Saturday, 16 June 2018

Common & Midland Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna & Crataegus laevigata)

COMMON HAWTHORN[i] (Crataegus monogyna)
Family: Rosaceae
Hawthorn in full bloom.
(Hailsham, Saltmarsh, May 2010)
Common Hawthorn grows as an erect shrub or small tree and its branches are covered with spines. It is common throughout the British Isles and grows on well-drained soils where it often forms dense thickets (for distribution maps see Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora). Unlike the Blackthorn with which it often grows, Hawthorn flowers only after its leaves have emerged, which is usually in May. By then the Blackthorns have finished flowering and their leaves have started to emerge (see separate entry on Blackthorn). Common Hawthorn leaves are quite small and are deeply lobed—quite different from the plain oval leaves of Blackthorn.

Newly-emerged, tender young
Hawthorn leaves. (Lullington, April 2004)
The fruits as food
Hawthorn fruits prolifically and the branches are often smothered with the small red berries, known as ‘haws’, that are about 6-12 mm long. It produces fruits consistently year-on-year, with no ‘off years’, and in mid to late August when they first ripen they are scarlet and shiny, but as the summer progresses they become duller and more crimson. The fruits of Common Hawthorn have a large, thick-walled stone and a modest layer of flesh, which, although sweetish, is rather ‘floury’ (see entry in Plants For A Future [PFAF]database). 

Hawthorn in fruit.
(Hellingly, September 2008)
The fruits should be gathered while they are still a livid scarlet. By mid-October the berries on most Hawthorns have turned a deep maroon and some have even started to blacken. By this point, they’ve usually become dry and tasteless and have lost the pectins that make them so useful as a binder for making jellies, jams and fruit leather[ii]. Berries in this state are no longer worth gathering.

Despite the ‘flouriness’ (e.g., dry/powdery texture) of the fruits, because of their high pectin content if they are squashed between the hands the crushed flesh turns solid and gelatinous within a matter of minutes[iii]. To make fruit leather the crushed fruits should immediately be mixed with some water, followed by straining (or forcing) the freshly crushed mass through a sieve (ideally with a 4 mm mesh) to remove the stones and stalks, then the sieved pulp should either be spread on sheets of greaseproof paper or, alternatively, left in a bowl to set solid and sliced before allowing to dry. A mixture of Sloe and Hawthorn fruit leather is even tastier.
Hawthorn flowers and buds.
(Hailsham, May 2005)
The flowers and leaves as food
The flower buds of Common Hawthorn have a pleasant, strong, nutty flavour, but tend to lose much of their taste once the flowers open; they can be picked and eaten as a wayside snack or added to salads. The young leaves (e.g., newly emerged from the leaf buds) can also be added to salads, soups and omelettes.

MIDLAND HAWTHORN[iv] (Crataegus laevigata, synonyms: C. oxyacanthoides, C. oxyacantha)
Family: Rosaceae

Midland Hawthorn extends from the Kent coast through Essex, and up to the Midlands and across to the Yorkshire coast (for distribution maps see Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora). Even in this limited area it is far less ubiquitous than the Common Hawthorn, although is occasionally more abundant in shady woodlands. It is possible to distinguish Midland Hawthorn by its leaves: they are rounded and broader than they are long, and the sinuses (the indentations in the leaf) are sharply angled and reach less than halfway to the midrib. Another useful way of separating the two Hawthorn species is to look carefully at the styles: in Common Hawthorn there is normally just a single style sticking up from the top of the exposed carpel, whereas in Midland Hawthorn there are usually two styles.

The fruits of the Midland Hawthorn are slightly broader than long and are flat-topped. Lang (1987: 96) points out that when the Midland Hawthorn shoots are plucked they soon start to give off a smell of putrid flesh[v] which, he suggests: “may be the reason for fertility beliefs becoming powerfully associated with it[vi]. It was considered unlucky to bring Hawthorn blossom in to the house as it was thought likely this would lead to illness and death, and this was very probably due to the association of the smell with that of decaying flesh. Because Midland Hawthorn flowers earlier than the Common Hawthorn it is a more reliable source of flowers for May Day celebrations.

