Hawthorn Meaning & Symbolism
My Celtic hawthorn art plus a look at hawthorn meaning, symbolism, stories, folklore and traditions...
Hawthorn, commonly known as whitethorn or may, is one of our most beautiful spring trees in the countryside, where you will often see it in hedgerows festooned with tiny, white, pungently-scented blossoms, during the month of May.
Hawthorn is a native tree to the British Isles and in Irish Brehon law, dating from early Celtic times, the hawthorn was known as a ‘peasant tree’.
Celtic tree calendar: 13 May to 9 June
Historic pollen records show hawthorn was in Britain at least as early as 6000BC.
The Gaelic name for hawthorn is ‘huath’ – which may also relate to the Anglo-Saxon word ‘haw’ which is believed to mean ‘hedge’.
Hawthorn is now widely used as a hedging plant after the 19th century General Enclosures Act, but in earlier times, the wood was used to make small personal items such as knife handles, combs and trinket boxes.
It’s a tree that grows alongside people and has become a part of our lives and traditions…
Hawthorn has also been used as a black dye as well as for healing and as a foodstuff – the old country name for hawthorn is ‘Bread and Cheese’ and the berries can be made in tasty jellies, chutneys and jams, while both berries and flowers can be drunk as a herbal tea.
The Tree of Passion
Hawthorn has a strong association with fertility, passion and love.
The Ancient Greek goddess Hera conceived twins, Ares and Eris, when she touched hawthorn blossoms – and hawthorn is also the tree of the Roman goddess Cardea…
Cardea is the consort of the god Janus, from whom we take the name for the month of January. He’s the god of doorways – openings and endings.
It’s said that Janus gave Cardea hawthorn and she uses it to protect the doorways and thresholds of the home space. Cardea is especially associated with giving blessings for weddings and providing protection for both women in childbirth and babies.
Hawthorn seems to be particularly associated with wedding celebrations, perhaps because of its longtime reverence as the tree of that iconic May Day marriage of springtime that’s re-enacted in villages across Britain – the crowning of the May Queen, often bedecked in may blossom, and her joining together with the Oak King.
The first of May, Beltane, has traditionally been the moment of the year when Spring (may) enjoins with Summer (oak) – and has, historically, been a celebration of springtime passions when garlands and crowns are woven from may blossoms and the people go ‘a-maying’ or ‘garlanding’ to celebrate the greenery of the season – “bringing in the may”.
This was a good time for love spells as well. Young girls would look for the first flowering of the may blossom and would break a twig, allowing it to hang…
That night, they would dream of their future husband – and in the morning, would return to find the twig and keep it as a charm while awaiting their beloved.
Chaucer, in the 14th century, notes how hawthorn is associated with springtime vitality and passion:
“Mark the fair blooming of the Hawthorn Tree,
Who, finely clothed in a robe of white,
Fills full the wanton eye with May’s delight.”
The Spring Tree
The May Day rituals of the hawthorn blossom make the whitethorn well and truly a symbol of spring.
In pre-1752 calendars, May Day would’ve fallen in mid-May in our modern calendar – so the may blossom would’ve been truly abundant, and it would really feel like Spring had well and truly sprung!
Even today, we know the saying: “Cast ne’er a clout till May be out.” Meaning – keep your winter woollies on until the may blossom is out (ie until it’s really spring). May blossom was seen as the bringer of Spring.
May blossoms and may branches feature widely in May Day celebrations across hundreds of years. It’s thought that the May Queen represents the Celtic goddess Blodeuwedd.
Blodeuwedd is a springtime goddess associated with hawthorn and said to have been created magically from nine different kinds of spring flowers to be the wife of the Celtic sun god Lleu Llaw-Gyffes.
In May Day celebrations, the May Queen needs to be symbolically ‘won’ by the Oak King – also sometimes recognised as the Green Man or Jack-in-the-Green/Jack-in-the-May – he wears hawthorn blossom, too, in his costume of greenery.
The idea of the suitor to the May Queen having to ‘win’ her or prove his worthiness is also one of the associations of the qualities of the hawthorn tree – the idea of the challenge…
The Tree of Challenges
If we see the ‘winning’ of the May Queen as a challenge of worthiness for the suitor, we can also see aspects of this in earlier hawthorn stories…
In the story of Culhwch and Olwen from the Mabinogion, Olwen’s powerful father, Yspaddaden Pencawr (translated as ‘Giant Hawthorn’) sets 39 impossible tasks that suitor Culhwch must complete before he’s considered worthy to marry Olwen.
