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What is a Hawthorn Tree?

A mature hawthorn tree growing on a field.

The hawthorn tree is a very unique variety. It possesses thorny branches but stunning hawthorn flowers. It grows everywhere and can tolerate any soil type. A hawthorn leaf is beautiful, and when young it can be incorporated into a spring salad.

Planting hawthorn trees in a garden will bring nothing but color to your property, and unique tasting fruit to your diet. With many varieties to choose from, we’ve prepared a short n’ sweet explanation of its main characteristics.

We’re constantly surrounded by these giant, gentle neighbors, so head on over to 101 Types of Trees to keep learning about all the friends that planet earth has grown all over the place.



The hawthorn tree goes by many names. You may have heard it be called a quickthorn, haw-berry tree, May-tree, whitethorn, or thorn-apple. Hawthorn is the genus of a great many species of trees and shrubs that are part of the Rosaceae family.

The name crataegus is derived from the Greek word Kratos, which translates to strength — due to the impressive strength of hawthorn wood. The greek word akis (aegus) translates to “sharp” which is in reference to the thorns that grow along the branches and trunks of hawthorn trees. “Haw” is a term for a hedge that comes from old English, and “haguthorn” translates to “a fence with thorns”. Many cultures have participated in the naming of the hawthorn tree!

Hawthorn trees are classified as either shrubs or small trees and rarely grow to be any taller than 15 meters, usually hovering around 5-10. They are deciduous trees and they bear fruits called pomes, which is the type of fruit that grows from species of the Rosaceae family.

A dried up hawthorn tree at a rocky field.

What are Other Types of Hawthorn Trees?

There are over 1,000 types of hawthorn trees, but it would be worth it to mention a few important species.

The Common Hawthorn Tree/The English Hawthorn Tree (crataegus monogyna)

All hawthorns were once referred to as the common hawthorn before it was established that there were different varieties of hawthorn trees. They currently populate temperate regions all over Europe, northwestern Africa, and western Asia.

The Washington Hawthorn Tree (crataegus phaenopyrum)

The slight differences between the Washington hawthorn and other species are that Washington has fruits that are brighter orange in color, and has smaller thorns running along the trunk and branches.

The Midland Hawthorn Tree (crataegus laevigata)

The midland hawthorn is very similar to the common hawthorn, with leaves that are slightly more oblong in shape. The flowers grow in different styles, and can be either white or pink. They grow in Hungary, Great Britain, the Czech Republic, and Spain.

The Downy Hawthorn Tree (crataegus mollis)

The downy hawthorn grows only in eastern North America — it inhabits prairies and woodlands. This variety is the most susceptible to leaf rot disease. The fruit they develop are bright red, and quite a bit larger than other hawthorn tree varieties.

A close look at a blooming hawthorn tree by a path.

What do Hawthorn Trees Look Like?

Despite the vast number of hawthorn species, many of them look relatively the same. Classified as small trees or shrubs, they grown to be between 5-15 meters tall on average. Their bark is smooth and light gray on young trees, and as they age they develop vertical shallow fissures with narrow ridges.

A hawthorn branch is thin are starts to spread quite low on the trunk, and grow up rather than out. The canopy is quite full and robustly shaped. Newer branches emerge as a reddish-orange color and start to develop thorns rather quickly. Old trees have thorns all along their branches and trunks. They are small with very sharp tips, usually reaching a length of 5 inches.

Instead of at the end of a twig, hawthorn leaves grow in a spiral formation along with long shoots. The shoots grow in clusters along branches. The leaves themselves are variable in shape depending on the hawthorn species, but they are usually lobed with serrated margins.

The fruits that hawthorn trees produce have a pome structure, this is the type of drupaceous fruit that plums and peaches are part of. The seed in the center of the hawthorn berry is called a pyrene. The pyrene is similar to a stone but is much smaller and they grow in clusters of 5 within the berry-like fruit.

A blooming hawthorn tree at a grassy hilltop.

How do Hawthorn Trees Reproduce?


Hawthorn trees possess hermaphroditic flowers, meaning that they possess both male and female characteristics. The male characteristics are staminate, meaning they are pollen-producing, and the female characteristics are carpellate, meaning that they are ovule producing.

