Fleetneedles Forage: May Trees
The month of May is always the blossom month to my mind, but as the apple, pear and cherry blooms begin to fall the hawthorn is just coming into its own.
Hawthorn blossom is always a heartening sight as it heralds that summer is on its way. On a warm evening, I can see why the hawthorn features so heavily in folk and herb lore; there is something ethereal about the glossy leaves, dreamy frothy white boughs and heady scent. Perhaps this is why people once believed the hedgerow shrub to be the site of fairy trysts and a hiding place for spirits?
Hawthorn isn’t just picturesque hedging though – its medicinal properties were once vital medicine for heart and circulatory disorders. It’s also an incredibly clever tree having the power to cure both high and low blood pressure. In folk medicine, the fruit’s extract was believed to be a sedative for people suffering from insomnia, stress and anxiety and in recent years it has been used to treat symptoms of the menopause. Modern research has also discovered that the berries contain enzymes which lower cholesterol in the blood stream.
Known as May Tree, this pretty bush was once a symbol of May Day celebrations with sprigs and boughs traditionally used to decorate front doorways. Contrary to this, in some counties it was considered terribly bad luck to bring the hawthorn indoors, a superstition that lingers to the present day. A few years ago, my elderly neighbour was horrified to see me put a blossomed hawthorn branch in a vase and she was convinced it would bring doom upon us. Thankfully, we survived the hawthorn’s wrath, but the sprig only lasted for a couple of days before its flowers dropped off.
The young leaves, which have a nutty taste, were once a great favourite with children who loved to eat them, nicknaming the bush bread-and-cheese. In Lancashire, the tree was colloquially known as Hag-Tree, perhaps a nod to its deep associations with witches and the supernatural. In medieval England the hawthorn was considered a sacred tree full of protective magic, and boughs were attached to new born baby cradles to shield them from illness and evil spirits. The hawthorn’s protective magic was even believed powerful enough to repel lightening as this old saying illustrates:
Beware of an oak
It draws the stroke
Avoid an ash
It courts the flash
Creep under the thorn
It will save you from harm
Although not a tree most people would associate with fruit, the flowers give way to small bunches of red autumn haws which have many uses. As a child the berries looked very appealing but I was always told they were poisonous. In truth the fruit is not toxic but the seeds contain tiny traces of cyanide and can cause tummy upsets so are best avoided. Consequently recipes using the haw fruit should always include the removal of seeds. The fruit is high in nutrients, such as vitamin C along with a wide range of B vitamins so it’s worth trying to use them. The flavour is difficult to describe, some say it is similar to guava fruit, but I think it is more a mixture of cherry and sharp apple.
The fruit is supposed to be high in pectin but I have found it very difficult to find the setting point when making jelly so I add pectin rich fruits to the mix. Be warned though, the lack of flesh on the tiny fruit means you need to collect a lot to make any quantity of jelly.
1 kg of hawthorns picked from their stalks
Either the juice of two lemons or a whole bramley apple, cored and chopped
400g of sugar to every pint of sieved liquid
Put all haws and either the apple or lemon juice along with 2 ½ pints of water into the pan and begin to boil. Once the mixture is bubbling turn the heat down and simmer slowly for at least 20 minutes. Mash the fruit with a potato masher to release as much juice as possible and once thoroughly mushed up sieve the pan contents through a muslin cloth and a colander. This will take up to 24 hours to completely drip through, so it is best to leave it covered overnight. The following day you can squeeze the contents of the muslin to get the remaining juice out. Measure the liquid and then reheat it, once boiling add 400g of sugar to every pint of liquid you measured. Once you have reached the setting point pour into sterilised jars, seal, label and store in a cool dark cupboard. It should last for at least 6 months.
This is delicious with cheeses and meats but can also be drizzled on desserts to add a fruity tang. I’ve recently found a few old recipes for haw wine too so plan to give that a go in the autumn along with the jelly if I can find enough haws. In the meantime, I will be enjoying that brief but heady May Tree scent and exquisite display of blossom before it disappears on the breeze to make way for summer.
- Do not use Hawthorn is you are on heart or blood pressure medication.
- Hawthorn should be avoided by pregnant or breastfeeding women.
- If you are on any prescription drugs please check with an herbalist that it is safe to use Hawthorn, to avoid contraindications.
- Overuse can cause nausea and digestive upset.
These are some of my personal experiences using Hawthorn combined with information I have researched over a number of years. I am not encouraging people to self-medicate, in the treatment of specific conditions it is always best to consult an Herbalist or your GP. If you should develop an adverse reaction to any of the above, please stop using the herb immediately. And always take care when identifying the plant.
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