[NB: many of the culinary uses of Common Hawthorn also apply to Midland Hawthorn; see separate entry in Plants For A Future [PFAF] database].

Anna Richardson gathering
Hawthorn flowers. (August 2014)

Medicinal properties
The Hawthorn’s fruit, leaves and flower buds all have a range of medicinal properties, and are particularly known for their efficacy in treating cardiac problems (Mashour et al. 1998: 2228; Nabavi, et al. 2015; Tassell et al. 2010). More specifically, they have a remarkable ability to normalise heart function and seem to be able to either stimulate the heart or sedate it, depending on the state of the recipient.

The therapeutic qualities of Hawthorn have long been recognised and there are many recent historical records of its use amongst local communities throughout Europe; for example: in the Trás-os-Montes region of northern Portugal, it was used as a medicinal supplement for digestive, respiratory and cardiovascular disorders (Carvalho and Frazão-Moreira 2011); in the upper Reka Valley of northwest Macedonia, inhabitants of the villages used dried flowers to make a tea for treating hypertension (Pieroni et al. 2013); and in Bologna, northern Italy, an infusion of the flowers was administered to cure insomnia and heart problems (Sansanelli and Tassoni 2014). There are also records of it being consumed as a famine food during WWII in the Netherlands during the ‘Dutch famine’ or ‘Hunger Winter’ of 1944-45  (Vorstenbosch et al. 2017)

Ray Mears collecting haws.
(New Forest, October 2006)
Other uses
Hawthorn has long been used as a hedging plant and, as Lang explains, that the name derives from the Middle English word ‘hawe’ (from the Old English ‘haga’[vii]), which referred to a space enclosed by a hedge (Hooke 1989: 123; Lang 1987). Hawthorn wood is very dense, which makes it useful for carpentry[viii] (e.g., making furniture, tools, etc.). In Montemitro, southern Italy, the thorny stems of Hawthorn were traditionally used in the drying of figs (the fruits were ‘strung’ on the stems and then left to dry; di Tizio et al. 2012).

There are many folklore legends about Hawthorn. As Lang (1987) notes:  in times past ancient hawthorn trees were used as public meeting places, such as the Hethel Old Thorn in Norfolk[ix]; they were often deemed to be sacred, and in Ireland in particular, it was believed that they were the haunt of the ‘little folk’ (see references to Hawthorn in Irish Archaeology 2011)[x]. Lang also quotes a legend concerning the Holy Thorn of Glastonbury in Somerset, which is supposed to have sprung from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea[xi]: “The story tells how Joseph reached Glastonbury in AD63 and when he thrust his staff (itself an offshoot of Christ’s crown of thorns) into the ground, it promptly burst into flower  (Lang 1987: 98). Apparently there were three thorn trees at Wearyall Hill (/Wirral Hill, where Joseph of Arimathea supposedly placed his staff) and of these it was recorded in 1520: “The hawthornes also groweth in Werall do burge and bere greene leaves at Christmas as fresh as other in May” (Cuming Walters 1909: 121). The site where Westminster Abbey is located was called ‘Thorney Island’, so named after a stand of Hawthorns that once grew there (Rhind 2013: 283).

