“May, queen of blossoms, and fulfilling flowers, what pretty music
Shall we charm the hours? Wilt thou have pipe and reed,
Blown in the open mead?
Or to the lute give heed, in the green bowers.”— Lord Edward Thurlow
Sacred to fairies, witches, and the goddesses of old, no tree is more central to “Going a Maying” than the Hawthorn Tree, the Queen of The May herself. Which makes her the perfect rejuvenating May Cordial. Not only has her fertilizing procreative magic made her the centrepiece of spring rites across the British Isles and Europe – her blossoms heal and strengthen the heart, emotionally, spiritually and physically.
Brought from Europe by the settlers and planted in hedgerows, she has escaped and gone wild in forests and fields across North America. Plus, she is a favourite ornamental on many city streets. The Queen of the May marks the time of the year when darkness gives way to light, and her snow-white bridal gown of blossoms heralds “the greening”, the regeneration of the landscape after winter, the renewal of life after death.
The focus of May Day celebrations for centuries, her branches and blossoms were gathered and hung over doors and windows of houses, and the first person to bring flowering boughs indoors on May Day was assured of good fortune. Large leafy branches were set in the ground outside houses as May bushes and decorated with local wildflowers, as they still are today. And on May Day morning washing your face with the dew from the blossoms is said to bestow beauty and youthfulness.
In Ireland, she is known as the Wishing Tree, and on May Eve candles are still lit and ribbons hung on her branches asking for the fulfilment of prayers. Each colour has a magical meaning, red or pink for love, blue for protection, green for wealth and violet for spiritual insight.
Hawthorns were believed to be witches who had transformed themselves into trees. And on May Eve, if you sat under a hawthorn – you might find yourself a witch in the morning! This was the second holiest night for witches (falling exactly six months after All Hallows Eve) and they danced and performed their rites beneath the holy thorn.
But the best-known icon of May Day was – and still is – the Maypole. This was usually a hawthorn stripped of its branches, crowned with flowers and erected in the village square. Around it dancers wove a spiral fertility dance, and while it is commonly considered a symbol of the phallus, wooden poles or Asherah have been erected as symbols of fertility goddesses since Biblical times.
When Joseph of Arimathea, the uncle of the Virgin Mary, arrived at Glastonbury Tor, he thrust his wooden staff into the ground where it sprouted and grew into a thorn tree -but in earlier Celtic history, the hawthorn was known as a Goddess Tree. Legends tell of sacred groves of hawthorns attended by priestesses and the famous Westminster Abbey was once called Thorney Island after the sacred stand of hawthorns there.
The hawthorn is the tree of the Greek Goddess Maia after whom the month is named, and she used its branches for spell-casting. The Welsh Goddess Olwen was known as the “White Lady of the Day” or “Flower-bringing Golden Wheel of Summer”. She was said to have walked the empty universe leaving a white track of Hawthorn petals which became the Milky Way.
In Irish folklore, the hawthorn was sacred to the Great mother goddess of the Tuatha De Danann, The Queen of the Sidhe or Fairy. Hawthorn is considered a portal or doorway to the land of the Fae, so one must ask her permission before taking the blooms or sprigs and leave an offering when cutting down a whole tree – otherwise face terrible retribution. This belief is still strong in Ireland. In 1999 a highway was rerouted to avoid taking down a solitary hawthorn tree.
The blooming of hawthorn marked the time when the fairies would come forth from the glens and hilltops in a grand procession. Folklore warns that if you sit beneath a hawthorn tree on May Eve, you will hear the sound of the Fairy Queen horse’s bells as she rides by. If you hide your face, she will pass you but if you look at her, she may choose to take you away with her – forever.
Solitary hawthorns growing near wells or at path’s crossroads were known as fairy trysting places – so one had to be very careful – touching its branches could also whisk one away to the realm of the Fae. But despite the risks, these tree’s could offer powerful magic to those brave or foolhardy enough to ask for blessings from the fairy folk.
Hers was also a healing magic able to ‘gladden and open the heart’. Blossoms were made into wines and jellies, and decoctions of the flowers were a herbal remedy for all things connected to the heart. Historically cordials were believed to revive the spirits, promote health and free the whole body “from the malignity of diseases.” They were considered especially beneficial for the heart (cor in Latin). Some cordials, with their bright yellow hue, took their name from the “cordial vertues” of the rays of the sun, which some alchemists thought they contained.
Today hawthorn blossoms have been shown to be high in healthy flavonoids and medicinally effective in protecting against heart disease, rejuvenating arterial cells, increasing coronary blood flow, improving circulation and stabilizing blood pressure. I gather her blossoms every year to dry and save, I add them to my hawthorn berry tinctures in fall.
The young spring leaves of the hawthorn are also medicinal, as well as being tender and gentle in flavour. Commonly referred to as bread and cheese, they can be added to salads, or cooked as greens. In Germany, the leaves are dried and made into a tea. In England, the buds are used to make a suet pudding. A pie crust is rolled out long and thin, then dotted with the buds and thin strips of bacon before being rolled up, sealed and steamed for an hour or two.
Whether served in sparkling water or a cocktail, Hawthorn Blossom Cordial is the perfect witchy libation for “Bringing in the May”. Granted her fresh blossoms may not have the most palatable odour, but once cooked they transform into a light, almost baby powder-like flavour with soft vanilla undertones – a taste that reflects the ethereal quality of her blooms.
Hawthorn is said to bloom just before or on May Day. But round here she is usually late by a week, and in other parts of the world even later. This is probably due to the fact that ancient May Day celebrations date back before the Gregorian Calendar pushed them back approximately 11 days. So if her blossoms haven’t opened by May 1st, don’t worry, you’ve still got a broad window for making May Day Magic!
And it makes a fine traditional toast to the Fairy Queen!
Enchanting Hawthorn Cordial
- 5 cups of blossoms (with green stems snipped off)
- 2 cups sugar
- 2 cups water
- 1 large lemon and it’s the grated zest
- Take flowers and put them in a bowl.
- Dissolve sugar in water over low heat and then increase the heat and boil for 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Let cool for 2 minutes.
- Pour this syrup over the flowers, give it a good stir and then return to the saucepan.
- Lower heat to the lowest setting, add the lemon juice & zest, let simmer for 25 minutes.
- Let your concoction cool and then pour it through a fine sieve, muslin cloth or coffee filter into a sterilized bottle. This will remove the zest tidbits so your cordial is clear.
- This will keep a couple of weeks in the fridge. Dilute it with water, soda water — or booze!