In the last few weeks, the fierce golden blaze of yellow gorse which swept through Ireland’s hedgerows like wild-fire, has given way to the gentler, creamy-white froth of hawthorn blossom. In Irish mythology, tree lore features in many of the old stories and legends, and perhaps none more so than the hawthorn tree.
The hawthorn is a small, bushy tree which grows up to six metres in height, which can live to a grand old age of four hundred years. It is native to Ireland, where it is mostly used to mark field boundaries, and roadside hedgerows.
In Irish, the hawthorn is known as Sceach Gheal, from sceach meaning ‘thornbush/ briar’ and geal meaning ‘bright/ lumnious/ radiant’. According to the ancient Brehon Law, it was classified as a Peasant tree. In Ogham, also known as the Tree Alphabet, the hawthorn is represented by the sixth symbol called Huath (pronounced Hoo-ah).
At the end of March, the first leaves start to appear on new twigs, usually of a reddish hue, which mature into grey, and then pinkish brown stems. This is followed by an overwhelming milky white profusion of blossoms in May and June, the branches so heavily laden with flowers, you can barely see the green of leaves.
The flowering of the hawthorn tree was considered a sign that winter was finally over and spring had sprung. The tree was therefore thought of as an indicator of changes in the seasons, or a weather omen.
The flowers are said to give off a faint smell of rotting meat. This is to attract flies, rather than bees, to enable pollination. I am surrounded by hawthorn where I live, and have never noticed such a smell.
In September, the pollinated flowers produce deep red edible fruits called haws, containing up to five seeds.
Our ancient ancestors made much use of the hawthorn. Young leaves could be included in salads, or mixed with speedwell and made into tea. Jelly or wine was made from the berries, and the seeds were ground into flour to make a substitute for bread. Steeped in brandy with sugar, the blossoms make an extraordinary liqueur, apparently.
In fact, hawthorn flowers were once so highly prized, they were exported all around the world.
The lone hawthorn standing in the middle of a field was treated with much respect, and some suspicion by farming communities. Whilst it was thought to be auspicious, bringing good fortune and prosperity to the landowner, it was also thought to belong to the magical folk of the Otherworld, the Sidhe. As such, it was never to be cut or harmed for fear of bringing their wrath upon the perpetrator.
In fact, some farmers would go so far as to pile boulders around the base of the tree so as not to accidentally cause damage to the trunk whilst ploughing or reaping around it.
The Maguires were chieftains of Fermanagh since 1302, descended from High King Cormac mac Airt. Their inaugural site was at Linaskea, where they were crowned beneath a hawthorn tree.
At Kilkeedy in Co. Limerick, there once stood a hawthorn tree which was said to have sprung from a thorn which St. Ita plucked from the hoof of a donkey.