Posted by: Linda Proud | May 22, 2012

Hawthorn – Life out of Death

I had a den when I was a child and in my memory it is always May, the den lush with new growth and rich with green smells. I sat within stands (or flops) of cowparsley making flutes and, when I went home, took a branch of hawthorn, heavy with sweet, musky blossom as a present for my mother.

Cowparsley at Burgess Field

‘Take that stuff outside AT ONCE!’ she shouted. Why? It was so beautiful – why couldn’t it come into the house? She never said but from her vehemence it was obvious that May blossom was unlucky, possibly even fatally so. Hawthorns, clearly, meant death, but only indoors. My dear Mum – where did she get this knowledge from? For how many generations had it been passed down? She had no idea why May was unlucky, no idea that the taboo against bringing it into the house is rooted in hoary antiquity. Just don’t do it, that’s all. Why? Because, according to folklore,  illness and death will follow.

Some say that hawthorns smell of rotting meat and, indeed, the chemical trimethylamine, which is one of the first chemicals formed in dying animal tissue, has been found in the blossom. I was reflecting on this as I made my way to Burgess Field for the first time in seeming (teemng) months. Why would a tree smell of death if it didn’t help it to live? Does it attract flies? Do they pollinate it?

Once I was in the field, I stood by a hawthorn tree for awhile, just watching, and soon I was rewarded with my first sight of a fly, a common blowfly, but soon more came, nameless creatures I had never seen before, but flies nonetheless, alighting on blossom and, the longer I stood, the more that came and soon began to dance in the air like midges.

Spot the flies

Having learnt on Saturday’s foraging walk that May blossom and leaves are good for the heart and blood pressure, I picked some on Sunday and made a tea. Yesterday I had to go and see the nurse, who said she might as well take my blood pressure while I was there. I usually mediate while they puff up my arm to bursting point, because I am a great believer in mind over matter, and completely sceptical when it comes to statins. So I WILL the meter to go down, and it usually complies, but this time it slipped right down to that magic figure of 140 over 80 which is normal.

I’ve just had another hawthorn tea while writing this, and I’ve bought a drier so that I can store the blossom for the rest of the year and take it regularly.

So Mum was right and she was wrong. Clearly you don’t want hawthorn in your house if it means a house full of flies, but it won’t kill you. Indeed, drink it and it will massage your heart and sweeten your temper. But she never told me not to bring buttercups into the house. She held them under my chin to see if I liked butter but never said, ‘chew on this, sweetie, and you’re history’. Perhaps some knowledge doesn’t need repeating but, like the cows, it just never occurs to us to taste it.  Ranunculus repens – completely toxic.

Buttercups on Wolvercote Common

Under this lot on the Southend Road, Wickford, is my cowparsley and hawthorn den of the 1950s.


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