Culhwch completes them (with the help of King Arthur) and ‘wins’ Olwen’s hand in marriage.
Olwen is known as “she of the white track” for the beautiful white blossoms she trails behind her.
In Celtic legends, Cuchulainn calls hawthorn ‘most difficult night’ and Oengus calls hawthorn ‘whitening of the face’ – a moment when the face goes white at the thought of the challenges that lie before us.
It is said that the Roman hawthorn goddess Cardea (who we met a little earlier), will only bless a marriage where the husband-to-be has proven his worthiness to his bride.
As the goddess of doorways, Cardea can help us transition through these challenges that lead us into a different phase of our lives.
Tree of Protection
Hawthorn has traditionally been seen as the tree of protection.
As a hedgerow, it protects many little birds and animals, and up to 50 different species of insect.
Farm animals will flourish in a field where hawthorn grows. And hanging may blossom on the cowshed door on May Day morning protects the milk – while a twig of hawthorn when bringing home the harvest brings good luck.
Hawthorn also protects boundaries – in Cornwall, clods of earth with a sprig of hawthorn were often left on boundary stones to protect the boundary of a farm or village area.
Hawthorn hedges are still seen as powerful boundary protection for our modern homes, gardens and fields.
Hawthorn branches and twigs, or garlands of hawthorn berries, would be set around hearths and around the beds of pregnant women and children for protection.
Gathering may on Holy Thursday and laying it up in the rafters of a home was thought to protect against lightning. Similarly, a hawthorn sprig in your hat would protect you against lightning strikes while you were out and about.
A twig of hawthorn collected at midnight on Twelfth Night and kept in the house would protect against bad luck.
And a globe of woven hawthorn would be brought into the kitchen at the start of every year as a ‘fairy house’ for the house ‘brownies’ in order to ask for their protection and help.
The hawthorn globe from the previous year would be ritually burned and then scattered onto the fields before the spring seeds were sown in order to ensure a bountiful harvest.
The hawthorn would often grow as a single tree specimen, often near springs or wells which were seen as sacred places.
In England, these ‘solitary thorns’ were the places where manorial courts or administrative ‘moots’ and meetings were traditionally held. In Ireland, these were known as ‘sentry thorns’ or ‘fairy trees’ and were seen as the guardians of these sacred places, who protected the earthly inhabitants of the place from dangerous incursions from the fairy world.
Hawthorn was also used in the home to protect against ghosts and evil.
Fourteenth century author John Mandeville writes:
“And therefore hath the white thorn many virtues! For he that bearest on hym thereof, none manner of tempest may dere him: be in the hows that yt is ynne may none evil ghost entre.”
The Healing Tree
As well as protection, the hawthorn could provide healing.
The hawthorn ‘fairy trees’ were also visited for healing, such as the hawthorn at Madron Well in Cornwall which is associated with the Celtic mother goddess Madron/Modron.
Such healing trees are often decorated, even today, with small strips of cloth (or ‘clooties’) tied to and around the tree to request healings of blessings of the spirit of the tree.
Sometimes, the ‘clooties’ were dipped into the sacred waters and applied to the sick before tying the cloths to the tree which is often known as a 'rag tree' or 'raggedy bush'.
On old Midsummer Day (5 July) hawthorn trees would be blessed and decorated with flower garlands and red ribbons in a ceremony known as ‘bawming the thorn’.
There is a modern version of this ritual happening still in Applethorn in Cheshire in late June each year where children will decorate the hawthorn tree and dance around it.
Hawthorn has seen traditional use in herbal medicine too…
Hawthorn is often used as a gentle tonic for heart conditions and is known as ‘valerian of the heart’.
It has been used for palpitations, anxiety, improving circulation, sore throats, kidney problems diarrhoea, menopause and also to aid recovery from long illness or trauma.
Hawthorn flowers are thought to be good for the complexion and for clearing facial blemishes and encouraging inner as well as outer beauty…
“The fair maid who the first of May,
Goes to the field at the break of day,
And washes in dew from the Hawthorn Tree,
Will ever after handsome be.” – Anon.
The flower essence for hawthorn is for emotional balance and to heal stress or grief.
The Sacred Tree
Historically, hawthorn has been seen as a sacred tree, often growing near sacred wells, springs, and pools.
The ‘fairy trees’ or ‘faery thorns’ were respected and it was seen as very advisable never to harm a hawthorn, nor never to cut it except for ritual purposes when you would make a prayer and ask permission before taking any. Specifically, you should not clear hawthorn for practical purposes lest misfortune befall you!
