Right now my favourite spring spectacle is emerging. It’s a close run thing, there are many natural sights that vie for my attention; the swallow lifts my spirits and the dawn chorus makes waking a pleasure. Bluebells dominate the cool woodland floor and the canopy pulses with songbirds sporting their brightest finery.
The increasing sunlight and warmth creates the conditions for the generous clusters of tiny white blossoms amongst Britain’s hedgerows and fields. For me, the most comforting sign of spring is the Hawthorn.
Hawthorn is host to all manner of wildlife, chiefly insects and birds. Many bird species favour nesting in hawthorn due to it’s dense thorny crown. Many birds and rodents enjoy it’s berries late into the year, in fact we humans can make culinary use of it as well as using the timber for furniture, turning or burning. My father in law has turned some beautiful bowls from this dense wood and my grandad always placed a hawthorn log on the fire before retiring to bed, it was the best way of guaranteeing the fire was still live in the morning. It’s dense structure makes it an ideal hedging plant, it makes a stock proof barrier for decades and it withstands the rather cumbersome mechanical hedge cutting regimes employed ever since farming became mechanised.
In ancient times hawthorn attracted much superstition, it was viewed as a symbol of fertility. Its delicate leaves and flowers were used as May Day garlands. A common belief was that death would follow if the hawthorn was brought into the house – the Medievals believed that the blossom smelled like death!!
I don’t consider myself morbid, I certainly wouldn’t go around sniffing corpses but I rather like the smell of the blossom. Caught by a day of warm sunshine the blossom can create a heady aroma within several metres vicinity of the tree. When I’m running along the trails and fields I may not see the tree amongst its more dominant neighbours, but breathing deeply I can certainly smell it.
There has been times when I haven’t enjoyed it so much. I once had to help create a forest school on a piece of unloved woodland. To my alarm literally every tree was a hawthorn and I lost count of the times when I almost became one with the tree, my clothing snared in their branches as I tried to lop, fell and shape the trees and the surrounding grounds into a safe environment for the primary school pupils.
But, like the respect that develops for a worthy adversary, I gradually appreciated Hawthorn for its tenacious properties and the all round good it can do within the ecosystem.
Twenty years ago my wife and I came close to emigrating, we were at the primary stages of departing these shores for a far off land. Every spring in the twenty years since, I stop at the hawthorn in blossom, inhale deeply, and feel grateful that we stayed. I would have missed them so much.
I’ll leave the final word to Rabbie Burns, he loved hawthorn. The Lass of Cessnock Burn was ‘spotless like the flow’ring thorn/ with flowers so white and leaves so green.’