Without being too much exaggeration I can safely say that the Hawthorn has been crucial in helping to shape the world to its present state. This shrub like tree not only fuelled the Iron age but it helped define the landscape of the UK and beyond.
Hawthorn grows slowly so unlike faster growing trees, such as pine or ash, it is dense. Indeed it is this density that helps it burn so hot, hotter than other common dense woods such as oak, apple and beech. All were used in to help smelt and forge iron ore into weapons. Some bright spark also found out that when you add a little carbon into iron whilst smelting it you can alter its structure and make it stronger than bronze. Thus the bronze age gave way to the iron age all thanks to trees.
From its early smelting days, hawthorn continued to be a plant that influenced the balance of power. In the years between 1604-1914 Britain was shaped by the Enclosures acts. These acts meant that landlords could enclose land that was once in common use and either kick out or start charging rent to those who were farming “their” land. Hawthorn and other plants such as blackthorn were the favoured choice for the hedging. If you have ever tried to climb though a hawthorn hedge you’ll understand why. The thick matt of thorns render areas impenetrable.
When Britain went onto colonising the globe they took their plants and enclosing techniques with them. Impenatrable hedges were laid right across the Empire. The hedges themselves might now have eroded away or been replaced by barbed wire but the legacy lives on.
How To Identify and Forage For Hawthorn
Hawthorn grows to 5-15m and can be about 6m wide. The bark is smooth and grey on young trees and on older trees longitudinal (top to bottom) grooves start to appear. Thorns grow from the branches at right angles and can be from 1-3cm long. The leaves, which appear in very early spring, budding sometimes in late winter are indented into 3-7 lobes reaching halfway or more to the central vein. The leaves can be of variable shape but often they are toothed towards the tip.
Hawthorn is one of the first trees to blossom in early spring and as the snow melts, days lengthen and plants start to grow. It is one of the best signals to the forager that spring has sprung and that the wild food larder will be added to.
It is a little more fiddly picking the blossom than the haws so do be aware or you might get pricked! It is also advisable to collect in a paper bag as this makes it easier to dry the blossom. Once picked the bag can be hung in a warm dark place, such as a stationary cupboard, for a couple of months. They can then be used to make delicious teas.