If there are two trees that capture the essence of the month of May, it has to be the veil-white blossoms that take centre stage this month. One, the Hawthorn, has even taken the month’s title as its alternative name; ‘hawthorn’ when the haws (berries) decorate the tree in autumn, and ‘may’ when the flowers smother the branches in spring. The other tree of the month, is of course the elder, which tends to bookend the weeks, with hawthorn blossom opening for May Bank Holiday and elderflowers to welcome June.
Both the hawthorn and the elder are common hedgerow trees, sometimes also seeding themselves or being grown as horticultural cultivars in our gardens. Popular with foragers thanks to their abundant fruits, which are easily identifiable, our relationship with these trees goes back much further than the recent resurgence in interest in wild foods.
Hawthorn is used extensively in garden and farmland hedgerows, as its thorny growth creates an excellent livestock boundary, but if left unmanaged they can grow into small but resilient trees. The leaves emerge first in spring, unfurling in clusters from small buds along the thorned twigs. The fresh young leaves are edible, earning them the rural nickname ‘bread-and-cheese’, once a welcome salad for farm labourers and travellers during the hunger gap* of spring.
The flowers are also held in clusters of buds all along the arching stems, each round bud opening to a small creamy flower of 5 petals. Step in close and you will find the blooms smell distinctly of sweet almond, almost like marzipan – Christmas in May! Later in the year these blooms are followed by red berries, known as haws. Look in detail at the flowers as they fade and the petals fall, and you will see the slight swelling forming that will eventually mature and ripen into the fruit. The haws are attractive to birds such as thrushes, which help to spread the seeds via their droppings, but are also used by foragers and wild food collectors in hedgerow jams and jellies. Wild fruits such as these, elderberries, blackberries and especially rosehips were gathered in large quantities during the world wars to supplement rationed foods. A dense hawthorn bush or hedge makes an ideal protected springtime nesting site for many birds such as chaffinch, yellowhammer or dunnock.
Traditionally, picking the blossoms of hawthorn was considered unlucky, except at Beltane, (the fire and fertility festival held around modern day May Day) when armfuls of may blossom would’ve been brought home to decorate doorways and celebrate nature and the goddess or earth mother. Folklore suggests that the hawthorn was the tree most likely to be inhabited by fairies (the vicious elemental mischievous ‘Little People’ of medieval times, not the sparkly wand waving creation of modern culture), which may well have contributed to rumours of the tree’s unlucky nature.
*The ‘Hunger Gap’ is a term given to the period early in the year when winter stored crops and foodstuffs have generally run out or spoiled but spring and summer crops are not yet matured and ready to harvest; historically a time of famine and slim pickings, when wild foods such as new shoots and greens played a vital role in replenishing essential vitamins and nutrients after the winter.
Like the hawthorn, elder was linked to fairies in traditional folklore. The stems and wood of elder is characterised by being hollow, and easily whittled into musical instruments. The soft pithy core of the stems can easily be removed, to create pipes and whistles (or even pea shooters by brave but mischievous children) The Fay or Little People were thought to have a love of music, and particularly that made by elder instruments and so the association was a strong one.
The brittleness of elder wood makes it a poor species for hedge-laying, but it is often found in hedgerows as the seeds are spread by birds, and it was historically allowed to remain as its flowers and fruit were widely used in food and drinks. Elder was also often planted in gardens, notably at the back door of the house**, as the scent of its leaves is a natural fly deterrent, helping to keep insects out away from the house, kitchen or dairy, and sometimes sprigs were attached to horses harnesses for the same purpose. Elderflower cordial is still popular today, but the flowers and fruit have been used in jams, jellies, and drinks including alcoholic beverages, for centuries. It is also a useful species for the dyer, providing pigments of blue, purple, green and yellow from various parts of the tree.
Whilst the hawthorn has small leaves and dense growth, the elder can be a somewhat rangy specimen, with long stems, mostly growing from the base of the plant. The bark is fissured and fibrous in appearance. The leaves are pinnate, and emerge in early spring, followed by umbels of creamy blossoms. In late summer, clusters of purple-black berries attract birds such as pigeons and thrushes, and can easily stain fingers or clothes with juice when picked.
**Whilst elder had its place at the back door of the house, another tree, the rowan, was usually planted by the front door to protect against evil spirits, witches, and bad luck. Like the hawthorn and elder, the rowan is also a bearer of white blossom in spring and associated with fairies or the goddess. Its bright red fruits ripen in autumn and each is tipped with a tiny five-pointed star (the remnants of the flower) much like a miniature pentangle, thought to be a sacred protective symbol.