if doing so would mean to move forward into a better phase of life.

      A few final bits of lore:

      • As with all trees, ask for permission before you cut a piece from a willow tree in order to not upset the fae or spirits living inside.
      • The Osage Nation has a legend called “Wisdom of the Willow Tree” in which a young man named Little One converses with a willow tree about life, death, and aging, referring to the tree as “Grandfather.”
      • In “English lore” (I honestly can’t find a good source for this and it isn’t in any of my superstition books, but since it keeps coming up and it’s interesting we’re gonna go with it) it is said that the willow tree can uproot itself and will stalk travelers.
      • I’m hesitant to include this one for reasons I’ll get into in a moment, but supposedly, the Druid cosmic creation myth was that two scarlet eggs were hidden in a willow tree and from these eggs was hatched the universe, the sun being in one and the earth in the other. It is claimed that the Druids reenacted this myth during spring rituals (with hens’ eggs painted red), the eggs being eaten at Beltane (which is important to note, since the Celts celebrated the points between solstices and equinoxes, but not the solstices or equinoxes themselves for reasons that warrant an entire post of its own). This then (supposedly) transferred over to the Christian celebration of Easter and was therefore the birth of Easter eggs. The claims of Easter’s pagan origins are many and shaky, with each generation trying to make connections between the church and the pagan traditions that came before it. The problem with this claim is that what we (Anglos, that is) think of as Easter is a very German thing and the Easter bunny/hare and his eggs didn’t start appearing in English speaking areas until well into the 1700’s and even then, it was primarily in Germanic communities such as the Pennsylvania-Dutch in America, the tradition not really making a public appearance among Anglo communities until the 1800’s. I like this Druid theory. It’s interesting and puts a deeper meaning to the Easter egg conundrum, but I’m not entirely sure how much stock to put into it……Now back to the willow tree.
      • Supposedly, the willow is referenced often in Chinese lore, which makes sense seeing as, as stated, weeping willows are native to China, but since this series is talking about the Celtic Tree Calendar and Chinese lore is not my specialty, I thought I’d leave those bits out. But, do know that it exists and if that is your interest or specialty, please let us know of some in the comments.

      For more information on the Willow Tree check out my post “The Willow Tree”

      A Dictionary of Plant Lore, Roy Vickery
      A Dictionary of Superstitions, Oxford: Ed. Iona Opie & Moira Tatem
      Dictionary of Superstitions, Cassell. Ed. David Pickering
      “Tree Lore: Willow”, Druidry.org
      “The Willow Tree”, Controversical
      “Willow”, The Goddess Tree