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The Thorn

The Glastonbury Thorn
Hethel Old Thorn
The Wishing Tree
The Holy Thorns of Herefordshire

Thorn Leaves and Blossom

There are over 50 species of Hawthorn (Crataegus) in Northern latitudes and most bear attractive white flowers. Often they are grown for ornamental purposes. Hawthorn berries are bright and scarlet though in some species they may be yellowish. Jams and jellies ae often made from the fruit. The leaves alternate on the stems and the lobes are irregular. Blossoms have five petals and are white to pinkish white. They are hardy plants tolerating strong winds and both damp and dry conditions. They have long been used as boundary markers and because of this they are the most mentioned tree in Anglo-Saxon charters. During the Parliamentary enclosures between 1750 and 1850 an estimated 200,000 miles of hedges, mostly hawthorn, were planted.

"Here we go gathering nuts in May,
Nuts in May, nuts in May ... "

This childrens' nursery rhyme doesn't make any sense, if you think about it. There aren't any nuts in May. There is blossom in May, nuts come in the autumn. The reason is that over the years, the verse has changed. It should actually read:

"Here we go gathering nuts of May,

The reference is not to the month of May but to "the may", aka the hawthorn. The replacement of one small word changes the sense of the verse completely. The hawthorn figures greatly in folklore. Often old text mentions "May", which is frequently misinterpreted as the month when it actually refers to the plant. The Hawthorn used to flower on or around the first of May and was associated with the Celtic May Day celebration for the coming of the season of Beltane. (see our article on the Wiccan Year). However, because of the change from the Gregorian to the Julian calendar, it now flowers around Mid-May.

Hawthorn Bush Folklore

May Day, the beginning of Beltane (see our article on the Wiccan Year) was the second most important festival to the Druids. The coming of Beltane was always associated with fertility, both for the crops and in the marriage. However the Maypole originated as a Roman custom celebrating of the coming of the month of May and was in fact made from a stripped pine tree. However, in mediaeval times hawthorn was often wound around the maypole while a crown was formed of blackthorn. May Queens were dressed in white and crowned with hawthorn blossoms, then carried in the May Day procession on horseback or on a cart. This was an echo of a much earlier ceremony where the priestess went from house to house to give blessings and protection to the crops and the marriage bed.

The Celtic goddess of spring was Olwen, daughter of the giant Yspaddadden Pencawr, which means giant hawthorn. where she walked white flowers grew up, which earned her the name of "white track". Culwich the hero fell in love with her and had to complete a series of impossible tasks given to him by her father, which he only managed to complete by enlisting the help of Arthur's knights. Eventually Yspaddadden himself had to be killed. This possibly is the reason for the association of the hawthorn with challenge.

The Hawthorn was sacred to the Roman goddess Cardea who looked after women in childbirth. Torches made of hawthorn were carried at weddings. Cardea was also known as Guardian of the Threshhold and she looked into the future and was an observer of the past.

The hawthorn was often planted near running water which associated it with the spirits of the ancestors. It is still the custom in parts of Britain and Ireland to tie pieces of cloth to the hawthorn if you want the ancestors to give you help with something.

Hawthorn tea

The berries are harvested in autumn and dried on baskets or wicker screens, ensuring they are well aerated. They may also be dried over several hours in an oven on its lowest setting. To make tea, cover spoons of the dried berries with boiling water in a cup. Allow to steep for 15 to 20 minutes. It is recommended that the tea be drunk three times daily over a long period.

Hawthorn Berries Medicinal Uses of Hawthorn

We give the usual caveat that we have no medical training whatsoever and the following information is given for its intrinsic interest, not as suggestions for treatment. If you are considering any treatemnt, consult a qualified prctitioner.

