Whether as a tree or an ornamental hedge, the diverse genus Crataegus goes well in any garden. Find out everything you need to know about planting and caring for hawthorns.
Hawthorns are diverse trees or shrubs that provide an important food source for insects, mammals, and birds. Read on to learn more about hawthorns as well as how to plant, care and use this tree.
Hawthorn: flower, characteristics and properties
The genus hawthorn (Crataegus) comprises about 1200 species, with about 90 in Eurasia and 1100 in North America. The name either derives from the Greek word krataigos, which roughly translates to ‘flowering thorn’, or kratos, meaning ‘strength’, which probably refers to the wood of hawthorns. All hawthorn species belong to the rose family known as Rosaceae.
Depending on the species, hawthorn grows as a tree or shrub with thorny shoots. The deep root system and tough foliage allow hawthorns to thrive in hot, dry and arid conditions. As for the location, hawthorn plants are generally extremely adaptable and undemanding. Hawthorn leaves are simple, toothed or lobed and can turn magnificent autumn colours. The white, pink or red flowers of the hawthorn sit together in clusters or umbrella panicles.
Hawthorns flower from May to June, and the abundance of nectar is invaluable to the insect world. The fruits, which ripen from September, are often called “hawthorn berries”, but like apples (Malus), they are actually pome fruits and form follicles. The rich fruiting of hawthorns serves as food for birds and mammals during the cold season. See our dedicated article for an overview of some of the best-known hawthorn species.
Planting hawthorn: when, where and how
Hawthorn shrubs and small trees are adaptable and tolerate many soil types and sites. The wide variety of hawthorn species naturally brings with it a wide range of needs too. However, hawthorn species that can be grown in the UK require medium-heavy, nutrient-rich, calcareous and deep, dry to fresh soil. In terms of location, hawthorns prefer lean and stony sites on the drier side and sunny to semi-shady locations. When choosing a plant, remember that older and larger hawthorns grow poorly. Hawthorn trees are often available to buy, but rarely do well after transplanting and are very slow to establish themselves and grow an adequate root system. With an annual growth of 25 to 30cm, even small transplanted shrubs develop more quickly, and grow into a stately woody plant over time.
The ideal planting time for hawthorns is in late autumn between October and late November, and in early spring before leaves emerge in March. When planting hawthorn on its own, maintain a distance of 2 to 3m on all sides. When planting a hawthorn hedge, keep a planting distance of 40 to 60cm to ensure a dense bush. For natural hedges, the distance may also be significantly greater. Once you have found the right spot for your hawthorn, it is time to get planting:
- Dig a large planting hole, at least 1.5 times the size of the root ball.
- Mix some mature compost into the excavated soil.
- Place the hawthorn in the planting hole, fill gaps with soil mixture and press down firmly.
- Form a watering rim and water the hawthorn well.
- For standard trees, use a stable tree tie, consisting of at least two tree stakes, for support. This prevents toppling and stabilises the root ball in the ground, allowing the hawthorn to grow better.
Hawthorns are generally low-maintenance woody plants, but they also benefit from a little attention.
Fertilising and watering hawthorns
Hawthorn has low to medium nutrient requirements. An application of mature compost or organic slow-release fertiliser, such as our Plantura All Purpose Plant Food, spread in the spring is usually enough for the entire year. On lean sites and after heavy pruning, apply additional fertiliser.
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It is not necessary to water hawthorns once they have an established root system. Only the freshly planted bushes and trees require regular watering in the first weeks and during the first summer.
Hawthorns are very tolerant of pruning. They recover quickly even from heavy pruning and reliably sprout anew. They can be kept in shape and pruned in height and width without causing long-term damage to the plants. These robust plants can also be grown as hawthorn bonsai. Hawthorns in hedge form or as solitary plants do not require pruning, provided there is enough space.
Hawthorn diseases and pests
Like apples and pears (Pyrus communis), the related hawthorns can be affected by numerous fruit tree diseases. These include fire blight (Erwinia amylovora), which is life-threatening to the plant, fruit canker (Neonectria galligena), powdery mildew (Erysiphaceae), rust diseases, and leaf spot caused by Septoria. Common hawthorn pests include aphids (Aphidoidea), ermine moths (Yponomeutidae), pear slugs (Caliroa cerasi), leopard moths (Zeuzera pyrina), and hawthorn button-top gall-midges (Dasineura crataegi).
Hawthorns can be propagated by seeds, cuttings and layering.
The seeds of the hawthorn fruits can be used for seed propagation. The edible fruits usually have one to three seeds, which must be washed out and separated from the pulp immediately after harvesting. Hawthorn seeds require cold stratification, meaning they need a weeks-long cold period to break the seed dormancy. If you sow the seeds in the garden in November or December, there is a good chance that they will germinate next spring.
To propagate with a cutting, you will need hawthorn cuttings that are about 10cm longandcut from the fresh, soft shoots in summer. Remove all the leaves except at the tip and put the cutting deep into a low-nutrient growing medium mixed with sand. Place the cuttings in a bright location at 15 to 20 °C and keep them moist over the next few weeks.
Hawthorns are easiest to propagate by layering in autumn. To do this, place a shoot without leaves into the ground, leaving it attached to the mother plant – do not cut it off! Fix it below the soil with the help of a wire. Only the shoot tip should be peeking out of the soil while new roots form along the buried shoot. Once enough roots have grown by the following autumn, separate the shoot from the mother plant and plant it elsewhere. Hawthorns can also self-propagate by layering, but if you want another plant quickly, you can speed up the process this way.
Is hawthorn poisonous?
Hawthorns are not poisonous. In fact, their leaves, flowers and fruits are used in folk medicine. Hawthorn fruits can be eaten raw and pose no risk to humans or animals.
Hawthorn benefits and use
Hawthorn fruits can be harvested between September and October, depending on the species. The ripe, floury fruits can usually be harvested until December. Birds and small mammals enjoy the numerous fruits as winter food. They are usually harvested in bunches with pruning shears. Hawthorn fruits taste bland, floury and slightly sweet. Unsurprisingly, they are usually only consumed in times of need and are otherwise used in herbal medicine.
Hawthorn species with large, tasty fruit, such as azarole (Crataegus azarolus), are best for harvesting and processing. The apple-like sweet and sour tasting fruits can be candied or made into juice and jam. Baked goods, cider and hawthorn brandy are also made from hawthorn fruits. In folk medicine, hawthorn tea or tinctures made from dried leaves, flowers and fruits are administered for cardiovascular problems. The flavonoids and procyanidins contained in hawthorn are also important for conventional medicine. In the form of tablets, capsules or juice from the fruit, hawthorn can lower blood pressure, promote blood flow to the heart and relieve symptoms of incipient heart failure, such as palpitations.
Another important fruit tree for natural hedges is sloe (Prunus spinosa). Visit our article for an introduction to this large, thorny shrub and get tips on planting, harvesting and using sloe fruit.