Sexy smell of hawthorn

What's all this about hawthorn blossom smelling of sex? Geoffrey Grigson may have started it

What's all this about hawthorn blossom smelling of sex? Geoffrey Grigson may have started it. In his Englishman's Flora of the 1950s he told how the French (who else?) put branches of hawthorn outside the windows of every young girl. "The stale, sweet scent from the triethylamine the flowers contain makes them suggestive of sex."

Richard Mabey picks this up in his recent Flora Britannica, where he explains that "the triethlyamine responsible for the stale element in hawthorn's complicated smell is one of the first chemicals produced when living tissue starts to decay" and reminds nurses who have worked in Africa of the smell of gangrene.

"Yet triethylamine's fishy scent," he goes on, "is also the smell of sex - something rarely acknowledged in folklore, but implicit in much of the popular culture of the hawthorn."

Charles Nelson, late of our National Botanic Gardens, thinks that botanists "never agree about perfumes". The Burren's fragrant orchid, Gymnadenia conopsea, for example, has flowers that, for him, are perfumed with vanilla. "Others assert that the scent resembles cloves or rubber, which reminds me of the equation of old socks or fine old hock for the perfume of the California tree poppy - an aroma is as much in the mind as beauty is in the eye of the beholder."


But even he finds that hawthorn blossom "exudes that heavy musky fragrance with sexual undertones". He is, of course, another Englishman, now living in pastoral bliss in Tippitiwichet Cottage, somewhere in East Anglia.

So, with the hawthorn hedges of the acre weighed down with quite memorable swags of snowy flowers, the Vineys went out for a sniff - even a few deep breaths. We couldn't find the fishy bit, but . . . swoony, certainly. No wonder my rural English mother wouldn't let it in the house.

And is it my imagination, or are more of our bushes than usual tinged strongly with pink this year, a tie-dyed sort of blotchiness as if someone had put a red shirt in with a white wash?

There have always been pink variants of our hedgerow hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna, and these have been a general favourite with gardeners for a couple of centuries and more. But does the pink come and go, like a maiden's blush?

As with all the hawthorns along this shore, ours are eccentrically lop-sided, their branches leaning out from the ditch in one direction, away from the westerly winds. This is not from wind pressure - they are not bent - but from the progressive desiccation and withering of the seaward buds.

The bushes are 75 years old or more, with gnarled and twisted trunks, and the harder I hack them back, the more vigorous the new growth they put out. A well-tended hawthorn hedge is virtually everlasting. Indeed, as John Seymour wrote once, "If a hedge does get out of control, there is nothing to do but cut it right down. It will then grow again and you will have a better chance of shaping it."

This fierce potential for fresh growth is worth remembering when taking possession of a neglected rural garden, or building a new bungalow in a country lane. Don't let the JCB man rip out "them oul' stumps": they may have centuries of sinews in their roots from which to start again.

As for hawthorn "quicks" or cuttings, this is a good time to take them. Going by the methods in use when my hedges were planted, take cuttings of hard, pencil-thick twigs, about 40 cm long, sow them in a row, so close they nearly touch, slightly slanted, the top ends level with the soil surface and the earth pressed tight around them. Keep the soil weed-free and they will sprout by next spring. But be warned: there is nothing very "quick" in growing a hawthorn hedge from scratch.

A red admiral butterfly took possession of our sunniest patch of garden path one day in April, the early date and its worn condition suggesting a winter spent here in hibernation. It provided the year's first entry in the list I am keeping for the national butterfly survey just launched by the Dublin Naturalists' Field Club, and was followed by the first peacock, small tortoiseshell and wall brown.

Like our countryside birds, the butterflies of Ireland are under pressure from the loss of wild plants and rough habitats in the intensification of farming. And while the people of this island no doubt get as much pleasure from butterflies as those anywhere else, there has been a lack of any organised interest in conserving their populations.

In Britain and Northern Ireland, on the other hand, Butterfly Conservation is a major wildlife charity. Now, the Irish survey will extend the new atlas of butterflies in these islands planned for the year 2000. It will tell us how our 28 or so native species are coping with changes in land use, and help in plans for the recovery of those under threat.

Ireland still has important colonies of the marsh fritillary butterfly ( see drawing) which depends on the devil's bit scabious, a plant of the bogs, and is threatened right across Europe. Other species are very local here - the pearl-bordered fritillary and brown hairstreak, for example, occur only in Co Galway and Co Clare.

The Dublin Naturalists' Field Club, founded in 1886, needs hundreds of volunteer observers for their project, which has funding from the Heritage Council. For information and record cards, send a large sae to Mary Willis, 18, Charleville Road, Rathmines, Dublin 6. And for information on the Dublin Naturalists' Field Club, contact Dr David Nash, 35 Nutley Park, Dublin 4 (E-mail:

This is also the start of Wildflower Week in Dublin, organised by Conservation Volunteers Ireland, with walks at the National Botanic Gardens and talks in ENFO and other places. Details from Kim Hunter at 01668 1844.

And while I'm at it, the Irish Wildlife Trust is having its annual Gerrit van Gelderen memorial field weekend in the Burren next week. Details from Martin Byrnes at 091-794435.

Michael Viney

Michael Viney

The late Michael Viney was an Times contributor, broadcaster, film-maker and natural-history author