Remarkably, the May-tree is the only British plant to be named after the month in which it blooms. It acquired its eponymous title sometime in the 16th century. Hawthorn, by contrast, is one of the most ancient words in English, derived from the Old Norse ‘hagthorn’ and dating back in written form to at least AD 800. The ‘th’ sound in ‘hagthorn’ is written in Norse as the runic letter called a ‘thorn’ but, in a wonderful piece of circularity, the letter is named after the tree.
The May-tree is the origin of the Maypole and also the origin of the phrase ‘Ne’er cast a clout before May is out’– which refers not to the ending of the month, but to the opening of the flowers. Hawthorns, though often little more than small scrubby bushes, are also the most frequent trees mentioned in Anglo-Saxon boundary charters and hawthorn is the commonest tree mentioned in British place names (18% of all such names).
The Hawthorn is tied to May Day (the first of the month) but the flowers don’t usually bloom till the middle of May. This confusion came about after the change to the Gregorian calendar. Before the 1752 change, May Day would have occurred 11 days later, on 12th of May - exactly the time when hawthorn breaks into flower.
Hawthorns are also known as ‘bread and cheese’ and ‘arzy-garzies’.
It is considered extremely unlucky to bring hawthorn flowers inside the house, a superstition which is found more widely than for any other species of plant in the British Isles.
There are many theories as to why may blossom is thought to be unlucky inside the house, but the most convincing is to do with its smell. Hawthorn flowers have a heavy complicated scent, the distinctive element of which is triethylamine, which is also one of the first chemicals produced when a human body starts to decay.
In some areas it is still referred to as ‘the smell of the Great Plague’ and people who have worked in Africa say it reminds them of the smell of gangrene.
In the old days, bodies were laid out at home for up to a week before burial, and everybody would have been familiar with the smell of death. Hawthorn brought inside the house would have instantly triggered the association.
On the other hand, something generally unacknowledged in folkloric academia, triethylamine is also the smell of sex: hence its positive association with wild springtime frolicking outside in the fields.
Hawthorns are sometimes known as ‘aglets’ – a word also used for the little tips on the ends of shoelaces.