Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Glastonbury Thorn aka Roddymoor Pit-Heap Thorn

The Glastonbury Thorn of ancient myth is said to have sprung from the walking stick of Joseph of Arimathea while he slept near the ancient island of Avalon, now familiar to thousands of festival goers as Glastonbury Tor. When he awoke his stick is said to have taken root and sprouted leaves and flowers, so he took root too and introduced Christianity in Britain, so the story goes. In Mediaeval times a hawthorn that grew on the site and flowered in late winter and again in May was believed to be the very same plant. This twice-flowering hawthorn apparently had two trunks, one of which was destroyed in the reign of Elizabeth the First and a second which was finally destroyed in the Civil War by Roundheads. Winter-flowering hawthorns have been planted there since, reputedly from cuttings of the original plant and I believe that one still grows there.........but we have another example growing on an old colliery spoil tip at Roddymoor, up here in County Durham.

These twice-flowering, winter - and spring-blooming hawthorns have been reported from time to time in other parts of Britain and they are all likely to be genetic mutants whose normal response to lengthening days – a signal for bud-burst and flowering, has become confused. This particular specimen was planted about 40 years ago on the old Roddymoor pit heap, in an experiment to see which plants would establish in rock, poor soil and coal dust that was parched in summer and waterlogged in winter. Happily it’s still there, growing slowly but surviving. I picked a twig about three weeks ago which is now in full flower in a vase on my desk today - and is portrayed above.

The plant has several peculiarities, possessing few thorns and bright red buds - see photo above, taken about three weeks ago while there was still deep snow on the ground and showing bud scales beginning to loosen even then. It’s also Midland hawthorn Crataegus laevigata (identifiable by its pair of stigmas), and not the common hawthorn C.monogyna which predominates hereabouts.

Hawthorn is a genetically variable species, notably in its response to spring. You only need to look along a stretch of hedgerow in late February to see some plants almost in full leaf and others still with tight buds that show no propensity to produce leaves until late March. Our local ‘Roddymoor Thorn’ is, I guess, just an individual from the extreme end of this spectrum of response to lengthening days. Still, it’s in pole position to respond to climate change, early springs and milder winters – although this winter hasn’t done it any favours.

There are some other peculiar hawthorns hereabouts, including a yellow berried one which I must remember to photograph next autumn.


  1. Such a beautiful flower and the buds look pretty too. The bright red must have looked very striking against the snow.

  2. p.s. "Roddymoor pit-heap Thorn". Hee-hee, I like it! :O) I think I'll have a walk up our pit bank and claim some botanical gem for Willington! :D

  3. Hi Lesley, there might well be something unique to Willington. Have you seen this web site...http://www.nhm.ac.uk/fff/searchPC.html
    Type in your post code and it will give you a list of plants recorded in your postcode area...

  4. Thanks for that Phil! What a brilliant website... and photos of everything too. I've put it in my 'Favourites' and will enjoy looking at that in depth. It will keep me busy searching to see how many I can find. :)

  5. Thanks Phil yet more knowledge imparted in an entertaining fashion. Doesn't have quite the romanticism of a long dead saint but solved a conundrum for me. Thanks (Yet again).

  6. Hi Adrian, I don't think Roddymoor pit-heap will become a place of pilgrimage like Glastonbury........ except maybe by the occasional botanist!