May is undoubtedly the best month to enjoy the Essex countryside when the green fields are fringed with verges of swaying cow parsley and hedgerows seemingly beribboned with hawthorn blossom. Perhaps not so idyllic if you suffer from hay fever, but still a glorious sight and probably the one that I’d miss most of all if I lived somewhere else.
Every hedge on the farm at Slamseys has a little (or a great deal) of hawthorn, which is not surprising as it’s been grown as an impenetrable field boundary marker for centuries. In early May, the tiny buds start to open into delicate white or pink flowers, which are also known as May blossom, developing into deep red, round berries or haws in the autumn.
An old, gnarled hawthorn tree grows in front of the farmhouse on what used to be the boundary between the garden and meadow. Ponies in the field used to shelter under the dense canopy and reach up to nibble the leaves, so that the field side was neatly trimmed six feet above the ground. The branches are encrusted with lichen, it’s terribly lopsided and dominated by an enormous Wellingtonia tree but every year this beautiful deep pink blossom appears.
Ne’er cast a clout ‘til May is out
There seems to be disagreement as to whether this saying advises you to keep on your clothing until the month of May is out or until the May blossom is out, though perhaps the speculation only highlights the fact that the weather in May can be fickle and that old sayings and proverbs can be deliberately ambiguous. The temperature here on Monday was 26C, so this year it was prudent to shed a few layers when the May blossom is out.
There are all sorts of superstitions attached to hawthorn. In ancient times it was a symbol of fertility and marriage; it was linked to unregulated frolicking in fields rather than conjugal love in the home and according to old country superstition, illness or death would soon follow if hawthorn blossom was taken into the house.
Presumably these beliefs were due to the scent, which is heavy and not overly attractive once the flowers start to age and discolour. According to QI, the distinctive element of hawthorn scent is triethylamine, which is one of the first chemicals produced when a human body starts to decay and is also found in human semen and vaginal secretions. Given that, perhaps it’s not surprising that it wasn’t welcome indoors and was linked to death and sex. I think ageing hawthorn blossom smells like the Copydex glue that we used at primary school (which also started as white and yellowed with age).
Having read about the scent of hawthorn blossom, you may be dubious about using it any recipes. You may truly believe that you’ll be bringing death into the house with your bunch of hawthorn flowers. But …
You can eat the leaves and flowers in spring and the berries in the autumn.
Hawthorn leaves, flowers and berries are reputed to improve heart function.
Add young hawthorn leaves to a bowl of salad leaves.
Make a hedgerow (sort of) pesto with the leaves of hawthorn, stinging nettles, wild garlic and jack-by-the-hedge leaves whizzed together in the food processor with walnuts, rapeseed oil and cheddar cheese.
Make Hawthorn Blossom Wine or Hawthorn Blossom Liqueur using these recipes from Dalbeattie Community Initiative or steep the flowers in a sugar syrup solution and then dilute with sparkling water to make Hawthorn Cordial.
Drop hawthorn flowers into the water when making ice cubes.
If you’re going to use flowers for any of these recipes, just remember to use the young, fresh flowers that haven’t started to yellow or brown with age.
Use hawthorn flowers if they smell interesting, but if they pong, just pass them by.