Common Hawthorn, also known as May Blossom, Crataegus monogyna, May tree, Quickthorn.
The native species Hawthorn in the British Isles, Ireland and Northern Europe.
Flowering in the middle of May, its folk name of May blossom derives from the older calendar when 1st May, or May Day, coincided with its flowering.
It is the only British plant to be named after the month in which it flowers.
A fascinating and useful plant for our gardens, parks and hedgerows. I have mentioned some of the superstitions surrounding May blossom in a previous blog on unlucky plants.
This time I’d like to look at Hawthorn’s positive aspects.
Hawthorn – in the Ornamental Garden
It will grow in most soils, in sun or partial shade, but flowers and fruits best in full sun. Crataegus monogyna has an almond-scented single flower, generally white, but pink is also found. I have also seen a white flecked with pink variation.
The pink flowered hawthorn with a double flower is Crataegus laevigata, or Midland Hawthorn. As the two species are similar, hybridisation between the two is a common occurrence. One of the ways to tell the difference is by looking at the flowers. In the autumn and winter check how many seeds the berries have; Crataegus monogyna has only one.
Whether grown as an individual specimen, as part of a mixed hedge or in with other wildlife friendly plants in the flower border it is a reliable garden plant. As a specimen I would personally grow Crataegus monogyna ‘Stricta’. This is an upright, columnar form of the common Hawthorn.
The combination of blossom and berries is always a good one for giving variation during the year; useful in a front garden or a small garden. And just to add to its excellent qualities, Crataegus is a hardy plant and suitable for growing in exposed gardens and seaside gardens!
Hawthorn – Wildlife Friendly
Crataegus monogyna can support more than 300 insects! The caterpillars of the Hawthorn moth obviously enjoy munching on its leaves, but they are joined by nearly a dozen more. May blossom is rich in nectar and pollen; so is a treat for bees, butterflies and many pollinating insects. Also, if you have them in your wildlife garden, dormice delight in eating the flowers.
When it comes to the season of autumn, haw berries provide a nutritious take-away snack for many migrating birds. British native birds and small mammals also eat the red berries.
Hawthorn – Edible Gardens
What can I say? The young leaves, flower buds, flowers and berries are all edible for humans.
Try the young leaves chopped up in salads; or mixed with nettle tips and spinach for a tasty soup. Older leaves can be dried and made into a tisane, but the best leaf flavour is before the blossom appears.
The flower buds can be deep fried but tend to lose their delicate flavour. Tastier eaten raw, I feel. Other uses for the blossom are to make a syrup for flavouring deserts. The lazy version of this is to steep open flowers in the milk for your milk pudding – delicious!
Hawthorn brandy anyone? Briefly, the method is to collect May blossom, open flowers only, no stalks. Steep in brandy for 4 – 6 weeks. Strain off the liquid and bottle it. Drink with pleasure, but not too much at once!
Depending on the brandy you use, the light almond scent of the blossom is still noticeable. Not a brandy lover? The technique works with gin too (my personal preference). Anyone fancy trying a vodka variation?
The berries or fruit are known as haws. They are rich in anti-oxidants and best eaten cooked. Although you can eat them raw, its best to avoid digesting the seed. Depending where you harvest the fruit, there may not be much flavour to them raw.
Haw berry jelly is a preserve I have made. And a collection of hedgerow fruits make a delicious jam, jelly or even mincemeat with a difference. As with the blossom, the haws can be made into a syrup.
Hawthorn – Hedges, Barriers
With its thorny stems, Hawthorn makes an effective barrier hedge to keep livestock contained. It has been used as such for centuries. As one of its common names, Quickthorn, suggests, it is a fast-growing deciduous plant. An average of 40-50 cm growth per year can easily be attained.
In a garden setting, it would make a decorative, burglar-deterrent hedge. If kept pruned to encourage dense growth, Hawthorn can also be a deer-resistant hedge. Plants for a hedge are best purchased as bare root hedging as this is the most economical way to buy in quantity. They will need to be bought and planted during their dormant season, ie over winter.
Hawthorn – a Chinese toffee apple!
Although this article focuses on the Crataegus monogyna, there are other varieties and species. For example, in China a traditional treat is to eat a variation of our toffee apple. Tanghulu is traditionally made by coating haws and other small fruits with hard sugar syrup. Crataegus pinnatifida, Chinese haw is the species used.
Hawthorn – Folklore
“Ne’er cast a clout till May is out”
The old saying of being wary still of frosts, refers not to the month but to the opening of the May blossom. According to folklore, May blossom wont bloom until the danger of frost is past. Its not always true in fact, but its not a bad weather guide so far as most of the British Isles is concerned.
Like to know how best to use Hawthorn in your garden? Get in touch!
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