The Japanese have a name for it… hanami.
It refers to the custom of celebrating the beauty of blossom flowers every spring, typically of cherry and plum trees. It is a festival taken seriously in the Land of the Rising Sun where weather forecasters give updates on when the blossom is likely to appear, so people can ready themselves for this brief burst of beauty.
In England similar traditions have been lost to the modern world but those who still take notice will have been quietly appreciating the transient splendour of the hawthorn blossom over the past few weeks.
The stunning whites and pinks are much in evidence in the hedgerows of the Commons Lands and along the Valley Trail, which is also cared for by rangers from the Sudbury Common Lands Charity and the volunteers who take part in the working parties they organise. The Valley Trail marks the way where once a railway line transported people and freight to Long Melford and beyond as far as Cambridge. The line was closed in the years following the Beeching Report in 1963 that recommended a reduction in the size of the national rail network in favour of our roads.
It is a controversial historical decision that many, who point to our congested streets, bemoan, but if there is a consolation, it is the motor-free thoroughfare that the Valley Trail now provides for walkers, cyclists and horse riders.
What a delight it is to make your way along the track at this time of year when the hawthorn blossom is in full pomp – from a distance it looks like the branches are dripping with marshmallows. Along some stretches, the boughs of these small hedgerow trees meet in the middle, creating a tunnel effect and forming verdant passageways bedecked with garlands.
Hawthorn is the most common of the hedgerow tree species and is known by several names. These include ‘whitethorn’ because of its blossom, which once pollinated by insects, develops into deep-red fruits known as ‘haws’; berries that provide vital sustenance for birds like thrushes and redwings during the winter months.
The hawthorn is also known as the ‘May tree’ because in times gone past the appearance of the blossom coincided with May Day – the first day of the month. That was before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1752, which resulted in some rejigging of dates, and today the blossoms are more likely to make themselves known in mid-May.
Garlands of hawthorn blossom were used in May Day celebrations and in Suffolk there was a tradition of rewarding servants with a dish of cream if they brought home a branch of blossoming hawthorn on May Day.
Many think the expression, “Cast ne’er a clout ‘til May is out,” is advice not to shed your winter clothes (clout) until the end of May. However, some say the saying refers to the blossom of the May tree, so as the blossom appears, we should start to think about changing into more seasonal attire.
Back in the days of yore, May Day was one of the only times in the year that people could safety bring hawthorn into the home because for many the tree had a dark side.
Of the umpteen myths connected to hawthorn, a number link it to the dead and dying. Christ’s crown was believed to be made from hawthorn while its pungent aroma was likened to the smell of death and during the Middle Ages its scent was said to resemble that of plague corpses.
More recently, scientists have discovered that hawthorn blossom contains trimethylamine – a chemical that is also produced when human flesh starts to rot. It is said to smell like rotting fish or urine.
I took the sniff test on a wonderful afternoon cycle along the Valley Trail at the end of May. To me the air around the hawthorn blossom smelt sweet, maybe a bit sickly sweet…but I did not get any of the death vibes. In the more open parts of the trail, the cow parsley was swaying in the breeze, and the tree line opened to show magnificent views of meadow fields layered with the yellow of buttercups. I saw small white and orange tip butterflies and in the more shadowy part a speckled wood butterfly showed itself.
In front of me a large bumble bee moved slowly like a miniature Zeppelin airship. Research has shown that bees generate an electrostatic charge when they fly as their wings meet air resistance, and that this is later used to attract pollens spores to their body. With all the pollen around from the bountiful hawthorn blossom, this bee was spoilt for choice.
Ross Bentley, Trustee of the Sudbury Common Lands Charity