Hawthorn is ubiquitous in Oxfordshire, growing as readily on the chalk uplands of White Horse Hill as in the water meadows of the Windrush at Minster Lovell. For country folk its greatest practical use was as
a hedging plant. The word comes from the Anglo Saxon Hagathorn where Haga means hedge.
Alternative names include whitethorn and ‘quickthorn’. Quick means living (as in ‘the quick and the
dead’). Villagers could enclose a patch of land by ‘quickset hedging’ or setting live cuttings directly in the earth where they would grow to form a dense barrier.
The fruits, flowers and leaves of the hawthorn have medicinal
uses known throughout western Europe since the 17th century. Doctors prescribe hawthorn chiefly for heart problems and cardiovascular disease. Extracts are processed into tinctures, tablets and capsules.
The leaves and leaf-buds of young hawthorns can
be eaten straight from the tree. In country districts they were known as 'bread-and-cheese', and supplied welcome fare in times of hardship or famine.
Fruits ripen in autumn to red berries called 'haws' which are used for making jellies, jam and 'Hawthorn
A widespread taboo
In centuries past, people associated the smell of hawthorn blossom with the odour of death. In Maytime you might deck the outsides of houses with branches, but there was a taboo against bringing
them into the home. Botanists have since discovered that the chemical trimethylamine present in hawthorn blossom is also one of the first chemicals formed in decaying animal tissue.
In bygone times, when corpses were kept in homes for several days prior
to burial, people would have been all too familiar with the smell of death. Small wonder that hawthorn blossom was unwelcome inside the house.