Notable Trees of Dulwich - The Hawthorn
by David Beamish

The old saying “Ne’er cast a clout till May is out” has been the subject of controversy as to whether the reference is to the month of May or to the may tree more often known as the hawthorn. Perhaps it does not matter much as the hawthorn, although a widespread tree native to the British Isles, attracts relatively little attention except while its splendid flowers are in bloom in late April and May - which is presumably the source of the name “may tree”.

Similarly well-known is the reference to the “darling buds of May” in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18:

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:”

That reference was made the more familiar by its use as the title of a 1958 novel about the Larkin family by H. E. Bates, and even more so by the ITV comedy series in the early 1990s featuring David Jason and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

The common hawthorn Crataegus monogyna is the most common of a large number of species of thorned trees belonging to the Crataegus genus. Others which may be seen locally include the broad-leaved cockspur thorn Crataegus persimilis ‘Prunifolia’, of which there is at least one in Ruskin Park and two, newly planted in April 2019 following a bid by the Dulwich Society for “Cleaner Greener Safer” funding, in front of Dulwich Library.

The distinctive features of the hawthorn, in addition to its flowers, include the fruit from which it takes its name - the bright red haws generally appear from August to October -and the deeply lobed leaves.

A second species of hawthorn, the Midland hawthorn Crataegus laevigata, may be distinguished by its rather less deeply lobed leaves, and, while the flowers of the common hawthorn may be pink rather than white, has variations with more deeply coloured crimson flowers. But (to quote Paul Sterry in Collins Complete Guide to British Trees) “Common Hawthorn hybridises readily with other Crataegus species and identification can be difficult”.

Hawthorns are perhaps most widely seen in hedgerows, where the thorns help to keep in livestock and the berries can be an important food source for birds and animals. In Dulwich hawthorns are widely found, for example, on both sides of the South Circular Road south of Dulwich Park, and in Grange Lane on the southern edge of the golf club.

Hawthorn has gone out of favour as a street tree. Paul Wood, in London’s Street Trees, suggests that this may be because of their habit of leaning markedly. But there remain quite a few on Dulwich streets, and several in Woodwarde Road and Bawdale Road.

Dulwich parks have a good number of examples, notably in Belair Park around the water’s edge, and in Dulwich Park, mostly around the edge of the park. There is a fine example between the lake and the playground, albeit rather dwarfed by some of its neighbours.