Bi-weekly blog by guest writer Lia Leendertz
I almost always take a train journey in May. That train journey is from my home in Bristol to London for the Chelsea Flower Show, and I speed through the hills and tunnels, lumps and bumps of the West Country, past our sweet and steep little complicated fields and out onto the flat lands of Wiltshire, all space and horizon, then through the endless suburbs and into Paddington.
Although I tend to think that I am in tune with the seasons because of my sowing, harvesting, sunburning and shivering activities at the allotment, it is only when I get out into the countryside – even if only via Great Western Railway – that the full force of them hits me. And in May the countryside is all about the may tree, the hawthorn. Every field, little or large, is lined with hedgerows bursting with these firework sprays of white may flower. It is a properly beautiful display, perhaps my favourite moment in the year, and I long wondered why the English have never developed a tradition of hawthorn worship to rival the Hanami of Japan, where entire families gather beneath the blossoming cherry trees to savour the fleeting moment.
In fact there are perfectly good reasons why we don’t hold the hawthorn in quite such esteem as the Japanese hold their cherries, for although it is a beautiful plant, and one I love in my own garden, it is a plant with a complicated history. A brief history of the hawthorn, and of those fields: once upon a time there were far fewer fields, or rather there were far larger fields, and farming took place in communally managed strips, which the farmers moved between year on year. Some had rights to many strips, some just to one, some rented a strip a year. It was a system that allowed even the poorer members of a parish to be roughly self sufficient in crops. And then in the 1700s and 1800s came the Enclosures, when those with rights to more strips were encouraged to bring them together and to fence them off, making the single strips untenable and completely cutting the renters out of the picture. The countryside began to slip away from those who had always lived there and worked it.
And the plant that was used to create the barriers that kept the rural poor out? Yes, hawthorn. Lovely thick, bushy, thorny hawthorn. Plants in their millions lined the new fields, entire fortunes were made on the growing of hawthorn. And these are the very same plants that delight us now every May. So it is perhaps not a plant that warrants unquestioning celebration in the way that a simple cherry full of blossom does. There is also the issue of location. In keeping with this history hawthorn generally abides on the boundaries of private land, tricky to reach and deliberately unwelcoming when you get there. Hanami-style mass picnics would have a strongly political edge.
Of course I planted it in my own garden before I knew any of this, just thinking of it as a lovely native plant that I might be able to prune into cloud shapes, and wanting to draw a little of that May railway journey into my own patch. It is edible too, the purple new tips have a nutty, appley flavour and the flowers taste of almond, and it makes a beautifully springtime salad with tips of garlic cress, slices of raw asparagus and a few of the first broad beans. My row of hawthorns along my own boundary was no grand statement about the fate of the countryside, nor was it intended to disenfranchise my lovely next door neighbour Jenny – she’s welcome round any time.
I would love one day to arrive at the end of my journey and find that one of the grand Chelsea gardens is filled with hawthorn bushes. For a start there would be no need to go through the usual agonies to make sure their chosen plants flower on the right moment: whatever weird winters, heat waves and hail storms throw at Chelsea, there is always hawthorn in flower at Chelsea time. But above all it is a beautiful plant with a rich and complicated history, and with a long-ignored story to tell.