Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

May blossom

When the Folklore Society conducted its survey of ‘unlucky’ plants between March 1982 and October 1984, it was found that May blossom – flowering hawthorn (Crataegus) – was most widely regarded as inauspicious, with 23.5% of the material received relating to it.

‘I can remember as a child being forbidden to take hawthorn blooms (or may as we called it) into the house as it would bring bad luck.'[1].

The form this bad luck might take varied: it could ‘result in a dead child’ [2], it would lead to a wet summer [3], cause the death of one’s mother [4] or ‘not necessarily death, but certainly illness’ would follow [5].

According to some writers, fear of flowering hawthorn is derived from folk memories of pre-Christian May Day celebrations, during which a May Queen was crowned with such blossoms before being ritually slaughtered. Needless to say, there is no evidence to support such ideas [6].
Or, according to a Cambridge anthropologist, it was bad luck to bring hawthorn blossom indoors because it was ‘associated with unregulated love in the fields, rather than conjugal love in the bed’.
Or, it has been suggested that hawthorn was shunned by country people because it was planted as hedges created at the time when enclosures were made depriving them of their common land.
Or, ‘Christ’s crown of thorns was made of hawthorns’. But hawthorn does not grow in the Middle East.
Or, hawthorn flowers were associated with St Mary the Virgin who was particularly venerated during the month of May, thus people bringing the flowers indoors were suspected of being Catholics and persecuted. However the association of May with Mary developed in Naples in the eighteenth century and slowly spread northwest wards, not reaching the British Isles until well after the persecution of Catholics had ended.

In 1866 it was recorded in the Gentleman’s Magazine that according the country cottagers the scent of hawthorn was ‘exactly like the smell of the Great Plague of London’, and in 1900 the botanist R.P. Murray noted that midland hawthorn (C. laevigata), which flowers ‘a week or two earlier’ than common hawthorn (C. monogyna), had flowers which ‘absolutely stink of putrid flesh’ soon after being gathered. More recently it has been shown that trimethylamine, which is formed when animal tissues decay, is present in hawthorn flowers. Our ancestors who commonly kept corpses in the house for up to a week before burial, had no refrigerators for storing meat, and were familiar with the odour of decaying flesh, were unlikely to welcome hawthorn flowers indoors.

1. Kingston, Kent, January 2004.
2. Blurton, Staffordshire, March 1983; from ‘gran who lived in Wiltshire’.
3. Hartshay Hill, Derbyshire, March 1983.
4. Chiswick, London, July 1983.
5. Witham, Essex, May 1983.
6. See references in R. Vickery, A Dictionary of Plant-lore, 1995: 168-9 for this and the remainder of this article.

Image: Gants Hill, London Borough of Redbridge; April 2014.

Updated 19 September 2017.