When a tree possesses both sexual characteristics, that indicates that the tree is able to self pollinate — it does not require pollinators, like bees, to help in pollination.

The hawthorn blossom develops in the spring to late summer, and have a very sweet and pungent smell. They are usually a white flower, though some hybrids produce pink flowers. These flowers are part of the rose family, and the petals are arranged like miniature roses.

A close look at clusters of hawthorn tree blooms.


In the late spring throughout early autumn, it is time for the fruit to emerge. This fruit is berry-like and is a deep red to black color. They are present for several months, unless they are nibbled on by various birds and small mammals. The fruits themselves are usually called thorn-apples or haws, and resemble a combination of crab-apple and cranberry — both in flavor and appearance. The red fruit is very acidic and contains 5 pyrenes.

These fruits are then eaten up by rabbits, deer, small rodents, squirrels, and raccoons. Once the fruit is digested, the seeds will be dispersed wherever the small mammals lay their excrement. This enables the hawthorn to populate many different areas.

This is a close look at the branches of a hawthorn tree during autumn.

What Pests Affect Hawthorn Trees?

Hawthorn trees and others that are part of the genus crataegus, are unfortunately prone to pests, though they are not able to kill them completely. The main issues that these trees suffer from are rust diseases and blight diseases.

Rust Disease

The two rust diseases that the hawthorn suffer from are cedar quince rust or cedar hawthorn rust. The symptoms of these diseases start in the leaves, resulting in early leaf drop. It is easy to spot from the rust spots that cover the hawthorn foliage.

The powdery mildew eventually spreads to the fruit and flowers, causing more rust spots and unattractive deformations. It is caused by a fungus called Gymnosporangium globosum. Trees are able to recover, and it won’t actually kill a tree, but just make it sick and produce unattractive fruit and foliage. But nobody wants a tree infested with leaf spot.

Blight Disease

There are three blight diseases that affect hawthorn trees, and they are leaf blight, fruit rot, and fire blight. The infection starts at the tips of the branches, where they will begin to brown and wither. The infection will then spread to the leaves and flowers, ultimately killing them. Cankers also begin to develop on the branches and trunk of the tree.

These unfortunately fungal leaf spots are contagious and affect many members of the Rosaceae family. The pathogen comes from the erwinia amylovora bacterium, and is able to take out an entire orchard in one season.

A close look at clusters of hawthorn berries.

Where do Hawthorn Trees Grow?

The hawthorn tree is native to the most temperate regions in North America, Europe, Asia, and North Africa. It is prevalent in many areas, because it is a very resilient tree and is able to prosper in a variety of growing conditions.

What are the Growing Conditions of Hawthorn Trees?

Hawthorn trees, though susceptible to various pests and diseases, are surprisingly tough and hardy trees. They are quite tolerant of drought, as long as the initial growth stages of their life occurred in a moisture-rich environment.

The ideal sunlight energy of the hawthorn tree is either full sun to partial shade. They love living in soils that are well-drained and moist, and moderately acidic. However, they are able to live quite well in either completely alkaline or acidic soils, or soil that is like sandy clay, or nutrient-rich dark soil.

A close look at clusters of hawthorn berries.

How are Hawthorn Trees Used?


First and foremost, the hawthorn tree is a very important source of shelter and food for a variety of animal species. Small rodents, deer, rabbits, raccoons, and squirrels all love to nibble on the berry fruit of the tree, and then go on to spread the seeds of the tree. The hawthorn flower is an important source of nectar for nectar-feeding insects as well.

But animals are the only ones who appreciate the flavors that the hawthorn tree has to offer. When hawthorn leaves are young, they are very tender and make for a great addition to a spring salad. In certain parts of rural England, the young buds and leaves of this tree are referred to as “bread and cheese”.

Many different cultures utilize haw berry. In the southern United States, they are known as may-haws, and they are made into jams, jellies, and homemade wines. Ancient Chinese medicine practices have dried the fruits and used them to aid in digestion, and apparently cardiovascular function as well.

A close look at clusters of hawthorn berries.

