By PAUL HETZLER
My earliest memory of St. Patrick’s Day is how angry it made my mother, who holds dual Irish-American citizenship and strongly identifies with her Celtic roots. It was not the day itself which got her Irish up, so to speak, but rather the way it was depicted in popular American culture: Green-beer drink specials at the bars and St. Patrick’s Day sales in every store, all endorsed by grinning, green-clad, marginally sober leprechauns.
Although Mom stuck to the facts about Ireland, its poets and playwrights, and of course its history, my aunts and uncles would sometimes regale us kids with stories of the fairy-folk, including leprechauns. It gave me nightmares. According to my relatives, you did not want these little guys endorsing your breakfast cereal. They might look cute, but if you pissed them off they were likely to kidnap you, steal your baby out of the crib, or worse. And one of the surest ways to incur their wrath was to cut down their tree, the hawthorn.
Native to Europe and northern Asia as well as to North America, it is a slow-growing, short-maturing (20-25’) tree with prodigious thorns, which are tough enough to puncture tractor tires. Experts disagree on the number of species (hawthorns, not tires) worldwide; estimates range from hundreds to thousands. To be on the safe side, many references simply designate all hawthorns as Crataegus spp. Since it cannot tolerate shade, it is often found in fencerows and pastures, where it may survive for a century or more.
It is these large, older, solitary hawthorn trees which have often been associated with “wee folk” in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England, and other parts of western Europe having Celtic heritage. Even today in many places, local laws protect hawthorn trees from being razed for road work or other development, and it is not hard to find people who still feel it is bad luck to cut down such a tree. None of Cornell’s fact sheets on hawthorn mention leprechauns or other little folk, so I do not know why they were so touchy about this tree. Perhaps they liked its fruit, or felt safe among its thorns, but I suspect it is because hawthorn protected them against heart disease, thus allowing them to live the unnaturally long lives they were reputed to enjoy.
A member of the the rose family, hawthorn is related to apples, juneberries, and raspberries, so it is not surprising that its fruit is edible. Hawthorn berries, sometimes called thorn apples, haws, or haw apples, vary from tree to tree in terms of palatability. Haws are good for making jelly—in fact I make some most every fall—and at times have been an important food source for native peoples and pioneers. Its wood is very hard and rot-resistant, and is prized for tool handles, fence posts and firewood.
Hawthorn blooms in May, when pastures are meadows are festooned with the brilliant white blossoms. These fragrant and attractive flowers have a rich history—dating back possibly a thousand years—of medicinal use as cardiac tonic. Today, hawthorn flowers, along with the leaves, are dried, powdered and made into capsules, and sometimes packaged as tea.
As western culture supplanted, and in many cases obliterated, indigenous cultures, Native wisdom was often discounted and ridiculed. While this trend has not yet reversed, it has certainly slowed these days, as more and more “folk remedies” are proven by science to be effective. Ginkgo, St. John’s wort, quinine and digitalis are just a few examples of traditional medicine vindicated through research.
While hawthorn hasn’t yet been endorsed by the American Medical Association, studies have shown that it does have beneficial cardiac effects. An article in the July 2002 issue of the Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing stated that hawthorn “…consistently demonstrates its ability to improve exercise tolerance and symptoms of mild to moderate heart failure.” Numerous other studies, including a large-scale 2008 meta-review of past hawthorn research, have come to similar conclusions.
Fables can be tricky to interpret. In the same way that catastrophe befalling those who try to chase a leprechaun to the rainbow’s end to steal his gold is a cautionary tale against get-rich-quick schemes, perhaps the warning against hawthorn removal is because its flowers are important to our health. On the other hand, maybe it is just about irate fairies, and sharp thorns.
Paul Hetzler is a forester and Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County horticulture and natural resources educator.