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In Worship of Trees

  Written and Compiled by George Knowles

  Myths, Lore and the Celtic Tree Calendar Birch /  Rowan / Ash /  Alder /  Willow /  Hawthorn /  Oak /  Holly /  Hazel /  Vine /  Ivy /  Reed /  Elder


The Hawthorn tree (Crataegus oxyacantha) is one of the sacred trees of Wicca and Witchcraft, and is associated with “Beltane” the “May Day” spring celebrations.  Beltane honours the Sun god Belenus whose festival originally commenced on the first day the Hawthorn tree blossomed.  It was often referred to as the May tree because it traditionally flowered during the month of May, and its blossoms used for Mayday decorations.  Today however due to seasonal fluctuations brought on through climate change, it has been seen to flower as early as March and April, but Beltane is still celebrated on the 1st of May. 

In folklore the Hawthorn tree is known by many other names such as:  the May tree, Beltane tree, Whitethorn, May blossom, Quick, Thorn, Haw, Halves, Hagthorn, Ladies’ Meat and the Bread and Cheese Tree.  In Ireland it is known as Sceach geal, in France L'épine noble and in Germany Hagedorn.  The German name of Hagedorn means “Hedgethorn”, a name that comes from an early period when the Germans divided their lands into plots by planting hedges of Hawthorn.  The word “haw” is also an old word for hedge.  Whitethorn comes from the whiteness of its bark and Quick from the speed of it growth. 

Worldwide there are over 1,000 species of the Hawthorn tree, but native to Britain there are three main types:  the English Hawthorn (C. oxyacanth), the Midland Hawthorn (C. Laevigata) and the Common Hawthorn (C. monogyna).  The botanical name “Crataegus oxyacantha” is derived from the Greek “kratos” meaning hardness (of the wood), “oxcus” (sharp) and “akantha” (a thorn).  The Midland Hawthorn has several cultivated varieties that produces attractive flowering clusters, some in pink and some in red, however this species and its varieties are often susceptible to leaf spot, fire blight and fungi rust, which causes early defoliation and decline. 

The Hawthorn is a deciduous tree with dense leaves, thorny branches and a short trunk.  It grows in all types of soil and can reach heights of up to 30 feet (9 meters).  It is also known for its longevity and can live to well over 400 years.  By late March into April the Hawthorns leaf-buds open and pale green leaves appear on its branches.  Interspersed with the leaves are masses of tiny white flower buds, which when open from May to June reveal flowers with five white petals surrounding stamens with bright pink heads.  Behind each flower is a single seed-vessel that produces a separate fruit, these begin to appear in July and ripen in October, by which time they resemble bright red miniature apples.  The English Hawthorn contains two to three seeds to each fruit, while the Common Hawthorn contains a single seed.  The bark of a young tree is smooth and grey but as it grows and develops with age it becomes gnarled and rutted with ridged fissures. 

When cut back by coppicing the Hawthorn tree has the ability to throw up new shoots from its base, which is why it has proved so valuable as a hedge tree.  Hedges of Hawthorn provide dense cover and protection for many birds and small animals, making ideal nesting places and shelter from predators.  It also provides them with an abundance of food.  The flowers are important for many nectar-feeding insects of the Lepidoptera species, such as butterflies and moths.  According to the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds), the Hawthorn provides food for over 150 species of insect, of which the sawfly, shieldbug and cockchafer all live in the tree itself.  These as well as other carrion type insects fertilize the flowers, which lends the tree a suggestion of decomposition in its perfume. 


Leaf  -  Flower  -  Fruit

The wood of the Hawthorn is hard with a fine grain and lends itself to a beautiful polish, as such is used for making small luxury items such as walking sticks, handles for knives and daggers, and other fancy turned objects.  The root-wood was used for making trinket boxes and combs for the ladies.  The wood also makes excellent fuel and made the hottest wood-fire known, it was often considered more desirable than Oak for heating ovens.  Charcoal made from its wood has been said to melt pig iron without the need for a blast furnace.

The Hawthorn is often used as a stock tree, not only for grafting varieties of its own species, but also for several other trees species that produce fruit, such as medlar and pear trees.  Many other species of Hawthorns and their hybrids are used as ornamental or street trees.  The tree can be grown from seeds or from cuttings, and grows rapidly for the first 15 years.  Hedgerow trees are grown in seedbeds for the first 2 years and then transplanted into rows, they are normally ready to plant into hedges after 4 years.  The laying of hedges to make them stock proof is an old country skill.

Folklore and Myths: 

In Irish folklore the Hawthorn is sometimes referred to as the fairy bush, due to the belief that fairy spirits inhabit the tree as guardians, and since early times it has always been considered bad luck to cut or damage the tree in fear of offending them.  However after due regard to the guardian spirit, the collecting of sprigs and flowers from the tree particularly during the May Day celebrations was allowed, and thereafter place in the home to banish evil influences. 