Basket of haws.
(Etchingham, November 2004)

Prehistoric and historic usage
There are many prehistoric and historic records for the use of Crataegus fruits (see Kroll 1998: 29). Finds of charred fruitstones in Upper Palaeolithic levels (dated to the Middle Magdelenian: c. 16,500-18,000 cal. BP) at the cave site of Cova de les Cendres in Alicante, Spain, represent the earliest evidence for the deliberate collection of Hawthorn (Martinez Varea and Badal Garcia 2018). Twenty waterlogged Hawthorn fruitstones (identified as Crataegus monogyna/laevigata) were found in a refuse layer at the late Mesolithic/Ertebølle site of Tybrind Vig on the island of Funen (Denmark; Kubiak-Martens 1998). And at the Danish site of Møllegabet II, located (underwater) off the north coast of the island of Ærø and dated to the same period as Tybrind Vig, waterlogged fruitstones, immature fruits and fruit fragments (identified as Crataegus monogyna/laevigata) were recovered from layers in and around a dwelling structure (Mason 2004). Neolithic finds of Hawthorn are common in Europe, for example, at the middle Neolithic site of Bercy on the banks of an old river bed of the Seine (Paris, France) a single whole charred Crataegus monogyna fruit and many whole and fragmentary waterlogged fruits and fruitstones were identified (Dietsch 1992, 1996); at the German middle Neolithic site of Wangels LA505 (in Schleswig-Holstein) there were numerous waterlogged fruitstones (Kroll 2007); and at Motte-aux-Magnins (also dated to the middle Neolithic) on ‘Le Grand Lac’, Clairvaux-les-Lacs (France) waterlogged fruitstones were found in occupation deposits (Lundström-Baudais 1989). There are many more records for waterlogged and charred remains of Hawthorn at Neolithic sites, but the former are usually more ubiquitous in anthropogenic contexts than the latter (see Colledge and Conolly 2014).

Finds of Crataegus monogyna are recorded in association with the mounds and lake dwellings at Iron Age Glastonbury Lake Village (Bulleid and Gray 1911: 626-627). At a later date, fruitstones are listed in Medieval samples from the lakeshore settlement of Fonyód Bélatelep, on Lake Balaton, Hungary (7th-9th century A.D.; Gyulai et al. 1992) and the ‘Mirror Pit’ (14th-15th century) at Ferrara, northern Italy (Mazzanti et al. 2005). 

Crushing Hawthorn fruits
and stones (November 2004)

Making Hawthorn fruit leather.
(Wapsbourne, July 2010)
Haw processing: making cake-leathers
 from crushed and sieved fruits.
 (Michelham, September 2007)
Haw leather drying.
(Michelham, September 2007)


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[i] Other names include: may, mayblossom, maythorn, quickthorn, whitethorn, motherdie and haw.
[ii] Crataegus berries are noted for the high levels of pectin they contain; Wild Food UK: [accessed: 26.04.18]
[iii] As the flesh of Hawthorn fruits so rich in pectin it provides the perfect binder for making acorn ‘rissoles’, especially if crushed, ‘cured’ sloes are added to sharpen the flavour (Hillman unpublished field notes).
[iv] Also known as English hawthorn, smooth hawthorn, woodland hawthorn and mayflower.
[v] The smell is apparently due to the chemical trimethylamine, which is also formed in decaying animal tissue.
[vi] Woodland Trust: “When cut, the flowers have such a foul smell that medieval people said it reminded them of the stench of the Great Plague in London in 1665-6. Although many people now associate this with common hawthorn, it is thought that the association originated from Midland hawthorn which may have been more common in the middle ages.” ( [accessed: 30.04.18])
[vii] Online Etymology Dictionary: [accessed: 30.04.18]
[viii] See entry in:  Common hawthorn timber is a creamy brown colour, finely grained and very hard. It can be used in turnery and engraving, and was used to make veneers and cabinets, as well as boxes, tool handles and boat parts. It also makes good firewood and charcoal, and has a reputation for burning at high temperatures.” [accessed: 26.04.18]
[ix] The Hethel Old Thorn is c. 700 years old; see reference in: A Shakespeare Garden ( [accessed: 01.05.18])
[x] There have been instances when, in advance of land clearance prior to archaeological excavations, local people have refused to be party to cutting down any hawthorn trees (Hillman pers. comm.).
[xi] See reference to the legend in; The Glastonbury Shrine ( [accessed: 0205.18])

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