The hawthorn is probably one of the most common trees of Dartmoor and can be seen resplendent in the hedges of the lowlands as well as standing in solitude high on the tors. Nothing can compare with walking down a Dartmoor lane in April with the heady scent of the May blossom filling the air, A. E. Houseman called it the “high snow drift in the hedge.” But equally as evocative is the wintertime sight of the scarlet haws covered in icy white frost. The hawthorn blossom has always been recognised as the herald of warmer weather but whereas one time it was normal to see the blossom in May it is more likely to be April nowadays.
The hardiness of the tree is amply demonstrated in its Latin name – Crataegus monogyna, crataegus deriving from the Greek word Kratos which means ‘strong’. The berries of the tree are known as ‘haws’ and this word derives from the Anglo Saxon word Haga which means ‘hedge’, ‘enclosure’ or ‘curtilage’. This reflects the main use of the tree, namely for hedging, as it is fast growing, stock proof, and would have been useful for its berries, wood and browse. On Dartmoor the hawthorn carries several alternative names which are ‘Chuck Cheese’, ‘Eagle Berry’, ‘Aggle’, and ‘Pixie Pears’. It is thought that the name ‘Chuck Cheese’ came from the fact that children used to eat the young green leaves which tasted rather ‘cheesy’.
All across Devon it has been considered extremely unlucky to bring hawthorn into the house as it would be tempting fate and illness or death would surely follow. It is possible that this reputation stemmed from the belief that Christ’s Crown of Thorns was made from Hawthorn.
The blossom of the hawthorn has long been a major component of the May Day decorations as seen in the following lines of the Devon poet, William Browne:
“Mark the faire blooming of the Hawthorn tree,
Who, finely clothed in a robe of white
Fills the wanton eye with May’s delight.”
There is also a lot of weather lore attached to the Hawthorn tree, for instance:
“Many nits (nuts), many pits (graves),
Many sloans (sloes), many groans,
Many aggles, many cradles.”
As far as the haws or aggles go, this suggests that if there are plenty of berries on the hawthorn trees then there will be plenty of new babies to follow. Another saying goes:
Many cold toes.”
Once again if there are an abundance of haws and sloes then this portends of a cold winter to follow. A well known saying is:
“Cast not a clout til’ the May is out.”
This actually refers to the hawthorn blossom or ‘May’ as opposed to the month and means that you should never take off any clothing before the May blossoms, clout is an old English word for cloth or clothing. For centuries the haws have been thought to be a remedy for heart complaints, especially when eaten straight of the bush.
As briefly mentioned above, the wood of the hawthorn is particularly strong and can often be seen as handles for tools, walking sticks, and many forms of turnery. It was however as a hedge tree that the hawthorn was most commonly used because when properly maintained it forms the best possible stock-proof barrier.
In the autumn/winter the hawthorn is a vital ‘larder’ for many birds and to me it is a splendid sight to see flocks of Fieldfares browsing on the berries in spells of cold weather. By providing a source of winter food ensures the very survival of the hawthorn as it is the birds that disperse the seeds via their droppings. This is why you can often see gnarled old hawthorns in some of the remotest and bleaker areas of Dartmoor.
Sometimes you will hear the hawthorn referred to as ‘The Butcher’s Larder’, this comes from the fact that the Shrike or ‘Butcher Bird‘ impales its prey on the thorns for later consumption thus using the hawthorn as a ‘larder’.
The only place-name on Dartmoor that directly refers to the tree is a small rockfield known as ‘Hawthorn Clitters’ which is surprising when you see the number of hawthorns on the moor.
This year (2011) the hawthorn trees are positively groaning with berries which will not only mean a fully stocked larder for the winter birds but could also provide a well stocked drinks cabinet for us. Although not a traditional Dartmoor drink, Hawthorn Vodka is simple to make and just as easy to drink on a cold winter’s eve. As with any of nature’s bounty the hawthorn is well protected by thorns so if you fancy gathering some best wear a thick jacket or risk looking like you have just fought a tiger. Firstly you will need (depending on your thirst) a clean glass container with a tight fitting lid, then enough aggles to fill it to around the 2/3rds mark. Having procured your berries they will need to be washed, dried and slightly crushed and then tipped into your glass container. Next take a bottle of clear, unflavoured Vodka which needs to have an alcohol content of at least 40% and should cost less than a tenner, any more is a waste of your money. Then simply fill the container making sure all the berries are covered and seal with the tight fitting lid. Now comes the hard bit, place the container in a dark place at a temperature of between 12 and 20° C and leave well alone for 6 – 8 weeks. It is ok to inspect the container on a regular basis and even to give the container a shake but do not break the seal. Once the suggested time span has elapsed filter and strain the hawthorn vodka into a clean glass bottle and seal with a tight fitting cork. No, you still can’t drink it, patience is a virtue, for best results now store the bottle/bottles back in a dark place for 2 – 3 months where it can mature at room temperature. Having served its time you can then sample the delights of your hedgerow bounty at your leisure accompanied with fond memories of getting scratched to buggery when you harvested the aggles. And one important thing to remember – ‘always stick around for one more drink – that’s when things happen’.