Have you noticed the tall circular concrete planter near the children’s playground? One can easily overlook it; however, this summer the city has adorned it with a blanket of red Impatiens.
I sometimes wondered why the planter is so high until looking closely at the four small trees it contains – their branches are covered with 5 cm spikes! These are Midland Hawthorns (Crataegus laevigata) – commonly known as English Hawthorns (a member of the rose family).
The name “hawthorn “is derived from Old English hagathorn – “hedge thorn” and describes their dark coloured fruit (“haws”) that appears late in the summer.
In northeast Ireland, these trees associated a wide array of folklore. Here they are called “Fairy Thorns” or by an older name “Gentry”. The latter also refers to fairies that were known as “The Gentry”.
Villagers would leave offerings of milk and honey and, in return, their “tiny music” was played in the evenings.
In Britain, they are regarded as the “unluckiest of trees”. In fact, Brehon (ancient Irish) laws made it unlawful to cut down a Hawthorn or damage its branches.
The belief that back luck follows damaging Hawthorns still exists. For example, a multi-million pound highway bypass, constructed in County Clair, was reconfigured to circumvent a Hawthorn in its original path.
Finally there is an interesting story that relates to construction of the DeLorean car factory near Belfast. There was a Hawthorn growing on the site and workers, despite direct orders, refused to cut it down. The tree was well-known locally and villagers told stories of the “wee folk” that left their footprints near the area. One day; however, the tree was gone – believed to be cut down by the foreign construction manager. From that day on, the factory was plagued with misfortune, some were convinced it was “cursed”. The factory closed in 1982 leaving thousands of workers without jobs.
Charming folklore or truth – perhaps somewhere in between?
“It may be so, and it may be not, but if we tell our children we have heard it is so, perhaps we shall see fewer primroses and daises and buttercups scattered along roads, to be trampled by iron-shod feet..”. (The Irish Naturalists’ Journal (1929))