Tree of the Month, September 2023

Hawthorn, Thornapple, Mayflower, Mayhaw

Crataegus sp. 

by Martin (Mort) Schmidt, for Simply Living

Hawthorns at Highbanks Metro Park, Franklin County, Ohio. Photo by Mort Schmidt. 

Hawthorn is a small tree with a large number of species and a larger place in culture. Three species of Hawthorn have National Champions in Ohio, but the tallest is a mere 30 feet tall. Hawthorn represents both hope and misfortune. One or another species of Hawthorn is native to every state but Hawaii, and much of Europe and Asia, so here’s a tree you can look for at home and abroad. 

Hawthorns belong to the rose family, and like many other members of this large group, it has a fleshy fruit. The Hawthorn fruit is called a “haw”. And because these trees typically have thorns, their common name is – wait for it – “Hawthorn”. The Latin name, “Crataegus” comes from the Greek words “kratos”, meaning strength, and “akis”, meaning sharp, because it’s a tree with very hard wood and thorns. 

Hawthorn leaves are simple and alternate. A simple leaf is attached directly to a permanent part of the tree, whereas a compound leaf has multiple leaflets that share a stem (petiole). Alternate leaves (and branches) are not attached directly across from each other, while opposite leaves are. 

Left – Alternate vs opposite. Right – Leaves taken from the same Hawthorn tree, showing great variation in shape. Drawing and photo by Mort Schmidt. 

Hawthorn leaves are famously variable in shape, and there are hundreds of recognized species. I’ve seen Hawthorns with a surprising amount of variability even on a single tree. Some leaves are lobed and some are not, but all have teeth. Many people, myself included, don’t even try to identify Hawthorns at the species level. Recent literature indicates that there are two or three hundred species, but older sources suggested there are a thousand or more. Lucy Braun’s classic The Woody Plants of Ohio shows range maps for 36 species of Crataegus in Ohio alone. But Hawthorns are easy to recognize at the genus level because they have slender, unbranched thorns one to several inches long. Hawthorns sometimes have slender twigs on the trunk with multiple thorns, but the thorns themselves don’t branch, unlike the long, clustered thorns of Honeylocust. 

Left – Hawthorn. Right – Honeylocust. Photos by Mort Schmidt. 

Hawthorns are generally under 50 feet tall, and in Ohio, under 30. Ohio’s largest Hawthorn is a Downy Hawthorn (Crataegus mollis) in Madison County. It has a height of 30 feet, a trunk diameter of 3.5 feet, and a crown width of 46 feet. Hawthorns tend to have multiple trunks, and are often more like shrubs than trees.

Hawthorns, like most members of the rose family, have flowers with five petals. The flowers are usually white or pink, and in some species, yellow, and they typically grow in clusters. As the common names Mayhaw and Mayflower suggest, Hawthorns typically bloom in the spring or early summer. Hawthorn flowers may have an unpleasant odor, which in medieval times was believed to portend death. The odor is attributable to the compound trimethylamine, which is produced by rotting flesh (and Callery Pear flowers, also in the rose family), and apparently serves to attract certain pollinators. Mayhaws are monoecious, meaning that female and male flowers occur on the same tree, or that the flowers are hermaphroditic and contain both female and male parts in each flower. 

Haws resemble crabapples, which are also in the rose family, and consist of pomes, which are actually modified stems. Unlike some fruits, such as raspberries, a pome’s stem goes clear through the fruit and emerges as a 5-pointed star. Most or all Hawthorn fruits are edible, but not all are palatable. Hawthorn bark is rather thin and scaly. And of course Hawthorns have slender, curved thorns in the wild, but cultivars may be thornless. 

Left – Hawthorn flowers. Right – Hawthorn fruits. Photos by Mort Schmidt. 

Hawthorn wood is hard and heavy, and varies by species. The Wood Database provides Janka hardness and density figures for several species of Crataegus:

  • Pear Hawthorn (C. calpodendron), 1,680 lbf, 0.77 g/cc
  • Oneseed Hawthorn (C. monogyna), 1,860 lbf, 0.78 g/cc
  • Mexican Hawthorn (C. mexicana), 2,000 lbf, 0.86 g/cc

This compares to the median on my list of 68 Ohio trees of 1,010 lbf and 0.61 g/cc. (The Woody Plants of Ohio indicates that of these, only Pear Hawthorn is found in Ohio). 

Hawthorn wood has low resistance to rot and insects, making it unsuitable for outdoor use. Its hardness and fine texture make it useful for veneer and for small turned objects, including mallets. Hawthorn also makes excellent firewood. Noel Kingsbury’s Hidden Histories – TREES, says that Hawthorn wood makes the hottest fire of any north European tree, and that charcoal made from Hawthorn was formerly used for iron smelting. 

