The Tale of the boot and the thorn

The Small Woods Association is developing an initiative focused on one of our most common native trees, the hawthorn. Also known as the ‘May-tree’, ‘May Thorn’, ‘May Blossom’ and ‘Quick Thorn’ it  features in many traditional May-time celebrations and is the only British plant named after the month in which it blooms.  The hawthorn has powerful roots in our history and is referred to in myths, legends and social history from the Glastonbury Thorn,  to the Enclosures and (possibly) Sleeping Beauty!

The tree plays a key role for our native wildlife, supporting over 150 species of insect, and providing nesting and resting for many of our resident songbirds, it’s a larder for our over-wintering birds, as well as being a friend to woodlanders and farmers as the perfect hedging material.

This initiative is supported by US outdoor footwear brand OBOZ, who already have a strong direct association with tree planting. Their ‘One More Tree’ project has already led to the planting of 1.5m trees to date.

The purpose of the initiative is to raise awareness of our trees and woodlands through increased understanding of native trees. We have decided to start with the hawthorn as it is often overlooked, though it is ubiquitous throughout the British Isles and its association with humans is as old as our occupation of these islands. It owes this association to its robust qualities as a hedging plant.

Volunteers have collected hawthorn seed, to be given  to those trying on the boots during 2018, together with planting instructions and information about the trees. There are also plans to hold events in association with independent stores who will be stocking the boots during the course of the year.

It is our hope that the initiative will grow with the brand. We aim to increase people’s understanding of our native trees and maybe the hawthorn won’t be under-rated anymore.

Collecting Seed

Hawthorn berries should be collected in early autumn. To extract the seed place them in a bucket with some cold water and gently mash with a flat bottomed tool until the pulp separates. Then sieve to extract the seed and wash to remove all excess pulp. If you wish to store the seed they can then be dried and frozen until required.

Preparing your hawthorn seeds

Dried hawthorn seeds will take about 18 months to germinate and require pre-treatment and patience!

Pre-treatment method

Place your seed in a pot, in a mixture of sand and compost and leave outside for 18 months in a shady spot, cover the pot with a small piece of fencing wire or mesh to help deter mice and birds and do not let the pot dry out (check the pot regularly). A label is also useful so that you remember what is in the pot and when you put it there!
Once around 10% of your seeds have started to show signs of germination they are ready to sow.

Sowing the seed

Place the germinating seed in a pot and cover with a thin layer of compost (around 10mm), firm gently and water. Once sown in the pot they do not demand too much attention, but ensure that the pots don’t dry out.


The seedlings will be big enough to plant out after one or two years. This should generally be done in the autumn, winter or spring. Clear the area of weeds and dig a hole that will fit the seedling’s root ball. Add a layer of organic matter (compost or well-rotted manure) to the bottom of the hole. Then plant the seedling, making sure the ground is the same level as it was in the pot. Fill the hole with the excavated soil mixed in with more organic matter. If your trees are in an exposed position a tree stake may be a good idea and you may also need to use a tree guard to protect the young shoots. Hawthorn are not too fussy and will cope with partial shade or full sun, but do prefer a well drained soil enriched with a lot of organic matter, This should help growth and ensure the soil doesn’t dry out or become waterlogged. But keep an eye on your trees particularly in the first year and water if necesary. A mulch such as bark around the base of the tree will help keep the area around the tree weed free for the first two years.

A little bit of historical advice – Extracts on hawthorn from Sylva – John Evelyn (1664)

John Evelyn describes here the patience that is required when waiting for the ‘White-thorne’ (another name for Hawthorn) to ‘peep‘, as it can take up to two years. He also strongly emphasises the importance of leaving the seed undisturbed ‘suffering imprisonment‘ during that time, reassuring us not to despair, as this is due to the seeds ‘Integument‘, its tough outer shell.

An interesting insight into planting hawthorn for ‘quick-sets‘ hedging. A quick-set hedge is an ancient method of hedging (the term was first recorded in 1484) , which involves the planting of hawthorn cuttings directly into the earth, where they will root and spread to create a dense barrier.

The use of the word ‘quick’ in the name refers to the fact that the cuttings are living, not to the speed at which it grows.
Evelyn explains, in this section, how it is possible in increase ‘revenue‘, by rubbing the berries; ‘Hips and Haws‘, into a long length of ‘bass-rope‘ – a thick rope made of natural fibre that was often used on ships. This would then be buried in a trench, either at the final site of the hedge or in a nursery bed, where it would be left for three to four years, with frequent weeding, until ready to be transplanted and of a ‘stature fit to remove‘.