A relative of the rose, the hawthorn is a deciduous shrub or small tree that bears clusters of aromatic white flowers followed by dark red, egg-shaped fruits. These fruits, sometimes called haws, resemble rose hips or tiny apples. The fast-growing, thorny shrub is a common sight in old English hedgerows—in fact, the word “haw” is an early Anglo-Saxon term for hedge. The genus name Crataegus comes from the Greek word for “strength”—a reference to the hawthorn’s hard wood.
Common Names: English Hawthorn, Hawthorn, May Tree, White Thorn
Description: Deciduous, thorny shrub or small tree, up to 15 feet tall, with dark brown bark; clusters of aromatic white flowers, followed by dark red, egg-shaped fruits
Hardiness: To Zone 4
Parts Used: Leaves, flowers, and fruits
Range/Habitat: Native to Europe, India, and northern Africa, naturalized in upper Midwest United States and Canada
Hawthorn fruits can be made into wines, sauces, and jellies. The edible flowers can be added to salads or steeped to make a tea.
Hawthorn leaves, flowers, and fruits contain compounds that can dilate coronary vessels and lower blood pressure. The herb has been used to treat a wide range of heart conditions, including hypertension related to a weak heart, angina, arteriosclerosis, the early stages of congestive heart failure, age-related heart disorders, and arrhythmia. Practitioners often encourage the use of hawthorn products for several months or years to reap optimum benefits.
In traditional Chinese medicine, the fruits of the related species, Crataegus pinnatifida (known as shan zha), are often recommended to stimulate digestion. Both Native American and Chinese medical practitioners have used various species of hawthorn to treat diarrhea, to strengthen the heart, and for other curative purposes.
Caution: Unlike some medicinal plants that act on the heart, hawthorn is relatively nontoxic. However, those taking digitalis should consult with their health-care provider before taking this herb because it necessitates a reduction in the dosage of digitalis.
Hawthorn’s attractive foliage, flowers, and berries add year-round beauty to the landscape. Its scented flowers attract butterflies, and the bright red berries persist into winter, providing food for birds such as thrushes and waxwings. Plant hawthorn individually or in hedges. For a more formal look, prune and train the plants espalier-fashion.
How to grow it
Hawthorn is easy to grow in an open, sunny site with moist, well-drained loam. Plant fresh seed in a cold frame in fall for germination the following spring. If seed is not fresh, scarify it before sowing to speed germination. Harvest the flowers and leaf buds in spring; harvest the berries after they ripen in fall. Propagate by seed or by grafts taken in late winter to early spring.