Tales are told of a farmer in Worcestershire who cut down his hawthorn tree – he broke his leg, then his arm, and if that were not enough, his farm burned down completely.
Another time, at Clehonger, the would-be-hawthorn-feller stopped in his tracks as he saw blood flow from the trunk of the tree!
While in Ireland, a man trying to fell a hawthorn was pierced by a thorn and died of septicaemia.
A tree to treat with the utmost respect, indeed!
Hawthorns were also thought to be able to heal or cleanse the land. Hawthorns were often planted close to where an accident or heath had occurred to remove negative energy.
Sometimes, the waters used to wash the body of the deceased were poured onto the roots of the hawthorn so that the tree could cleanse the energies.
In 1968, the Ballinata-Rossnowlaugh road in Donegal, Ireland was rerouted to save uprooting a hawthorn tree.
And even in 1999, Eddie Leninhan campaigned to save a hawthorn tree in County Clare, Ireland from being bulldozed to make way for a motorway, worrying if:
“…they bulldoze the bush to make way for a planned highway bypass, the fairies will come. To curse the road and all who use it, to make brakes fail and cars crash, to wreak the kind of mischief fairies are famous for when they are angry, which is often.”
The tree was saved and this motorway, too, was rerouted.
The Holy Thorn
The hawthorn is a Christian holy tree too.
It is said that Moses spoke to God on Mount Horeb through a species of hawthorn (Crataegus pyracantha).
And the Albiespyne hawthorn is thought to have been the thorns that made the crown of thorns for the Crucifixion – the hawthorn became holy from being on Jesus’ head.
Perhaps the most compelling holy hawthorn is the Glastonbury Thorn…
As the tale goes, Joseph of Arimathea arrived in Britain to spread the word of God, arriving at Avalon/Glastonbury after a long journey.
He rested for a while on Wearyall Hill and his walking staff took root there, becoming a hawthorn tree.
This particular hawthorn is special because it flowers twice a year – in Spring/Easter and again in winter/at Christmas – to mark the birth and resurrection of Jesus.
During the English Civil War, one of Cromwell’s men felled the Glastonbury Thorn and burned it… but the tree got its revenge by blinding him with a thorn in the eye.
The Glastonbury Thorn was replanted in 1951, to mark the Festival of Britain, from cuttings that had been taken from the original tree by locals and grown in other locations in the town of Glastonbury.
The Queen is traditionally sent one of the flowering sprigs of the Glastonbury Thorn for Christmas each year, where it sits on her desk as she makes her Christmas speech to the nation.
In 2010, the Glastonbury Thorn at Wearyall Hill was cut and damaged beyond saving and was finally removed in 2019.
Today, the sprig for the Queen is sent from the Glastonbury Thorn in St John’s churchyard in the town – and other Glastonbury Thorns exist at Chalice Well and in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey.
The Royal Tree
The hawthorn is a ‘royal’ tree and was chosen as the emblem of the Tudor house after Henry Tudor, in 1485, was crowned with the crown of Richard III of the Plantagenets after finding the crown in a hawthorn bush at the Battle of Bosworth – so becoming King Henry VII and bringing about the saying:
“Cleve to thy crown though it hangs from a bush.”
Making the Hawthorn Artwork
My hawthorn art is created from my drawings (that you've seen higher up the page) - I scan them into the computer and use Adobe Illustrator to put them together digitally with hand-drawn Celtic knotwork and play with the colours to create the final piece.
I also add hand-lettering (done with calligraphy pen and paper and also scanned in) to add meaningful words and the date of the hawthorn month in the Celtic tree calendar to create two different versions...
Click on the images below to see them larger...
Apologies for the reflections in my photos - the photos are of work in progress on the computer screen...
So the hawthorn is certainly a tree to be respected – a tree that’s been part of our society and rituals for hundreds or thousands of years…
It’s a tree of healing and protection, a tree of love, passion, commitment and challenges.
It’s a tree of springtime and transformations and it’s a fairy tree…
How to Buy my Celtic Hawthorn Art
I've actually created two versions of my Celtic Hawthorn art:
Please click on the images below to see them larger...
You can buy my Celtic Hawthorn art as wall art prints and home products from my Redbubble store:
Also available at:
More about my stockists here - plus why I decided to go with print-on-demand for my art...
Explore more Celtic art here and more Celtic tree art here...
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Please note that the information in this piece is for entertainment only and should not be used to diagnose or prescribe for health purposes.
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