Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.)


Another shrub with a wide variety of species, generally from 6 feet (1.8 m) to 20 feet (6.1 m) high and forming dense thickets. Keys to identification are the clusters of orange-red “haws” or fruits, and the long, hard thorns. Leaves are opposite, toothed and usually lobed. Showy clusters of white flowers give way later in the year to small apple-like fruits, which often remain on the shrub late into the year. Buds are small, brown and rounded, and thorns can be over 2 inches (5 cm) long. Bark is red to grey with lighter spots.


Growing Conditions:

Commonly found on abandoned fields, forest edges and around older homesteads, it is adaptable to a wide range of conditions. Hawthorn prefers rich, moist well-drained soil but will tolerate some flooding. It grows best in full sun and makes poor growth in shade.


This is one of the hardest natives to grow from seed. Transplanting from the wild is the best route, again taking smaller plants. Remember to wear thick gloves, as the thorns really can tear up your hands. If you would like to try seeds, collect fruit from September on and clean by hand. Each fruit contains 1-5 seeds, with extremely hard seedcoats. Germination usually takes place the second spring after planting, but may take longer.

Wildlife Uses:

Hawthorn’s value to wild life is not as a preferred food, although it is well-utilized by¬†ruffed grouse, American robin, cedar waxwing, fox sparrow and pine grosbeak. More important are its emergency food value and the protection it offers. Since the fruit hangs on quite late into the winter, it is often available when other food is not. The heavy thorns also provide the best protection for small birds fleeing hawks and other predators. This is also why hawthorn is used as a nest site by so many species. In winter, snowshoe hare browse on twigs and buds.

Areas of Usage:

This is an excellent plant to have around the home in combination with some of the more important fruit bearers, such as serviceberry and the dogwoods and elderberries. Allow it to form a dense clump (you probably will have little choice, since it freely spreads from root suckers). The flowers and berries are quite attractive and its protective thorns are especially valuable near feeders. This is also a good choice for windbreaks, and unshaded streambank and pondside plantings. It should not be planted near commercial apple orchards, since it can act as a reservoir for the apple maggot. It can also spread into farmlands, causing flat tires on tractors and damage to cattle feet. Take this into consideration and avoid planting in livestock areas or where spreading will cause problems. Hawthorns are sensitive to salt and are poor candidates for shore plantings or at the edge of salted roads. Despite these concerns, hawthorns should be greatly encouraged in appropriate areas.

Additional Information:

A little over twenty five species of hawthorn are found in Canada, a number of which occur in this province. There is no group of shrubs in Canada in which it is more difficult to separate one species from another. The group is so large and so closely related that only one who has time to study the different species can hope to distinguish them all. The flower and fruit are mainly relied upon to distinguish one species from another. Hawthorns are usually low, wide-spreading, bushy trees, frequently found growing as shrubs in thickets. They are common along roadsides, in fence corners, old pastures, and in open places in the woodlot. They prefer rich, moist, well-drained soils. Hawthorns, in general, can be distinguished from other trees by their somewhat zigzag twigs, which are armed with long thorns. The thorns occur just above the point at which the leaf is attached and are commonly unbranched and exceedingly sharp. The winter buds are small, shiny, chestnut-brown, rounded and covered with numerous overlapping scales. The leaves are alternate, simple, generally toothed and usually lobed. The white or rarely pink flowers are bisexual and are bourne in showy clusters on the tips of short, leafy branches. The fruit or haws, as they are sometimes called, resemble tiny apples and are edible, although proportions of bony seed to pulp is so great that they are hardly worth gathering. Very often they remain on the tree all winter. The hard, heavy wood is of no commercial importance although it makes excellent handles, mallets and wooden novelties.

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