One of the most iconic images of the west of Ireland is that of the Hawthorn tree, bent over due to the prevailing winds, looking almost like a graceful woman dancing.
The Hawthorn tree is also known as Whitethorn and as the May tree. It is just coming in to blossom here in my garden and during May will be full of white blooms with their distinctive perfume. Once Hawthorn is in bloom you know that summer has arrived. Bealtaine, Irish for the month of May, also marks the beginning of summer in the Celtic calendar.
Medicinally, Hawthorn is taken as a tonic for the heart. The flowering tops can be picked from May onwards – these include twiglets, flowers, buds and leaves. The berries are available from mid September. As a heart tonic it nourishes and strengthens the cardio vascular system, relaxes peripheral blood vessels, balances blood pressure, tones the circulatory system and acts as a diuretic thus reducing blood pressure.. It helps to open up the arteries as it dissolves cholesterol, it reduces palpitations, and can also be used to treat angina. It is an incredibly safe herb with no side effects or contra-indications. However, if one is using allopathic cardio drugs one should see a medical herbalist.
Hawthorn can also be used as a tonic for “emotional” heart problems during menopause and in cases of anxiety, restlessness and other emotional pain.
The flowering buds can be eaten in a salad and the berries can be eaten or fermented into wine. The leaves and fruit have strong drawing powers and can be made into a poultice to draw splinters and thorns.
Metaphysically the Hawthorn helps to ‘open’ the heart to love and compassion and bestows courage on those who feel vulnerable.
A lone or single Hawthorn is regarded as a Faery Tree and in Ireland no-one in their right mind would cause any harm or damage to it because they would risk the wrath of the Faeries. Indeed, during Bealtaine, (when the Faeries are especially active), the trees are decorated with bright ribbons, red cloths, shells and garlands. These are offered to honour the tree and the Faery within and to invoke the blessings of fertility for land, livestock and human folk.
Bealtaine celebrates fertility and abundance, new life, the land awakening. It is thought to go back to the time when the Celts were nomadic herdsmen, driving their cattle out to the summer pastures. The Bealtaine bonfire represents the blessings of Bel (a sun god) and the return of the strength of the sun. Cattle were passed between two bonfires to ensure health and vitality. This fire was very much a sacred fire of health and protection and in Connemara and elsewhere, the ashes were sprinkled on cattle, over crops and around dwellings. Every hearth fire would be doused, put out and relit the following morning with a burning brand from the bonfire to ensure good luck for the coming year.
Young men jumped over the bonfire to impress the girls, demonstrating their strength and virility. Hand fastings or wedding ceremonies often took place at this time of year, as the sap is rising and burgeoning life is obvious everywhere. Hawthorn flowers were included in the wedding bouquet to ensure fertility for the happy couple.
Bealtaine and the Hawthorn are unquestionably linked, both representing the beginning of summer, love, light and fertility. During the Bealtaine celebrations offerings of milk, oats and honey would be made to the goddess of summer for the continuing abundance of life and good fortune.
We are holding a Bealtaine celebration here. See details on the home page and get in touch if you would like to come along and join in.