'Gives not the Hawthorn a sweeter shade...' The tree of the month for May is, of course, the May tree or Common Hawthorn. We've certainly all cast our clouts here in Dorset as the Mays have been fully 'out' for some three weeks now, those that were earliest to flower now fading - but still giving off one of the sweetest of open air perfumes - at least I find it pleasant, some do not...more later.
That Hawthorn is the symbol of May Day might seem odd, given that it doesn't flower until around the 12th. This is explained by the revision of the calendar in 1752 which did away with 11 days meaning that May Day fell on what, by our modern calendar, is now the 12th of May. Ancestor of the Maypole, it is also one of the models of Green Men carved into churches and inns. It is strongly associated with the fairies in Gaelic folklore and in Ireland venerable trees are said to be fairy meeting places. It is considered unlucky to uproot them and it was claimed that the demise of the De-Lorean motor company in Ireland was the result of the destruction of a fairy-thorn to make way for the factory.
Although frequently used for garlands and decoration, there is still a widespread superstition that the blossom is unlucky in the house and likely to be followed by a death. Some say this dates from wreaths worn by human sacrifices at Celtic spring festivals - a myth for which there is no evidence. Others say it is the red anthers and white flower that suggest the colour of blood and pallor of death. Many say its roots are in an era of Catholic suppression in Britain where some believed it to be the Virgin Mary's plant and that by bringing the flowers into the house you might be thought a papist. But perhaps the most plausible reason is that one element of the scent is triethylemine, one of the first chemicals given off when flesh begins to decay. Nurses who have worked in Africa have described the scent as being reminiscent of gangrene. Perhaps the superstition dates from a time when corpses were kept at home for a time before burial. Hawthorn must be targeting a particular sector of the insect market in its hunt for pollinators.
But it is also said that the triethylamine scent is reminiscent of the smell of sex, and it is suggested that this feature is implicit in the popular culture of the tree and its role in festivals. Personally, I think that's pretty far fetched.
The triethylamine scent is much more potent from the Woodland or Midland Hawthorn, even being described as nauseating, making this form of the species perhaps more qualified as a harbinger of misfortune.
With thanks to Richard Mabey's excellent Flora Britannica from which much of this blog is ruthlessly plundered.