Sunday, September 29, 2013

Number 12

The number twelve is what pops into my mind when I think of hawthorns (Crataegus spp.). Is it because there are 12 species of hawthorn in Georgia? No, there are actually 53 species of Crataegus native to Georgia according to the USDA database, although a reference created for Georgia lists only 36 of “widespread occurrence”.  Twelve is the location of hawthorn on the list of top 20 woody plants in support of Lepidoptera in the mid-Atlantic region. Oak is number one, cherry is number two and after that all I can remember is hawthorn is number 12.

Spring flower, Crataegus uniflora

Hawthorn is a lovely small tree in general and deserves increased usage for more reasons than being number 12. Crisp white flowers in the spring make some of the species good alternatives to overused spring-flowering trees like ornamental pears (which are not native). 

Crataegus viridis ‘Winter King’

The cultivar Crataegus viridis ‘Winter King’ is a commonly available choice that grows up to 30 feet tall. A good display of flowers turns into a spectacular fall fruit show. It is also considered both drought and urban tolerant once established.

It is true that hawthorns do have thorns. Some plants have large thorns while others have more modest ones. Once trees reach a certain height, however, the thorns are not much of an issue to the average passerby. Hawthorns are sun loving plants and will flower and fruit best when sited for 6 or more hours of sun. I have several species native to my property and only those in sun produce flowers. 

Fall fruit, Crataegus triflora
As with any plant that has such a wide variety of species, there are species adapted to both dry and wet conditions. The coastal species Crataegus aestivalis, known for its fruit being made into mayhaw jelly, is naturally found in wet areas. Crataegus uniflora was the first hawthorn I ever noticed. It grows well in the dry woodland edges on my property. Handsome leaves frame white flowers that yield to small fruits in the late summer.

Washington hawthorn, C. phaenopyrum
Other popular landscape hawthorns include parsley hawthorn (C. marshallii) and Washington hawthorn (C. phaenopyrum). Parsley hawthorn has delicately shaped leaves and naturally grows in moist areas but does fine in average garden conditions. Washington hawthorn has small glossy fruits in abundance. 

Atypical fall leaves
of parsley hawthorn (C. marshallii)

C. spathulata

Little hip hawthorn (C. spathulata) is another species that is both attractive and adaptable.

If fruit size is important, look for downy hawthorn, C. mollis, or mayhaw, C. aestivalis. Fall color is not especially noted for hawthorns, although both Washington hawthorn, C. phaenopyrum,  and Crataegus viridis ‘Winter King’ are indicated as having reliable color.

Whether you want spring flowers, fall fruit, a plant to deter burglars, or just like having a plant that supports over 150 different Lepidoptera, hawthorn is well worth considering.

Fall fruit, C. munda

Reference: The 2006 edition of Tipularia, the Journal of the Georgia Botanical Society, features a thorough treatment of the hawthorns found in Georgia and includes a key and pictures of most species. Older copies of Tipularia may be obtained by contacting the editor.


  1. I love to watch the robins come through and strip our Washington hawthorne when the berries are ripe. Great article. Thanks, Ellen

  2. I planted a parsley hawthorn last year! It' But still alive, so that's something!

  3. I have a number of Hawthorn in my woods/garden/yard. I also received two for my Arbor Day 'free' trees. They are still alive and now about 8 inches tall. Some have yellow berries and some are redder. I like having them in my yard, but boy do they have thorns!!
    ps- thanks for the ID of my Golden Aster. I did credit your correction.