Hawthorns

Common hawthorn
Crataegus monogyna

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Common hawthorn belongs to the genus Crataegus and is a member of the rose family (Rosaceae).

Common hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) is a deciduous tree growing to 15m and flowering May to June.

Lifespan: Hawthorn can be very long lived. The oldest specimens on record have reached over 700 years.

 

Characteristics

Common hawthorn may grow as a small tree with a single stem but is more frequently found as a multi-stemmed shrub. Bark is brown-grey and fissured. Densely branched and twigged with many thorns. Leaves have three to five deep lobes, slightly toothed.

Hawthorns are hermaphrodite; they have ‘perfect’ flowers with both sexes being represented in one flower. Flowers are white (rarely, pink) with five petals and one style (4–6mm), in flat-topped clusters. They are heavily scented. Fruits are the familiar ‘haw’; one seed in a deep red, oval, berry-like cup. Hawthorns are insect pollinated.

Hawthorns have the ability to spread via root suckers which helps them to persist for many years.

Hawthorn tree
Hawthorn leaves

Distribution

Native in the UK and across Europe.

Very common (rare in north Scotland) in hedgerows, woodland and scrub on acid and moist soils.

The dense, impenetrable vegetation of hawthorn has made it a traditional hedgerow species for centuries.

Common hawthorn frequently hybridises with the UK’s other native hawthorn; midland hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata) and identification can be difficult where their regions overlap. Both species are very similar, have similar human uses, timber type and wildlife value.

Human value

Common hawthorn timber is pale creamy brown, fine grained and very hard. It can be used in fine work from turnery to engraving. It also makes excellent firewood and charcoal; with a reputation for burning at the highest temperature of any wood.

Fruits eaten raw may cause mild stomach upsets. However, when cooked the berries and flowers can be made into jellies, wines and sauces.

A popular nickname for hawthorn is ‘May’ referring to the time when it comes into flower. It is one of the most popular and frequently planted hedge species (it is sometimes known as ‘quickthorn’), especially in mixed planting schemes.

Hawthorn fruit
Hawthorn flowers

Wildlife value

Common hawthorn is a very important wildlife tree.

It is a food plant for a vast number of insects (over 300) including moths such as the hawthorn moth, orchard ermine, pear leaf blister, rhomboid tortrix, light emerald, lackey, vapourer, fruitlet mining tortrix, small eggar and the lappet moth.

The flowers are eaten by the dormouse and provide a good nectar source for many pollinating insects. The berries (haws) provide a food source for many birds such as redwings, fieldfares, finches, thrushes and woodpigeons as well as many small mammals such as the wood mouse, yellow necked mouse, squirrel and bank vole.

The dense thorny foliage is one of the best habitats for birds; providing shelter and good nesting sites for a wide range of species.

Management

Common hawthorn is a pioneer, light-loving species, relatively fast growing and able to tolerate elevations of up to 500m above sea level and moderate exposure.

It can thrive on a wide range of soils, from calcareous to acid provided they are moist to well drained. Hawthorn cannot tolerate waterlogged soils.

Seeds ripen in October. Seeds must be extracted from the flesh and then pre-treated for 18 months before planting February to March.

Hawthorns may be prone to aphid attack, gall mites and fireblight – a bacterial disease caused by Erwinia amylovora.

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Hawthorn berries

Midland hawthorn
Crataegus laevigata

Midland hawthorn leaves

Midland hawthorn fruits

Midland hawthorn also belongs to the genus Crataegus and is a deciduous tree growing to 10m and flowering May to June.

Midland hawthorn is very hard to tell apart from common hawthorn and the two species frequently hybridise. Their human use, timber type and wildlife value is almost identical.

Characteristics are similar to common hawthorn but leaves are more rounded with a tapering base. Flowers are white with five petals and two or three styles (5–8mm), in flat-topped clusters. Fruits contain more than one seed.

Native to the UK, but with a much smaller range than common hawthorn, it is locally abundant only in the south and midlands. Found in ancient woodland (particularly oak) on heavier soils, it is more shade tolerant than common hawthorn.

Hybrids between common and midland hawthorn have an intermediate leaf shape and flowers with a mixture of one and two styles.

Seeds ripen in October. Seeds must be extracted from the flesh and then pre-treated for 18 months before planting February to March.

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Illustrations © Reader’s Digest Association, Inc.
Photographs © Debbie Cotton