Because of Hawthorn’s thorns and its dense, brushy growth, it was often planted in a line to serve as a living fence. Hawthorn is planted today in landscaping in much the same way as Crabapple, to which it’s closely related. According to Charles Fenyvesi’s Trees for Shelter, and Shade, for Memory and Magic, most of the Hawthorns planted in the U.S. are planted from seeds. In contrast, apples are grown from cuttings, because apple trees grown from seed can be very different from the parent. Consistency is very important for a commercial fruit, but since Hawthorns aren’t widely consumed in the U.S., consistency is less important. If you plant a Hawthorn from seed, be aware that the seeds may need to be subjected to an acidic environment, such as a bird’s stomach, to germinate. When seeds are planted without preparation, they often don’t sprout until the second or third year.

Left – Hawthorn bark. Right – Hawthorn jelly. Photos by Mort Schmidt. 

Hawthorn fruits resemble crabapples, and are used to make jelly. Apples don’t grow well in warmer climates, such as Mexico or southern Asia, but Hawthorns do. Subsequently, Hawthorn candy is popular there, and it can be found in many Mexican and Asian food stores. To me, Hawthorn candy is much like an apple fruit roll-up. Hawthorn fruit was also used to make wine and liqueurs. 

The ancient Greeks and Chinese used Hawthorn fruits and flowers to treat heart ailments and to lower blood pressure. Tea made from the flowers and leaves is also said to aid with anxiety and loss of appetite. 

Hawthorn fruits are an important source of food to birds, and the tree’s dense thorns provide many birds with protection from predators. Mice, squirrels, and insects also depend on Hawthorns for food and shelter. Despite the thorns, horses and cattle enjoy browsing on Hawthorn leaves. 

In Ireland, it’s considered unlucky to cut down a Hawthorn tree, especially an old one. In many cultures it’s unlucky to bring Hawthorn twigs indoors. But the blossoming of Hawthorn was seen as propitious, and the tree was often at the center of the Maypole celebration. Hawthorn was also associated with beauty, and maidens were advised to wash their faces in the dew of Hawthorn. 

In Glastonbury, England was a sacred tree known as the Glastonbury Thorn. This particular Hawthorn blossomed in the spring, near Easter and in early winter, near Christmas. Legend has it that Joseph Arimathea carried a staff from the Holy Land to England, and when he laid it down, it turned into this tree. Skeptics point out that there is no mention of this tree prior to the 1600s, and the legend might have been invented by the Glastonbury monks to promote pilgrimages as a source of revenue. Like a number of other trees, the Hawthorn is associated with the crucifixion of Christ, in that the crown of thorns is said to be made of its branches. (The same is true of Ziziphus spina-christi, known as the Christ’s Thorn Jujube, another member of the rose family). 

According to Alice Thoms Vitale’s Leaves in Myth, Magic, and Medicine, early Christians believed that a sprig of Hawthorn delivered ships from storms, and on shore, they protected people from lightning. Vitale also states the ancient Romans brewed tea from Hawthorn leaves for protection from witches and that leaves scattered in a cradle protected babies. And according to the Angelfire website, “The Hawthorn in ancient mythology is said to have been created from lightning and Germans used wood in funeral pyres as it was thought to assist the souls of the dead in ascension.” 

According to the Native American Ethnobotany Database, the Indians used Hawthorns in numerous ways. Native uses for the some of the species that grow in Ohio include:

Crataegus calpodendron (Pear Hawthorn)

  • Fruit used for bladder ailments
  • Decoction of dried berries taken during the winter as a mild laxative
  • Fruit eaten raw and cooked

Crataegus chrysocarpa (Fireberry Hawthorn)

  • Decoction of dried berries taken during the winter as a mild laxative
  • Decoction of root taken for diarrhea
  • Twigs used to make a hot tea-like beverage
  • Fruit sometimes used for food, but mostly as a famine food
  • Fruit used for stomach complaints

Crataegus mollis (Downy Hawthorn)

  • Twigs used to make a hot tea-like beverage
  • Fruit eaten by children fresh from the hand

Crataegus pruinosa (Waxyfruit Hawthorn)

  • Fruit mashed, made into small cakes and dried for future use
  • Dried fruit cakes soaked in warm water and cooked as a sauce or mixed with cornbread

Crataegus punctata (Dotted Hawthorn)

  • Compound decoction of shoots and bark taken to stop menstrual flow
  • Decoction taken to prevent ‘breaking out like cancer’ caused by witchcraft 

What was I thinking?  I should have written this article for May. No matter – this is the time to find haws and taste them if you’re adventurous. 

You can listen to my talks on Ohio Broadleaf Tree Identification on YouTube, Part 1 and Part 2

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