In ancient Greece, crowns of Hawthorn blossoms were made for wedding couples, and the wedding party all carried burning torches of Hawthorn.  The Roman goddess Cardea, who presided over marriage and childbirth, was associated with the Hawthorn.  She was also known as the “White Goddess” and was the mistress of Janus who guarded all doorways and portals, as such Cardea became known as the “hinge of the door of the year”.  Her primary symbol was a Hawthorn branch and her festival was celebrated in May.  In iconography she is depicted carrying a bough of Hawthorn as a protective emblem.  This led to the practice of placing Hawthorn leaves in the cradles of newborn children for protection. 

The Hawthorn is often referred to in verse by the phase “by Oak, Ash, and Thorn” (the “Thorn” referring to that of the Hawthorn tree) and is used as a blessing during ritual, or to affirm a charge of power in spell-craft.  In folklore the Oak, Ash, and Thorn was associated with portals leading into the realm of the fairies, in which regard the Hawthorn with its connection to Cardea as the “hinge on the door” became the guardian and protector of the entrances to the Oak and Ash portals, and unless the Hawthorn allowed access to these doorways, the fairy realm remained unseen. 

As well as for hedges around his fields, the Hawthorn had an additional benefit for the farmers of old, for cattle were known to thrive within its protection.  During birth if a calf was premature, hanging its afterbirth on a Hawthorn tree was thought to magically protect the calf and give it quick growth.  The Hawthorn was also planted around Oak and Ash tree groves in order to protect them from damage by storms or grazing cattle. 

An early Christian legend about the Hawthorn begins with the death of Christ and the myths surrounding the Holy Grail.  Christ’s uncle was Joseph of Arimathea, who according to the Gospels of the New Testament was a rich Jew and a member of the Sanhedrin, the ancient Jewish court in Jerusalem.  According to old Cornish legends he was also a tin merchant who traded with miners on the west coast of Britain.  On one of his trading journeys he brought along his nephew, the boy Jesus and together they made a pilgrimage to the Holy Isle of Avalon. 

As the legend has it, during the crucifixion Joseph collected some of the blood of Jesus in a goblet (one used during the Last Supper and known as the Holy Grail), and hid it in a tomb.  Years later Joseph returned to Avalon bringing the Holy Grail with him.  When he moored his boat on Wearyall Hill and stepped ashore, he planted his staff in the ground where it took root and blossomed into a Hawthorn tree, known today as the Glastonbury Thorn.  This was taken as a sign that Christianity would flourish in England and so Joseph built the first Christian church in Britain at Glastonbury.  Somewhere nearby he also hid the Holy Grail, which has never been found since. 

In England heraldry the Hawthorn is the symbol of the House of Tudor.  This came about when on the 22nd August 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth Field, Richard III (the then King of England) was defeated and slain by Henry Tudor the Earl of Richmond, during the battle the Royal Crown of England worn by Richard III got lost or stolen.  It was later found hidden in a Hawthorn bush on the battlefield by Lord Stanley (Henry’s stepfather), who symbolically placed it on Henry’s head.  Henry Tudor was crowned King on the 30th October 1485 and became the first of the Tudor Kings dynasty of England who reigned through till 1603. 

Medicinal uses: 

The Hawthorn has been used as a sedative, an anti-spasmodic and a diuretic, and is a natural regulator of arterial blood pressure.  Known as “valerian of the heart”, the Hawthorn was most valued as a heart stimulant, as such it was mainly used as a cardiac tonic for functional heart troubles.  As a useful diuretic it was used in dropsy and in kidney troubles.  The flowers and berries are astringent and useful in decoctions to cure sore throats.  The leaves have been used as an adulterant for tea, and an excellent liqueur brandy is made from its berries. 

Hawthorn berries also have a long history of use as a heart tonic and have been used for centuries to aid circulation.  The Greeks used them primarily for heart disorders, while the Chinese used them for both digestive and circulatory problems.  The toxicity count of Hawthorn berries is quite low and only becomes evident in large doses, which makes it a relatively harmless heart tonic that produces good results in many associated conditions. 

Magickal Uses 

The Hawthorn tree has long been associated fertility, and still today in Mayday (Beltane) rituals, its blossoms are used to symbolise love and the union of couples in marriage.  Of old young women would eagerly await the first blossoms to appear on the Hawthorn tree, and when found after appropriate regard to the trees guardian spirit, a sprig of the blossom would be taken and kept as a charm to encourage the interest of a suitable husband. 

