Ne'er cast a clout...
...till May is out
I used to think the old adage was advising you shouldn’t take off your winter clothes until the end of May, until I moved to the countryside and realised it probably means until the hawthorn or may is in blossom, which is actually earlier in the month.
When I was volunteering at the Festival of the Garden at Charleston farmhouse near us in East Sussex a couple of years ago, someone decorated the café with jugs of flowering hawthorn. When she noticed them, the then head gardener insisted they must be removed, for it’s considered bad luck to bring may blossom indoors.
This is an old tradition that goes back to pre-Christian times. It was thought that may blossom brought into the house could cause illness or death, perhaps dating back to the ancient May Day ritual in which a May Queen was crowned with a garland of hawthorn and then sacrificed. Another fascinating suggestion is that hawthorn flowers actually contain the same chemical as decaying animal flesh and therefore were associated with death by the common people. Or perhaps it is the fact that the bridal white sprays are followed by blood red berries.
When my children were young we used to go to a forest school in a wood in the middle of the Sussex countryside, where the teacher showed us you can eat hawthorn berries. If I’m ever stranded on the downs, I know where to look for a food source. They were used in folk medicine as a heart tonic to treat both high and low blood pressure. The fresh leaves and flowers can also be added to salads.
Hawthorn has traditionally been used for hedging, as its sharp thorns are useful in keeping out unwanted animals and humans. I think may blossom looks much nicer on the trees and in hedgerows anyway, particularly when accompanied by frothy cow parsley. When left in situ it is thought to bring good luck to the owner and to the land on which it stands and even to be a place where fairies meet…