Villain of the scrub

Hawthorn predominates amongst the scrub layer covering so much of the chalk hills on the Estate. It is the first to conquer open grassland , and survives for many years quite happily on the thin dry soils of the uplands, where it is despised by wild flower enthusiasts! However it plays an important part in the nature of things, giving cover to nesting birds in Spring, and a regular supply of Winter food to the migrant flocks of Redwing and Fieldfare. This is another one of those symbiotic arrangements of nature whereby two things which are unrelated benefit each other. The tree provides the food for the bird which in turn propagates more trees through it’s droppings. So we can blame the Redwing for the success of the Hawthorn!

In fact common hawthorn can support more than three hundred insects. It is the food plant for caterpillars of many moths, including the hawthorn, orchard ermine, pear leaf blister, rhomboid tortrix, light emerald, lackey, vapourer, fruitlet mining tortrix, small eggar and lappet moths! Its flowers are eaten by dormice and provide nectar and pollen for bees and other pollinating insects. The haws are rich in antioxidants and are eaten by the migrating birds, as well as small mammals.

Also known as the May-tree, due to its flowering period, it is the only British plant named after the month in which it blooms. Flowers are highly scented, white or occasionally pink with five petals, and grow in flat-topped clusters.

In Britain, it was believed that bringing hawthorn blossom into the house would be followed by illness and death, and in Medieval times it was said that hawthorn blossom smelled like the Great Plague. Botanists later learned that the chemical trimethylamine in hawthorn blossom is also one of the first chemicals formed in decaying animal tissue, so it is not surprising that hawthorn flowers are associated with death.

Common hawthorn timber is a creamy brown colour, finely grained and very hard. It can be used in turnery and engraving, and was used to make veneers and cabinets, as well as boxes, tool handles and boat parts. It also makes good firewood and charcoal, and has a reputation for burning at high temperatures as the volunteers will testify.

The haws can be eaten raw but may cause mild stomach upset. They are most commonly used to make jellies, wines and ketchups. 

So what’s not to like about the hawthorn? It’s a question of degree, when the extent of the grassland versus the scrub is decided by the Ashridge team with the help of Natural England, which in turn keeps us volunteers in a job!

Mary Webb 1881 – 1927

How sweet a thought, How strange a deed, To house such glory in a seed–
A berry, shining rufously, Like scarlet coral in the sea!  A berry, rounder than a ring, So round, it harbours everything;
So red, that all the blood of men Could never paint it so again. And, as I hold it in my hand,
A fragrance steals across the land:
Rich, on the wintry heaven, I see A white, immortal hawthorn-tree.


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