The Heritage Hawthorn Hedge

Werribee Park Heritage Orchard was once bounded by an extensive hawthorn hedge of great character. A remnant of this hedge survives to this day. The early settlers in Australia brought hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), from its native home in Britain.

Uses of Hawthorn: The plant was valued for its many uses – as a living, self-renewing fence to prevent stock from wandering, as a windbreak, as a boundary marker, as a privacy screen, as shelter for livestock, for its medicinal properties, and for the folk lore associated with it. Another benefit of this thorny, beautiful plant is that it provides shelter from feral cats for small native birds.

In its native land the leaves were eaten, the blossom and berries were made into wines and jellies, and decoctions of the flowers and leaves were used to stabilise blood pressure. The strong, close-grained wood was used for carving, and for making tool handles and other small household items.

Hawthorn is highly ornamental. In winter, a properly clipped hawthorn hedge, with its tightly trimmed mass of black crossing stems, is a work of art. In spring, hawthorn is awash with a stunning display of sweet-scented white flowers which in the British Isles are called the ‘May Blossom,’and in autumn the branches are laden with attractive clusters of dark red berries.

* Fencing: If hedges are not maintained or only trimmed repeatedly, gaps tend to form at the base over many years. Eventually the hedge becomes a line of trees. Thanks to a revival in the ancient art of hedge laying, some of Australia’s old, abandoned hawthorn hedges are being restored to their former glory.

The maintenance and laying of hedges to form an impenetrable barrier is a skilled art. In essence, hedgelaying consists of cutting most of the way through the stem of each plant near the base, bending it over and interweaving it (‘pleaching’) between wooden stakes. This also encourages new growth from the base of each plant. Originally, the main purpose of hedgelaying was to ensure the hedge remained stock-proof. Some side-branches were also removed and used as firewood. Hedges as fences are not only beautiful and functional, they also help wildlife and protect against soil erosion.

* Medicine: In herbal medicine a tincture of Crataegus is used to treat heart palpitations and other mild afflictions of the heart. It was an Irish doctor by the name of Greene who lived in the west of Ireland who re-discovered its uses as a heart remedy par excellence.

Traditionally, the berries were used to treat heart problems ranging from irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, chest pain, hardening of the arteries, and heart failure. Today, the leaves and flowers are used medicinally, and there is good evidence that hawthorn can treat mild-to-moderate heart failure. Hawthorn is thought to help control high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Modern studies report that hawthorn contains antioxidants and quercetin. Antioxidants are substances that destroy free radicals -compounds in the body that damage cell membranes, tamper with DNA, and even cause cell death.

Folklore: Hawthorn is steeped in folklore and legend. In Irish folklore, the hawthorn tree has been associated with the supernatural and often referred to as ‘the fairy tree.’ The fairies were said to congregate beneath it, and it is commonly seen in the centre of a fairy fort, or ancient ring fort. Disturbing it, or destroying by cutting it down, is said to bring bad luck.
In ancient Greece, crowns of hawthorn blossoms were worn by wedding couples and the wedding party all carried burning torches of hawthorn.

It is said that if a twig of Hawthorn is tied together with red thread with twigs from an oak tree and an ash tree, it will provide protection from fairies. One British folk custom was to tie ribbons or rags onto hawthorn trees on May Day (the first day of May) as gifts to the fairies.

During the country custom of “going a-Maying” branches would be cut to adorn doorways (although hawthorn rarely flowers on 1st May in the northern hemisphere, it would have been flowering on the old May Day of 13 May prior to 1732). Its purpose was to protect from evil spirits. Hawthorn was also generally gathered on May Day morning, interwoven and placed on doors and windows. The weaving was important because it strengthened the plant’s magical powers, as did its covering with overnight dew. Using the blossoms for decorations outside was allowed, but there was a very strong taboo against bringing hawthorn into the house.
Being in the southern hemisphere, the Werribee Park Heritage Hawthorn Hedge flowers in October. Somehow, the phrase ‘going a-Octobering’ does not have the same ring!

Names for Hawthorn: Traditional names for hawthorn include: ‘Huath’, ‘Whitethorn’, ‘May’, ‘Quickset’, ‘Ladies’ Meat’, ‘Tree of Chastity’, ‘Quickthorn’ and ‘Hazels’. It also used to be called ‘Bread and Cheese’ due to the young leaves being added to sandwiches by country folk. Its Anglo-Saxon name is Haegthorn and, indeed, it is the tree most frequently mentioned in Anglo-Saxon boundary charters. ‘Haeg’ or sometimes ‘haive’ is Anglo-Saxon for hedge. Its botanical name comes from the Greek ‘kratos’, meaning ‘strength’, referring to the hardness of the wood. Its berries are known as Pixie Pears, Cuckoo’s Beads and Chucky Cheese.

Hawthorn in Australia: In Australia the hawthorn has given its name to several suburbs and an Australian Rules football club. Some people think of the plant as a weed, however it is not nearly as difficult to control as invasive exotics such as gorse, ivy and blackberry, as indicated by the fact that the neglected hawthorn hedge at Werribee Park, far from thriving, has almost disappeared.

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