Wood & Utility

Outside of the wonderful edible fruits, the hawthorn is also a very popular choice for the practice of bonsai! Not only that, people use hawthorn trees to practice grafting — the art of growing trees into specific shapes, and even encouraging trees to go into one another.

Hawthorn tree wood is famous for being very resistant to rot and is hardwood and easy to work with. In the past, it has been used to make fence posts and tool handles. First nations communities of western Canada used this hardwood because it cuts into very sharp edges, and can be used as a fishhook or small blade.

Due to its extreme beauty, the Hawthorne tree has often been planted as a street tree or as an ornamental tree. This shrub is planted as popularly as an apple tree or crab apple tree would be and is often a choice plant to pair with a thorny hedge.

What is the Spiritual Significance of the Hawthorn Tree?

In Ireland, certain hawthorn trees are referred to as a “fairy tree”. The folklore says that it is incredibly bad luck to cut down or alter the fairy tree in any way. People who believe this will hang hawthorn branches above their doors to help ward away negative spirits.

Other folklore states that the hawthorn tree represents love and fertility — in Greek weddings, the bride is meant to wear a hawthorn crown to bring about good luck.

And finally, certain people believe that the crown of thorns that adorned Jesus’ head during his Crucifixion, came from the hawthorn tree. Through time, the hawthorn has been established as a sacred tree for this reason.

A blooming hawthorn tree at a field.


Are hawthorn tree berries edible?

The berry-life fruit that comes from the hawthorn tree is not only edible, but it’s also delicious! Many cultures have used the hawthorn fruit to make jellies, jams, and homemade wines for many centuries.

They’re also an important source of nutrients for all of the forest-dwelling creatures that exist in the same region as the hawthorn tree.

Are hawthorn tree roots invasive?

Since the hawthorn tree isn’t too tall or wide, it doesn’t need a super hearty root system to help support the tree. They also don’t require all too much moisture or nutrients from the soil, and so the roots don’t usually grow too deep into the soil.

Because hawthorn tree roots don’t need to search for the elements it needs, the root system remains relatively compact and shallow growing. These roots are not of the invasive kind.

Are hawthorn trees evergreen?

Hawthorn trees are deciduous trees, meaning that they will drop their leaves every fall in preparation for the winter months. Trees do this to become dormant in the winter. They won’t do much growing, but simply stay asleep in anticipation of the first spring days where they can dedicate energy towards growing taller.

How tall do hawthorn trees grow?

It is all dependent on the variety of hawthorn tree, but they usually hover around heights of 10-15 meters. However, there are some hawthorns that are grown as bonsai trees, making them very small, or there are instances of trees that have reached heights of 30 meters in the perfect growing conditions.

How quickly do hawthorn trees grow?

Depending on the variety of hawthorn trees, they are relatively slow-growing. They will usually average a growth rate of about 12 inches per year.

How long do hawthorn trees live?

The hawthorn tree has been around for a long time and has evolved to be able to adapt to many types of climates and soil conditions. They are able to live upwards of a baffling 400 years in the right conditions. This classifies them as being part of the old-growth community.

How do you identify a hawthorn tree?

Hawthorn tree varieties look relatively similar to one another. It can be rather tricky trying to identify the differences between them. One of the easiest ways is to observe its fruit. Different varieties develop slightly different sizes, shapes, and colors of berry.

When do hawthorn trees flower?

The flowers emerge from the hawthorn tree anywhere from early spring to early summer. The fruit emerges many months after that, sometimes as late as early fall.

Is a hawthorn tree a bush?

Although it is technically a small tree, some may say that the hawthorn tree is also a bush. This is because when they grow in nature and are uncontrolled, shoots sprout from many areas of the trunk and branches, turning them into a bush-like shape.

Can you turn a hawthorn tree into a bonsai?

Hawthorn trees are a popular choice both for the art of grafting and bonsai. The tree tends to grow in the direction that it is wanted to and is easily manipulated.

What’s the difference between blackthorn and a hawthorn?

Blackthorn and hawthorn are part of the same tree family. Blackthorns are smaller, their flowers bloom earlier than the hawthorn tree does, and blackthorn trees are ovular with a serrated edge.

How many types of hawthorn trees are there?

There are thousands of varieties of hawthorn trees, but the differences between them are quite indiscriminate.