As we guessed, May turned out to be the warmest on record, and June has matched and even surpassed that. Sadly, the plants that were enjoying the warm growing conditions are now struggling with the excessive heat, and despite greatly increased watering we may lose some of our more delicate and newly planted items. One of the new Yew pyramids is showing signs of distress already. Our rainwater harvester hasn’t had any rain to harvest!
Many plants, of course, have already bloomed and are showing their seed heads and fruits. We have had currants of every colour, and a marvellous crop of delicious raspberries, much enjoyed by the volunteers as a treat for their hard work. In our wild flower garden the Red Campion, attractive to butterflies and bees, has shed its petals and is now offering up extraordinary ‘vases’ of seed. In former times the crushed seed was believed to be a cure for snake bite, but it is not recognised as a medicinal herb nowadays. However, it is one of many plants containing saponin (sapo being the Latin for soap) and its root can be simmered in hot water to create a soap substitute useful for washing clothes. Red campion is a widely distributed native plant, with a myriad of different common names depending where you live – just a few of these are Scalded Apples, Soldier’s Buttons, Devil’s Flower, Mary’s Rose, Ragged Robin and Gipsy Flower… Do you know of a local Cheshire name?
Summers at the Bath House are filled with community events and visits. We joined in the Food and Drink Fair again this year, which in the glorious sunshine attracted more than its usual crowds. We had a very good pitch near to Wetherspoons, and sold a large variety of herbs, some grown by our volunteers and others sourced locally.
We also gave out information about growing plants at home, and leaflets on the Bath House. One of the easier plants, flourishing particularly in shadier areas, is the foxglove: a biennial, it pops up when you’re not expecting it!
Extended summer days allow us to put on evening tours for interested groups, and this month we welcomed the local branch of The Women’s Register. They are (according to their website) “ interested in everything and talk about anything”! Nino gave his history tour of the Bath House and Garden Shelter, and Vanessa, Lyn, Linda and Ros took them on a tour of the Physic Garden.
An exciting development for the garden is a new connection with the College of Naturopathic Medicines*, introduced to us by Barbara Wilkinson, our regular friend and mentor from the Herb Society*. We hosted a recent study day on site, when students from all over the country learned about identifying herbs and about their traditional and modern use in medicine. We too learned many things, and on this occasion found a new use for the wonderful hawthorn tree: it sheltered us from the fierce sunshine! We hope our Physic Garden’s range of medicinal plants will become a regular teaching resource for these students.[See below for more information about Hawthorn]
By the way, we have been working on the website, too, this month – you may have noticed a new page, “About the Garden”. Please take a look!
HAWTHORN Crataegus monogyna
In May, its masses of creamy-white blossom colour our hedgerows. During the autumn and winter, red fruits known as ‘haws’ appear. All year round, its sharp thorns make it an ideal, fast-growing, hedging plant. And from these characteristics come its most common names: May Tree, Thorn, Hawthorn, and Quickthorn.
Hawthorn is one of the UK’s most familiar native trees, as much is grown for hedging and has been for centuries, especially in the period between 1750 and 1850, when the Act of Enclosure saw thousands of acres of common land divided up by hedges. More recently, people moving into brand new local authority houses after the Second World War were often given a bundle of hawthorn ‘slips’, or cuttings, to create a hedge around their gardens, and many of these hedges survive, half a century later. ‘Thorn’ also appears in many place names, more than that of any other tree: a survival from Anglo-Saxon field and boundary names. And even the name we now apply to the berry, ‘haw’, is believed to derive from the Old English word for hedge, so the tree is really a ‘hedge-thorn’.
Common hawthorn supports a wide range of wildlife, including hundreds of different insect, particularly the caterpillars of many types of moth. Its flowers are eaten by dormice and provide nectar and pollen for bees and other pollinators, and the haws are a food source for many birds and small mammals.
Myth and Magic
This tree is the only British plant named after the month in which it usually blooms. The magnificent multitudes of creamy white flowers are a signature of May throughout Britain, except in Scotland, where it usually doesn’t bloom until June… which is a good excuse for looking at this plant in our June blog!
“Ne’er cast a clout ’til May is out” – in other words, don’t throw off your winter clothes until the hawthorn tree is in bloom, or until the end of the month of May. Yes, the original meaning of this centuries’ old saying is disputed, but since then we’ve had changes in both the calendar and the climate, so it works either way!
As a child in rural Yorkshire, I would nibble the young leaves, which we called ‘Bread and Cheese’. But we were told never to bring the beautiful flowering branches into the house: that was deemed extremely unlucky, even bringing death on the house. Botanists have recently discovered that the chemical trimethylamine present in hawthorn blossom is also one of the first chemicals formed in decaying animal tissue. In earlier times, that smell would be very familiar, so this may be why the blossom became associated with death. (It has alternatively been suggested that the taboo arose because the white petals and red anthers were reminders of Christ’s bloody bandages.)
The traditional May Pole was originally made from hawthorn, and hawthorn was said to make the best magic wands. The 13thcentury Scottish mystic and poet, Thomas the Rhymer, met the Faery Queen by a hawthorn bush. She led him into the Faery Underworld, but upon his return he found he had been absent for seven years. In Ireland, many of the isolated trees found in the landscape were hawthorns, said to be inhabited by fairies: damaging them was said to bring down the anger, often murderous, of their supernatural guardians .
There are many different species of hawthorn, but in Britain the two most common species offer us very similar medicinal benefits, so we can use either one as medicine or food. These species are Common Hawthorn Crataegus monogyna (this has one seed per berry), and Midland Hawthorn Cratageus laevigata (two seeds and more deeply indented leaves). The young leaves, flower buds and berries are all edible, and the whole plant has extremely valuable medicinal properties, which have long been known in folk medicine for remedial action in heart disease and high blood pressure.
Modern herbalists know it for treating angina and arrhythmia, as it increases the blood flow to the heart muscles and restores normal heart beat. It is also used as an anti-spasmodic, diuretic, sedative, tonic and even, combined with ginkgo, to enhance poor memory by improving blood supply to the brain. As a heart tonic it is normally presented as a tea or a tincture.
The bark is astringent and has been used to treat malaria and other fevers. Even eating the berries can stimulate the increased performance of anti-oxidants.
As always, it is inadvisable to self-medicate without guidance, and people already taking prescribed heart medicines should seek professional advice.
Fresh new leaves, emerging flower buds, and flowers can be usefully added to salads in the early spring. You could add a dressing; or mix the young leaves with grated roots such as beetroot, carrot, and ginger. Fresh berries can be preserved in sauces, jams and jellies, or added to chutney. Dried, the fruits can be chopped and sprinkled on cereal or added to your morning muesli.
Bark, twigs, berries, blossom and leaves can all be used in dyeing, though the range of colour and depth of hue is variable. For example: the red berries may produce only a pale pink or even grey; wool dyed with blossoms and leaves turns pale lemony yellow; and wool becomes golden if the dye is made using twigs and leaves.
A tree with many, many gifts to offer us!
Acknowledgements – thanks to many contributors on the following websites: