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The Hawthorn, or Whitethorn, is so welcome year by year as a harbinger of Summer, by showing its wealth of sweet-scented, milk-white blossoms, in our English hedgerows, that everyone rejoices when the Mayflower comes into bloom. Its brilliant haws, or fruit, later on are a botanical advance on the blackberry and wild raspberry, which belong to the same natural order.
It has promoted itself to the possession of a single carpel or seed-vessel to each blossom, producing a separate fruit, this being a stony apple in miniature.
But the word "haw" is misapplied, because it really means a "hedge," and not a fruit; whilst "hips," which are popularly connected with "haws," are the fruit-capsules of the wild Dog-rose. Haws, when dried, make an infusion which will act on the kidneys; they are astringent, and serve, as well as the flowers, in decoction, to cure a sore throat.
The Hawthorn bush was chosen by Henry the Seventh for his device, because a small crown from the helmet of Richard the Third was discovered hanging thereon. Hence arose the legend "Cleve to thy crown though it hangs on a bush." In some districts it is called Hazels, Gazels, and Halves; and in many country places the villagers believe that the blossom of the Hawthorn still bears the smell of the great plague of London. It was formerly thought to be scathless—a tree too sacred to be touched.
Botanically, the Hawthorn is called Cratoegus oxyacantha, these names signifying kratos, strength or hardness (of the wood); and oxus, sharp—akantha, a thorn. It is the German Hage-dorn or Hedge thorn, showing that from a very early period in the history of the Germanic races, their land was divided into plots by means of hedges.
The Hawthorn is also named Whitethorn, from the whiteness of its rind; and Quickset from its growing in a hedge as a "quick" or living shrub, when contrasted with a paling of dead wood. An old English name for the buds of the Hawthorn when just expanding, was Ladies' Meat; and in Sussex it is called the Bread and Cheese tree.
In many parts of England charms or incantations are employed to prevent a thorn from festering in the flesh, as:—
"Happy the man that Christ was born,
The flowers are fertilised for the most part by carrion insects, and a certain undertone of decomposition may be detected (says Grant Allen) by keen nostrils in the scent of the Mayflower. It is this curious element, in what seems otherwise a pure and delicious perfume, which attracts the meat-eating insects, or rather those insects which lay their eggs and hatch out their larvae in decaying animal matter. The meat-fly comes first abroad just at the time when the Mayblossom breaks into bloom.
A Greek bride was sometimes decked with a sprig of Hawthorn, as emblematic of a flowery future, with thorns intermingled. It is supposed that "the Jewes maden," for our Saviour, "a croune of the branches of Albespyne, that is, Whitethorn, that grew in the same garden, and therefore hath the Whitethorn many vertues" being called in France l'epine noble.
The shadows in the moon are popularly thought to represent a man laden with a bundle of thorns in punishment of theft:—
"Rusticus in lunâ quem sarcina deprimit una,
"A thievish clown by cruel thorns opprest