Hawthorn: of folk lore, religion and a very useful planty thing benefit for horses and hoomans

This article first appeared in The Barefoot Horse magazine (January 2018)


It’s a slightly odd thing about writing a magazine article in November when you know it won’t be published (if it gets through the Editor’s ‘cut’) until January. Here I am sitting down to write about hawthorn when much of it will just be ‘sticky’ hedges by the time you’re reading this. However, I’ve chosen hawthorn this issue due to the many medicinal (and some culinary) benefits that it can bring to horses and hoomans alike and also as a way of looking forward to the Spring and away from the cold and damp of a British winter, as well as the possibly low spirits after the Christmas and New Year celebrations. Hawthorn really is one of those ‘super foods’ and is close to my #1 planty thing out there – the other one that vies for that position is yarrow and maybe I’ll do something on that for the next issue.

Okay, for all those that follow Gardeners’ World on the tele box, hawthorn, or to give it its botanical name of Crataegus Laevigata or C. Monogyna (for there are indeed two plants called ‘hawthorn’ – one with two seeds and Monogyna with one seed – but both can be treated as the same for our purposes) is a hedging plant that can be found up to elevations of around 600m all over the UK and Europe. You’ll find it in field boundaries, sometimes in urban planting schemes, in open deciduous woodland, on its own, on heaths and ‘up and down dale’.

In short it’s pretty much a common plant in the UK unless you live up a mountain in which case it might be worth you coming down once in a while to make use of it ! The plant also goes by the name of ‘May’ and is the source of that wonderful farmers’ almanac phrase, “Ne’er plant a clout ‘til May is out” which of course not many people other than farmers really understand. The plant was thought to flower on May Day until some clever person changed the calendar and so now it ‘may’ not. It does, however, have strong Pagan traditions in that two people were often crowned as the King and Queen of the May to mark the start of summer. However, their ‘reign’ didn’t last long as they were summarily sacrificed at the end of the growing season (nice after all their good work eh !) which is why hawthorn is still regarded as both a symbol of hope and death. Later the Christian Church ‘borrowed’ the importance of hawthorn from the Pagans (as they did with so many other things) and it was believed that Christ’s crown of thorns was made form hawthorn twigs and that The Glastonbury Thorn sprouted where Joseph of Aramathea struck the ground on Wearyall Hill.

The tree has always been thought of as having magical properties and in Medieval times it was said that witches lived in the hedging but that having a hawthorn hedge would ward off fairies – yes, Medieval folk could be contrary in their beliefs ! The flowers were thought to carry the scent of plague victims and that having a blossom in the house meant that death would visit. Not to worry though because if a sprig was gathered at midnight on Twelfth Night it would bring good luck or if on Holy Thursday and placed in the rafters it would ward off lightning strikes. Of course the latter was a fair bet as not many medieval houses had TV aerials that might attract lightning so they were pretty safe there ! Cutting down a lone hawthorn was a real no-no as this is where fairies lived and became known as ‘Fairy Trees’ and bad luck would follow the felling of them. Farmers would work around Fairy Trees – some still do – and Belfast University had to re-align new buildings around one in more modern times.

A lone hawthorn tree on the track system. The horses don't pay it much attention - could it be a Faerie Tree ?

A lone hawthorn tree on the track system. The horses don't pay it much attention - could it be a Faerie Tree ?

Now, often in planty things we see Folk Lore aspects grown up where the planty thing has great medicinal healing ‘power’. The reason to give you the above is maybe to illustrate just how well revered hawthorn is in medicinal circles as it is heavily linked to both Pagan, Christian religions and many countryside practices. So, let’s take a wander around some of the possible benefits of this magical tree – other than staving off lightning strikes.

In human medicine it is well regarded as an astringent herb (strictly speaking a ‘herb’ should have soft stems but it may also be something that cures and can be used in a culinary sense too) to staunch the bleeding from small cuts and grazes. When made into a poultice it can also draw out thorns and splinters from wounds – sort of ironic really given that you may have got the thorn implant from the hawthorn in the first place and Culpeper was not slow to recognise this in his writings. It is also well regarded in the overall health of the heart and vascular system with some modern herbalists suggesting that it is more effective than statins especially due to its relative lack of toxicity when compared to some cardiac medicine. So this is great for the human herd but the same benefits help the horse herd as well.

The ability of hawthorn to lower blood pressure, to change ‘bad’ cholesterol into ‘good’ cholesterol, to strengthen the heart as a muscle, to create a dilating of blood vessels (vasodilation – see, I do remember some of that anatomy stuff I used to teach !) and to regulate the heart rate itself is all good stuff when it comes to horses that are prone to laminitis whether that is chronic or acute. We know that one of the contributory factors to laminitis is vaso-constriction and subsequent damage to the lamella in the hoof capsule so if we can clear, blood vessels of plague and help blood flow with vaso-dilation then that has to be a good thing to help this symptom. It’s not just the major arteries that benefit from hawthorn but the smaller capillaries as well and these are especially important when dealing with laminitic conditions as well as human herd heart heath (I’ll try better with my alliterations later on !). The plant is high in anti-oxidants which travel around the body and mop up free radicals which can damage organs and body tissue. Again we see a benefit here for laminitic prone horses in that fat cells produce free radicals which they release when they ‘burst’ into the body and, we all should know by now, that fat pads on the horse’s body are a sign and pre-curser to possible laminitis. The hawthorn is a tree that just keeps on giving. One of the most important benefits of the action of the phyto chemicals in it is that is slows down the transfer of sugars across the gut wall and so it may help to prevent ‘sugar spikes’ which can then lead to insulin related problems and even full blown insulin resistance in our horses which again is part of the laminitic process.

Our horses on the track love hawthorn and they seek to eat it all through the year. In the winter the woody parts provide bark which helps with gut fill and bacterial balance. In the Spring they’ll eat the flowers and young leaves. They choose to eat it all through the summer and deftly pick off the parts that are fresh and tender. Later in the year the berries – haws- are eaten and then the cycle starts all over again. We have about 300 yards of high hawthorn hedging all along a footpath that runs up one side of our track and down the drive to the road. We’ve also planted hawthorn bushes along two other sides of the track to give the horses choices when it comes to browsing. The latter are slow growing but with some pruning of the tops they’re developing nicely sideways now. The best time to plant hawthorn is in Feb or March – another reason for having this as the subject for the Jan edition of this magazine (you see there is a ‘plan’ after all !) – and best to get bare root plants which can easily be purchased from on-line nurseries at reasonable prices. Planting at this time allows the bare roots to establish a little so that when the warmer weather comes they can grow well and have a head start on the growing season. You may need to protect them again the horses nibbling or rabbits but they’re well worth it for hedging security as well as medicinal needs for the horses and general browsing value. However, it’s not just the horses that benefit from hawthorn and various parts of it can be used by the human heard for salads, as a garnish, in a hawthorn ketchup, as a fruit ‘leather’ and more besides. You see hawthorn is a super food and as such it’s ‘super’ for the neds and the folk who look after them. It’s steeped in magic, folk lore, religious and Pagan history and it’s found everywhere (unless you’re up that mountain !). Best of all, it’s free ! Happy foraging. More next issue …. Thanks for reading this ‘what I writ’.

Charlie channels his 'inner giraffe' to reach across the footpath and get to the hawthorn hedge

Charlie channels his 'inner giraffe' to reach across the footpath and get to the hawthorn hedge

Stuart Attwood