Hawthorn, by Michael Blencowe

You could set your calendar by it. Around the first day of May, our ancestors would step outside to find foamy white clouds erupting across the Sussex countryside; the Hawthorn was blooming, spring was turning to summer. The sight was so visually stunning and so linked with the arrival of May that Hawthorn became the only British plant to be named after the month in which it blooms. Well, the name Hawthorn is derived from the Anglo-Saxon hagathorn (haga meaning hedge). I’m referring to that other name for Hawthorn: May. 

Unlike the impetuous Blackthorn, which flowers in March before it’s even bothered to grow leaves, the Hawthorn is more dignified. It waits until it has clothed itself in undergarments of lobed leaves before it dons a resplendent gown of exquisite white flowers. This stunning costume and perfect timing meant Hawthorn took centre stage at May Day celebrations and it partied with Green Men, Morris Dancers, Maypoles and May Queens. ‘Gathering nuts in May’ actually refers to ‘gathering knots of May’ to make May Day garlands and decorations. Then, in the middle of the eighteenth century, tragedy struck. I don’t know about you, but I get thrown into disarray twice a year when the clocks change. My life would have gone into meltdown in 1752 as our whole calendar changed from Julian to Gregorian, and we lost an entire 11 days. In this new timeline, Hawthorn now found itself late for the party, blooming around May 12th.

It wasn’t the first time Hawthorn had been cast aside. Superstitions dictated that bringing Hawthorn indoors led to misfortune – even death. This could stem from the fact that Hawthorn blooms release trimethylamine, which gives the flowers that unpleasant smell of cat’s wee and attracts pollinating insects. It’s also a chemical formed in decaying tissue and reminded people of the smell of Black Death – and nobody wanted to be reminded of that.

I remember at primary school being taught ‘Ne’re cast a clout ‘til May is out’. I translated this gibberish into the fact that you should keep your warm clothes on until the end of May. I’ve only just discovered that ‘May is out’ refers to Hawthorn blooming. My clouts could have been cast weeks earlier. But the world has changed since I was a nipper – we’re warming up. For a temperature-sensitive plant like Hawthorn, the blooming times are changing again. Hawthorn is responding to climate change by flowering up to two weeks earlier than it was thirty years ago. It has crept back to bloom around May Day and is now more commonly seen flowering at the end of April. So this May Day, cast your clouts, get out into the great outdoors, and welcome the return of the real May Queen.  

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