Why is hawthorn known as the May Tree?
Fritha West, 11/04/2022
Colloquially known as May or the May tree, hawthorn blossom typically appears at the start of May in England and toward the middle of the month further north. However, climate change is bringing flowering forward, meaning the old English name for hawthorn may no longer be as relevant as it once was.
Hawthorn is a common sight across the UK. It is a robust, practical little tree, growing up to 15m tall even in harsh conditions. It’s dense and spiky qualities make it a useful hedgerow plant as well as providing food and shelter for wildlife. Hawthorn trees can live up to an astonishing 400 years old and are steeped in mythology, from the pagan symbol of fertility to the Great Plague.
How many types of hawthorn are there in the UK?
Despite our national familiarity with the tree, many people are not aware that we have two native species of hawthorn. The common hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna, is the taller and more widespread of the two, often found along hedgerows or in scrubland. The midland hawthorn, Crataegus laevigata, is more shrublike and favours ancient woodland habitat. Both traditionally blossom in May time.
When does hawthorn flower?
In the Scottish Highlands you might hear the saying ‘Cast ne’er a cloot til May be oot’. This phrase is a warning not to discard your winter clothes until the hawthorn is in flower, as cold snaps can catch you out until May at the earliest. Once hawthorn blossom arrives, the white and pink flowers coat scrublands, hedgerows and woodland edges, heralding warmer, sunnier days from here on out.
But this year may be different. 2022’s early spell of particularly warm March weather followed by widespread sleet and snow was deemed a “fool’s spring”, which appears to have fooled many of our native species, with hawthorn among them. Nature’s Calendar received observations of hawthorn first flowering at the end of March, with more records coming in throughout April from as far north as Yorkshire. As a variety of plants begin to flower earlier and earlier, the May Tree may soon become the April Tree.
Hawthorn or Blackthorn?
Both trees have creamy-coloured flowers with five petals, and both appear at the same time. Here some key differences:
- Blackthorn blossoms before its leaves start to show, whereas hawthorn flowers after its leaves have emerged. This is one of the best tips for identifying the two species in spring.
- Blackthorn usually flowers first, from around March to June.
- Hawthorn typically flowers in May, but can be found around April to June.
- Hawthorn petals are rounded and fuller than those of blackthorn.
The pagan symbol of fertility, this tree is the ancestor of the Maypole and the source of May Day garlands. The flowers make up the crown of the fairy queen and the wreath of the Green Man. Although beautiful, it is said you should never bring this blossom into your home – partly because it is seen as unlucky, and partly because the smell of the flowers is so bad, it reminded people in medieval times of the Great Plague!