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Common hawthorn

In medieval times it was bad luck to take sprigs of hawthorn blossom indoors as it foretold a death in the household. We now know that chemicals in the scent of the hawthorn are present in decaying corpses, perhaps the reason for this myth.

Berries of the common hawthorn

About Kew's common hawthorn

Each year, scientists monitor a group of plants called the 'Kew 100'. This means recording the flowering dates of 100 native and exotic plants and monitoring trends over time. Hawthorn is included in the Kew 100 and has recently shown signs of change, along with daffodils (Narcissus pseudonarcissus). Since the 1980s the flowering date appears to have moved earlier in the year, suggesting earlier springs, a potential signifier of climate change.

Take a closer look

  • The strong thorns that you can see on each branch are in fact modified branches themselves. These thorns appear mostly on younger branches.
  • Hawthorn bark is dull brown with vertical orange cracks.
     

Tree biology

Common hawthorn is native to Britain and found everywhere with the exception of the far north of Scotland. It is one of two native hawthorns, the other being the Midland hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata).

Once the leaves have emerged from their buds the tree quickly becomes covered in thick bunches of white flowers. Hawthorn blooms in late spring - leading to the common name mayflower. In late August the haws, or berries, begin to change colour from yellowy green to a rich dark red. These stay on the tree for some months and provide a much needed winter meal for blackbirds and thrushes, as well foreign visitors such as redwings and fieldfares. Each haw contains a single seed and this is later dispersed by the birds through their droppings.

Cultivation and uses

The impenetrable nature of the hawthorn has seen it used as a natural hedge or fence for thousands of years. Its dense foliage and sharp spines keep grazing animals and even people at bay, although they do not deter birds. It is a good fire wood which burns with a good heat and little smoke. The fruit can be made into jellies or jams, or be used to flavour spirits such as brandy.

Quick facts

  • Scientific name: Crataegus monogyna
  • Family: Rosaceae
  • Place of origin: western Asia, northern Africa and Europe
  • Conservation status: Common
  • Date planted: 1994
  • Height: 1.4 m