Common hawthorn is a deciduous tree native in the UK and across Europe.
Common name: common hawthorn, hawthorn
Scientific name: Crataegus monogyna
UK provenance: native
Interesting fact: also known as the May-tree, due to its flowering period, it is the only British plant named after the month in which it blooms.
What does hawthorn look like?
Overview: mature trees can reach a height of 15m and are characterised by their dense, thorny habit, though they can grow as a small tree with a single stem. The bark is brown-grey, knotted and fissured, and twigs are slender and brown and covered in thorns. It often hybridises with the UK’s other native hawthorn, Midland hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata). Both species are similar and can be hard to tell apart.
Leaves: around 6cm in length and comprised of toothed lobes, which cut at least halfway to the middle or ‘mid-rib’. They turn yellow before falling in autumn.
Flowers: hawthorns are hermaphrodite, meaning both male and female reproductive parts are contained within each flower. Flowers are highly scented, white or occasionally pink with five petals, and grow in flat-topped clusters.
Fruits: once pollinated by insects, they develop into deep red fruits known as ‘haws’.
Look out for: the deeply lobed leaves, spiny twigs and haws (berries).
Could be confused with: Midland hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata). The flowers of common hawthorn have a single stigma, whereas Midland hawthorn has two. The common hawthorn fruits have a single seed, whereas the fruits of Midland hawthorn have two seeds. The leaves of common hawthorn are not as deeply cut.
Identified in winter by: the spines emerge from the same point as the buds; distinguishing them from blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) in winter which has buds on the spines.
Where to find hawthorn
This species is commonly found growing in hedgerows, woodland and scrub. It will grow in most soils, but flowers and fruits best in full sun.
Value to wildlife
Common hawthorn can support more than 300 insects. It is the foodplant for caterpillars of many moths, including the hawthorn, orchard ermine, pear leaf blister, rhomboid tortrix, light emerald, lackey, vapourer, fruitlet mining tortrix, small eggar and lappet moths. Its flowers are eaten by dormice and provide nectar and pollen for bees and other pollinating insects. The haws are rich in antioxidants and are eaten by many migrating birds such as redwings, fieldfares and thrushes, as well as small mammals.
The dense thorny foliage makes fantastic nesting shelter for many species of bird.
Mythology and symbolism
In Britain, it was believed that bringing hawthorn blossom into the house would be followed by illness and death, and in Medieval times it was said that hawthorn blossom smelled like the Great Plague. Botanists later learned that the chemical trimethylamine in hawthorn blossom is also one of the first chemicals formed in decaying animal tissue, so it is not surprising that hawthorn flowers are associated with death.
How we use hawthorn
Common hawthorn timber is a creamy brown colour, finely grained and very hard. It can be used in turnery and engraving, and was used to make veneers and cabinets, as well as boxes, tool handles and boat parts. It also makes good firewood and charcoal, and has a reputation for burning at high temperatures.
The young leaves, flower buds and young flowers are all edible. They can be added to green salads and grated root salads. The developing flower buds are particularly good. The haws can be eaten raw but may cause mild stomach upset. They are most commonly used to make jellies, wines and ketchups.
It has long been used as a hedging plant and is a popular choice in wildlife gardens.
Hawthorn may be prone to aphid attack, gall mites and the bacterial disease, fireblight