Although any of the species may be used for medicinal purposes, the official species for this purpose is Cratageus oxyacantha. Traditionally, hawthorn berries have been used as a heart tonic. They are tonic and hypertensive in action, work gently and have no toxicity or cumulative effect. They normalise heart action without putting a strain on the cardiovascular system. They may also be used in the treatment of angina and arteriosclerosis. The berries are harvested in autumn and dried on baskets or wicker screens, ensuring they are well aerated. They may also be dried over several hours in an oven on its lowest setting. A tincture can be made either from fresh berries when harvested or from dried berries. 10 to 30 drops of tincture are taken three times daily. Recent research suggests that hawthorn preparations can start to take effect within one minute of consumption, reinforcing its traditional use as a quick-acting tonic.

Blackthorn Leaves and Berries The Blackthorn or Sloe

Blackthorn, Prunus Spinosa, often known as Sloe, is a species of Prunus native to Europe and western Asia. It also grows in parts of northwest Africa. It is a deciduous large shrub or small tree growing to 15 feet tall, with blackish bark and dense, stiff, spiny branches. Sloes used to be left on the branch until the first frosts, which softened them but because of climate change this practice is now obsolete. The sloes are now picked in late September or October.

The blackthorn is seen as the sister plant to the hawthorn and places where they grow together were though to be particularly magical. Wizards carried a staff made of blackthorn and in parts of Ireland, the practice of making a staff from blackthorn is still thought of as unlucky.

The tree displays the three colours of the goddess, white red and black in its berries, sap and blossoms. Many religious practices are based on dualism, light and dark, good and bad, male and female etc., and the blackthorn was thought to represent the balance between them. However, the Blackthorn eventually became demonised and it was thought that the "Mark of the Devil" was made with a thorn from a Blackthorn. Fires used by the inquisition to burn heretics often contained Blackthorn twigs.

In 1683 a Blackthorn in Pritzwerk near Brandenburg, Germany, which was believed to have healing powers attracted such an audience that Duke Friedrich Willhelm ordered its felling with the comment: "we are not fond at all of such superstitious dealings".

Medicinal Uses of Blackthorn

The fruits are rich in vitamin C and tannin and were used in pre-industrial Europe for inflammation of the mouth and throat. The leaves and flowers are diuretic. The tree essence stabilises emotions and promotes hope and joy.

The Glastonbury Thorn
The Glastonbury Thorn

And did those feet, in ancient times, walk upon England’s mountains green
And was the holy lamb of god, on England’s pleasant pastures seen
And did the countenance divine shine forth upon our clouded hills
And was Jerusalem builded here, among those dark satanic mills.
- William Blake

Roman legend has it that after Jesus had been placed in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, Joseph fled to Avalon and built a simple wattle church upon Glastonbury Tor. Joseph planted his staff which took root and grew to become the most famous hawthorn in Britain, The Glastonbury thorn. Within the area there are now trees that are said to have been grown from the original cuttings. One is in the grounds of what became the richest abbey in Britain, Glastonbury abbey. Another grows in the church yard of St.John's Church.

However, it is considered by some that Blake's poem actually relates to Jesus as a boy visiting the nearby village of Priddy. The Reverend H.A. Lewis writes: "Anyone who really seeks can find abundant evidence that it was a household tradition in Priddy in the last generation, that Christ came there, while it is certain that there is an age-old proverb in parts of the Mendip, "as sure as the Lord was at Priddy".

Another local legend suggests that Joseph of Arimathea was buried in Somerset's "Valley of the Kings". Ray Gibbs states: "The Godney Chapel had a particularly quaint tale. Its ancient chapel was said to be so holy that 'even the birds of the air did not foul it, nor the island on which it stood, and so it was in ancient times called "Insula Dei" or "God's Island". which almost without saying, has an incredible atmosphere, and accounts of a long boat carrying a sacred corpse to be interred there ... but the hidden tradition that this was Joseph of Arimathea has been discounted by one family's oral tradition."

