The Common Hawthorn bush (Crataegeus monogyna) is a common sight in the British countryside; this example is growing near Wittering, Cambridgeshire. It grows wild of course, but it is also ‘semi-cultivated’, in that it is planted and managed, in some cases by ‘laying’ – an ancient farming skill. Indeed, Julius Caesar, in 55BC, noted that the Nervi tribe in Flanders were skilled in layering and interweaving hedges.
There are many plants which can be grown to form a hedgerow, of course, but the hawthorn is amongst the most popular, in that it grows relatively quickly to a good size, and gives a natural thorny barrier to farm-stock as well as providing shelter in bad weather. The work of the National Hedgelaying Society, and its members, ensures that ancient skills will not be lost. Indeed, you can watch hedgelaying competitions in most areas of the British Isles, if you know when and where to look for them.
If skilfully tended and trimmed a layed hedge will last for 50 years before needing major attention – if left alone, the hedge would evolve into a series of individual trees, some up to 30 feet tall. Hedgelaying also makes for a thicker hedge, as well as one which is more beneficial to wildlife with more potential nesting sites for birds, more ground cover, and a more diverse habitat. Other plant species arrive over the course of time, and the hawthorn provides a copious supply of red haws – the name for the fruit of the hawthorn – which are a major source of winter food for birds, and small mammals.
One of the reasons I love the English countryside in late spring is the arrival of the May blossom (the hawthorn’s flower). Carried in clusters, it gives a frothy, dense appearance to many roadsides, and reminds me of my youth. An old English saying, ‘Caste not a clout, ’til may is out’ – an admonishment to retain winter clothing or face the chills - does not refer to the month, but rather the flower of the same name!