Care should be taken to give due regard to the tree before removing any of its branches.  It is important not to damage the tree in case the guardian spirit becomes angered.  Any Hawthorn tree standing alone should be avoided, and only parts from trees forming hedges should be taken.  The Hawthorn tree is particularly sacred to the fairies, and in Ireland and Britain is part of the fairy-tree triad known as the:  Oak, Ash and Thorn”, and where all three trees grow together it is said that one may see the fairies. 

Early on the dawn of Mayday, men and women would bathe in the dew of the Hawthorn blossom to increase health, luck and beauty.  Woman who washed their faces in it would become beautiful, while men who washed their hands in it would become skilled craftsmen.  Today in pagan Ireland, newly wed couple still adhere to the old practice of dancing around a Hawthorn tree to bless and ensure a long and fruitful marriage. 

Off old, the tree was regarded as a powerful symbol of protection, and was often planted near a house to protect it against lightning and damage from storms.  In the past most Witch’s gardens contained at least one Hawthorn tree, which as a guardian and protector of the entrances to the “Otherworld”, protected the house against evil spirits.  In Ireland it is believed that food left over from the May Eve dinner should not be thrown away or wasted, but left near the Hawthorn tree as an offering to the spirits that inhabit the tree. 

Also on May Eve it was an old custom to and make a wish by tie ribbons or shreds of personal clothing onto a Hawthorn tree, especially where they grew near wells.  The strips of cloth needed to be symbolically appropriate to the nature of the wish (i.e. blue for health, pink or red for love, green or gold for prosperity).  These were said to be gifts for the fairies who dwelt in the tree, and if pleased they would make your wish come true. 

The Hawthorns wood is an ideal medium for making talismans and wands, which can be used for protection, health and luck or used as a tool in rituals to enhanced spiritual development and communication.  If you wish to cut a piece of live wood from a tree, be sure to do so with due reverence and thanks to the tree’s guardian before hand.  As an alternative there are usually plenty of discarded branches to be found particularly after heavy storms.  To make a talisman, strip off the bark while the branch is still green and before it dries hard onto the wood, then store it outside until you are ready to work on it, this will stop the wood from drying out too quickly.  Carving is more easily done on green wood than when it has dried out, for the wood of the Hawthorn is especially hard.  Wands can also be made in much the same way. 

Another old custom was to make a Hawthorn globe or charm ball from its twigs and foliage.  Traditionally this was made at first light on the old Celtic New Year’s Day (i.e. at Samhain) and tied with a white ribbon.  The old charm ball from the previous year was then burned on a bonfire of straw, ash twigs and acorns.  This represented your old self with all the previous years troubles and sorrows being consumed in the fire.  Your new self with all your hopes and aspirations can then be forged into the new globe and hung in a safe place until the next New Year. 


The Hawthorns deity associations are with:  Blodeuwedd (Welsh) a goddess of spring magickally created from flowers, Cardea (Roman) the goddess who presides over marriage and childbirth, Flora (Roman) the goddess of flowers, youth and spring, Hera (Greek) the goddess of women and marriage and Hyman (Greek) a god of the marriage ceremony who carries the bridal torch made from Hawthorn.  Its gender type is Masculine.  Its planet ruler is Mars.  Its associated element is Fire.  It is used in association with:  Health Issues, Fertility, Weddings, Protection, Death and Communication with the Spirit World. 

Astrologically Hawthorn people (i.e. those who are born during the month of May) are stubborn but loving people who tend to be very beautiful in youth.  They bring out the worst in their friends but not in a bad way, more as a way of helping them to root out bad habits and attitudes.  They are supportive and protective of all they consider to be family.  They can be tough to work with and have a single-minded attitude.  They do not joke around but attend only to the business at hand, which makes them very shrewd business people.  They are very dependable and stable, and won’t go back on their words. 



Cunningham's Encyclopedia Of Magical Herbs - By Scott Cunningham.

Encyclopedia of Wicca & Witchcraft - By Raven Grimassi.

The Encyclopedia of Witches & Witchcraft - By Rosemary Ellen Guiley.

Tree Wisdom (The difinitive guidebook to the myth, folklore and healing power of Trees) - By Jacqueline Memory Paterson.

AA Book of Britain's Countryside.

The Penguin Hutchinson Reference Library (CD cassette).

Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia (CD cassette).

Plus many websites to numerous to mention.


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In Worship of Trees - Myths, Lore and the Celtic Tree Calendar.  For descriptions and correspondences of the thirteen sacred trees of Wicca/Witchcraft see the following:  Birch /  Rowan / Ash /  Alder /  Willow /  Hawthorn /  Oak /  Holly /  Hazel /  Vine /  Ivy /  Reed /  ElderAlso see:  The Willow Tree (Folk Music)


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Knowledge vs Wisdom by Ardriana Cahill I Talk to the TreesAwakeningThe Witch in YouA Tale of the Woods


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