Hawthorn Trees for Beauty and Beast

Hawthorn trees, Crataegus, are named for the thorns that occur along their stems. Their other names include thornapple, May-tree, whitethorn and hawberry. The plant family is large so there are native varieties in North America, Europe and Asia. 

In the spring, bees and other pollinators swarm the sweet-smelling flower clusters. In the late fall and early winter, after the leaves fall, the trees are covered with fruit that looks like tiny red berries. Soon after the fruit arrives the songbirds arrive to clean off the entire tree in a day or two.

Not only do Hawthorn trees provide nectar for bees and berries for birds, the leaves are eaten by the caterpillars of a variety of moths and many butterflies such as the brush-footed.

The berries, sometimes called haws or mayhaws, are used to make jelly and wine.  In some Asian cultures the berries are used medicinally.

Historically, Hawthorn species have been used as street trees and as ornamental trees for small gardens. In the 18th Century hawthorn saplings were used to establish field boundaries.  The wood of the Hawthorn is so hard that it was used for axe and shovel handles.

Today, hawthorns are popular with wildlife gardeners and new cultivars have been developed with showy pink or red flowers. Since they are native trees they are frequently listed as plants for low-water usage gardening.

There are 200 named Hawthorn species. They can be used as a hedge or as a specimen. Most varieties produce suckers than cannot easily be dug to make new trees. Planting them by seed is also challenging since the seeds take up to 18-months to germinate.

Here are some varieties to consider adding to your garden or wildlife landscape –

Crataegus laevigata or English hawthorn, Paul’s Scarlet, has double, dark pink flowers.

Crataegus mordenensis cultivars are compact, round and almost thornless. The flowers are white to pink and the fruit is a red-pink sphere. Snowbird has double white flowers.

Crataegus nitida, or Glossy hawthorn, is a dense, essentially thornless, tree with leaves that turn orange and red in the fall. The flowers are in clusters and the fruit is a dull red color. They are native from Ohio to Arkansas.

Several varieties are native to Oklahoma, including Barberry hawthorn, Kansas hawthorn, Cockspur hawthorn, Parsley hawthorn, Downy hawthorn, Frosted hawthorn, Dotted hawthorn, Reverchon hawthorn, Littlehip hawthorn, and Green hawthorn.

Barberry hawthorn, Crataegus berberifolia, grows to 20-feet tall. The white flowers have pink or yellow stamens.

Kansas hawthorn, Crataegus coccinioides or redhaw tree, matures at 15-feet tall and has many thorns (good for a wildlife hedge). The flowers are white and the stamens are red-pink.

Downy hawthorn, Crataegus mollis, is a 20-foot tall tree that is nearly thornless and often used as an ornamental tree. Common to the moist soil along streams, it grows into the largest of the native varieties. It is prized for its ornamental flowers, colorful fall leaves and scarlet fruit.

Littlehip hawthorn, Crataegus spathulata, is easy to recognize because its leaves are shaped like the bowl of a spoon. The flowers and fruit are small. This tree is native to TX. AL and FL indicating that it can take more heat than some other varieties.

Other cultivated varieties include Cockspur hawthorn that has curved thorns, lots of flowers, and long-lasting red fruit. One variety of this tree, inermis, is thornless and drought resistant.

Crataegus lavallei Carrierei is thorny but has red fall color, an abundance of white flowers and orange-red fruit in the fall that resemble crab-apples.

Crataegus viridis Winter King matures at 40-feet tall with few thorns, white flowers, red autumn leaves and red fruit in the winter.

Consider a hawthorn for your next tree purchase.


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