The original Glastonbury thorn grew on the summit of Wearyall Hill and had two main trunks, one of which was unfortunately cut down by vandalism during the reign of Elizabeth the first. The perpetrator was revenged, according to legend, by having one of his eyes taken out by the thorns in the process:

'He was well serv'd for his blind Zeale, who going to cut doune an ancient white Hauthorne-tree,
which, because she budded before others, might be an occasion of Superstition,
had some of the prickles flew into his eye, and made him Monocular.'
James Howell, 'Dodona's Grove' 1644

Blossoms from the tree became so popular that the Bristol merchants established a thriving export trade.

The remaining trunk was cut down by the puritans during the reign of Charles the First but by then, many cuttings had been taken and planted all over Britain, the most famous being in Glastonbury Abbey. This tree is therefore not the original. Engravings and woodcuts from the nineteenth century depict a much more mature tree. The current Glastonbury thorn is reckoned to be about 90 years old, however it comes from a cutting of the original and is therefore a direct descendant of Joseph’s original. The current tree is a variety of the common hawthorn and is a “biflora” , i.e., like the original plant it is double-flowering, January and May.

Hethel Old Thorn

Growing near the church of Hethel, a village 6 miles to the south west of Norwich, Norfolk on the B1113, the Hethel old Thorn is the oldest Hawthorn in East Anglia, one of the oldest in Britain and is one of the smallest nature reserves in the UK. The 700-year-old NWT Hethel Old Thorn is the oldest hawthorn on record in East Anglia.

First recorded in 1755 by Marsham in a letter to the Bath Society, its girth was just over nine feet. By 1913, Elwes records, the girth was 37 yards but hawthorns, like people, shrink in old age so its current circumference is seven feet.

The Hethel Thorn
The Wishing Tree

Growing in a solitary position in the wilds of Argyll, this is one of the few known "wishing trees" in Scotland. It stands by a rough moorland track about 2 miles south of Ardmaddy House. Ardmaddy House itself stands near the Atlantic bridge to the isle of Seil.

Generations of superstitious travellers have pressed coins into the bark and made a wish, and the bark is now encrusted woth coins. It has been revered as a special tree for a very long time but quite why a nondescript tree in the wilds of Scotland should have obtained such a standing is now obscure.

The Holy Thorns of Herefordshire

It seems that Joseph of Arimathea may not have stopped long at Glastonbury because he apparently planted his staff, or other staffs, elsewhere, particularly at Orcop in Herefordshire, from which grew another Holy Thorn. In fact, various Holy Thorns are to be found in Somerset, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire, though not all sprang from Joseph of Arimathea's staff. Palmer's Folklore lists Holy Thorns at Alfrick, Hampton, Newland, Ripple and Tardebigge and there was also a ''wishing'' thorn on the Malverns.

The Orcop thorn was Herefordshire's most popular thorn but it perished in a storm in 1980. Its blossoming narrowly missed being televised in 1949 when the BBC discovered at the last minute that there was nowhere to plug their lamps into: electricity hadn't yet reached Orcop.

The existence of the Orcop Thorn added weight to the theory that Iron Age settlers in this area arrived from the Middle East. Just north of Orcop Hill is Poor Man's Wood, which is said to have been a sacred grove of the Iron Age Silures. The Silures were remarked upon in Roman times for their dissimilarity to other Celtic people, being more of Middle Eastern appearance.

Acknowledgements and further reading:

The Heritage Trees of Britain and Northern IrelandJon Stokes and Donald RodgerConstable
The Oxford Companion to English LiteratureSir Paul HarveyOUP
The Observer's Book of TreesFrederick Warne & Co. Ltd.
Tree Yoga - A WorkbookSatya Singh & Fred HagenederEarthdancer
Herbal remedies from the wildCorinne MartinCountryman Press
The Green Man Tree OracleJohn Matthews & Will WorthingtonBarnes & Noble Haunted SomersetJohn GarlandThe History Press

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© Ken James 2008