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The Monday Garden
Rose by Another Name: Hawthorn

Issue No. 89 - December 7, 2003
by Sue Sweeney

Now that we've had our first BIG snow of the season, keep the cold winds at bay by daydreaming about fantastic little trees to plant next spring. There's a plant category called "little flowering trees", the gardening equivalent of "little black dresses". In other words, they're good to have on hand, never go out of style, and go with everything. And a little flowering tree with edible fruit is like wearing a little black dress with a single string of pearls.

This is one of the many hawthorns in my neighborhood in its spring formal wear, clearly showing its kinship to the crabapple, wild plum, serviceberry (shadblow), and other members of the rose family .

Hawthorns (crataegus species) have it all. Pretty spring flowers; attractive summer foliage and ripening fruit; colorful fall leaves and mature fruit; interesting branches and bark.

The fruit comes in red, green, yellow, and, down south in purple and blue. Bushes as young as two and three years can bear fruit. Many hawthorns hold their fruit well into winter, providing nourishment for all the usual suspects (birds, deer, raccoons, rabbits, possum, skunk, fox, coyotes, etc.) The flower pollen attracts butterflies, bees and the like and makes good honey.

An interesting thing about hawthorns is that no one knows how many different kinds there are. Most experts agree that many hawthorns are native to North America but then give the numbers of native and non-native varieties, and hybrids, at anywhere from under 100 to over 1000. The problem is that many of the hawthorns all look pretty much a like, even to the experts.

Most hawthorns have small, irregularly toothed, alternating leaves, and dense, crooked, horizontal branches (good for nesting and hedges). Younger trees have light gray bark; older olds develop interesting age marks such as scales and curling bark. The native plants have thorns up to 4 inches. Some of the hybrids are thornless.

The fruit is too sour and mealy for humans to enjoy raw but we do use it in preserves and liquors. Various parts of the plant are used for medicinal purposes, particularly coronary and vascular disease. Apparently, they pack enough of a punch that only trained professionals should use them.

Some say that hawthorn can be invasive in pastures. As short-statured sun lovers, hawthorns are clearly a species that has been enhanced by the Europeans cutting down a good part of the North American forest to make farmland. However, since hawthorns are slow-growers, it's hard to see them as being unmanageably invasive.

Like other roses, hawthorns like sun and well drained soil, and are subject to a number of pests such as leaf rust. However, like with the other roses, please hold the 'cides (pesticide, fungicide, etc.). The pests might be annoying in a bad year (e.g. unusually rainy) but they don't threaten the tree's health or yours. The 'cides, on the other hand, by definition, KILL stuff, like your cat.

Unlike many rose family members, hawthorns don't require acid soil; in fact they aren't the least bit particularly about soil nutrients, salt or pollution, including auto exhaust, so they're a great city tree that won't get tall enough to tangle with the electric lines.

From The Monday Garden. Copyright © by Sue Sweeney. Reproduced with permission. 

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