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Shakespeare's Favourite Plants: The Hawthorn

Librarian Mareike Doleschal investigates how Shakespeare and Victorian artists represented an iconic plant, the hawthorn, in their works.

Mareike Doleschal

The oldest hawthorn in the United Kingdom is the Hethel Old Thorn. It grows in the churchyard in a small village called Hethel in Norfolk and is over 700 years old. According to Celtic mythology, the hawthorn is a sacred plant, which is popular with fairies. The hawthorn’s associations with supernatural powers continue until today: In the Harry Potter series, Draco Malfoy’s wand is made of hawthorn wood.[1]

Hawthorn blossoms release a foul-smelling odour, the same chemical, trimethylamine, that dead animals’ bodies produce. Not surprisingly, people during Shakespeare’s time associated the hawthorn with the plague, but that didn’t stop brides from adorning their hair with the blossoms of the hawthorn tree. Despite the unpleasant smell, the hawthorn flowers symbolised all types of love.

Hawthorn has long been used to treat cardiovascular and other diseases. Herbalists during Shakespeare’s time, such as Culpeper and Gerard, wrote about the hawthorns’ medicinal benefits. In his books The English Physician (1652) and The Complete Herbal (1653), which are both still in print, Culpeper recommends the hawthorn as a remedy for removing thorns, for treating stone and dropsy and relieving “inward tormenting pains.”[2]

Shakespeare mentions hawthorn in five of his plays. He refers to all parts of the plant, its branches, thorns and blossoms. In King Lear, Edgar believes that winter winds are so strong they can pass through a “sharp hawthorn.” We can find references to the plant’s buds in The Merry Wives of Windsor and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In a key scene of the play As You Like It, the hawthorn is the main prop. A love-sick Orlando composes sonnets to his love, Rosalind, and decorates a hawthorn with his written expressions of love.

“...There is a man haunts the forest that
abuses our young plants with carving Rosalind on their
barks; hangs odes upon hawthorns and elegies on
brambles; all, forsooth, deifying the name of Rosalind.”

As You Like It, Act 3 Scene 2

sbt-os-56-83039953-flowers-of-shakespeare-1845-plate-14 hawthorn.jpg
A hawthorn blossom in Giraud's The Flowers of Shakespeare (1845)

Victorian artist Jane Elizabeth Giraud enjoyed these lines so much that she illustrated them in her book The Flowers of Shakespeare (1845). Her delicate watercolour is a lovingly executed botanical study and demonstrates astute observation. It is in many ways similar to the flower still lives of her fellow Victorian women artists. Female artists focussed on painting flowers, not because they necessarily wanted to, but because other subjects, such as the human figure, were inaccessible to women. Excluded from professional training, such as live classes, flower paintings provided Victorian women artists with opportunities for artistic expression. In 1859, the artist Elizabeth Ellet considered still lives as a suitable subject for female artists. She explained: “such occupations might be pursued in the strict seclusion of home, to which custom and public sentiment assigns the fair student.”[3]

In Henry VI, Part 3, the hawthorn features again, this time in a monologue by the main character. While a battle is raging, the king reflects on his life, comparing himself to that of a shepherd sitting under a hawthorn:

“Gives not the hawthorn bush a sweeter shade
To shepherds looking on their seely sheep
Than doth a rich embroidered canopy
To kings that fear their subjects’ treachery?”

Henry VI, Part 3, Act 2 Scene 4

Ah, if only he were a shepherd, he thinks, his life would lack luxuries, but he wouldn’t have to worry or fear quite as much.

A hawthorn tree in Crane's Flowers from Shakespeare’s Garden: A Posy from the Plays (1909).

The book illustrator Walter Crane visually articulates the king’s longing for an easier life in his artwork published as part of his book Flowers from Shakespeare’s Garden: A Posy from the Plays (1909). A young shepherd leans against the trunk of a hawthorn. In his hands, he holds a panpipe and a stick; his gaze seems faraway, suggesting he might daydream. Perhaps he might imagine the woman inside the hawthorn who hovers above him. Her body grows from the trunk; her branch-like arms are part of the canopy; her head consists of hawthorn blossom; she is half-human, half-plant.

Crane merges the tree with the female figure, an image not uncommon in the works of his fellow male artists. John Everett Millais, for example, shows a young woman chained to a tree. In his painting The Knight Errant, a knight has to rescue her. Naked and vulnerable, the tree could be read as a symbol of man whilst the woman embodies weakness.[4] Crane, however, doesn’t reduce the female figure to such vulnerability but instead makes her part of nature and a visual expression for a noble man’s plaintive yearning for another life.

There are lots of hawthorns in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust gardens, mainly at Anne Hathaway's Cottage. Many of the Trust's hawthorn specimens are hedges, such as the short one between the cottage and the roadside. Hawthorn hedges are fast-growing, so our gardeners have to cut them regularly.

At New Place, visitors have the opportunity to admire a bronze hawthorn tree, which is part of an artwork titled His Mind's Eye by the sculptor Jill Berelowitz. A bronze tree, made of a hawthorn tree from Box Hill, a National Trust property in Surrey, is the focal point of the awe-inspiring artwork. The tree stands nearly five metres high, its canopy measure six metres. The strength of Shakespeare's genius sweeps the branches to the side; the force of his creativity is even more powerful than the winds in King Lear that can pass through a sharp hawthorn.

With thanks to SBT Gardens Team Leader Bertie Swainston.

New Place, Bronze Hawthorn Tree
New Place, bronze hawthorn tree


[1] - Hawthorn - 10 Facts About One Of Our Oldest Plant Companions
[2] - Hawthorn: The Reeking May Tree
[3] - British Watercolours 1750-1900: Still Life & Flower Painting
[4] - Sex and Death in Victorian Culture: The Pre-Raphaelites

Bibliography - Word of the Day: Hawthorn - Hawthorn and the May Tree - Crataegus - The Secret Victorian Language of Flowers - The Victorian Language of Trees - Hawthorn – Healing - Chap. 24. Of the Whitethorn, or Hawthorn Tree - Elizabethan talk therapy - King Henry the Sixth, Part Three - British Watercolours 1750-1900: Still Life & Flower Painting - Every Hawthorn Tree Has a Story... - May Birth Flowers: A Look at Lily of the Valley & Hawthorn - I’m Obsessed with the Witchy Symbolism of the Hawthorn Flower - #32 Hawthorn Tree – Symbolism & Meaning - Birth Month Flowers and Their Meanings - Culpeper's Complete Herbal - Hawthorn: The Reeking May Tree - Hawthorn - Psychological Truth on the Verge of Modernity: Symbolism in Victorian Art - The Romantic Symbolism of Trees - Chenguang Zhu's Blog 2: Trees in Pre-Raphaelite Paintings - A Midsummer Night’s Dream - Women in the Woods. The Athenian Forest as a Place of Female Empowerment in Shakespeare’s "A Midsummer Night’s Dream"?

[All websites accessed on 20th of July 2021]

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