Used as a hedgerow plant, the hawthorn is a hardy species. Hawthorn is used as a natural alternative to barbed wire as a stock-proof hedge plant. The hawthorn grows as either a tree or a shrub throughout the UK.
Young hawthorn leaves were sometimes used in the making of tea in times when the real product was a luxury item. The name ‘hawthorn’ derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘hagathorn’ or ‘haegthorn’ and refers to its use as hedging (the Old English 'haga' meaning hedge). The scientific name 'Crataegus' derives from the Greek 'kratos' meaning 'strong' relating to the hardness of the wood.
The hawthorn is one of the plant world’s most familiar harbingers of spring when its fragrant blossom bursts forth during late April and May. The blossom follows the emergence of the bright green, lobed leaves during late March and April. The trunk comprises hard wood which in young trees is smooth and ash-grey but in older trees becomes gnarled and darker.
Hawthorn is a native small tree and grows abundantly throughout the British Isles. In Norfolk it can be found in all districts and in all habitats and is probably the most common small tree because of its widespread use as roadside and farmland hedging. Hawthorn is also found throughout Europe, North Africa and even further eastwards into Asia.
The most famous Norfolk hawthorn can be found at the NWT Hethel Old Thorn Reserve, one of the smallest nature reserves in the UK at 0.025 ha. This particular tree is over 700 years old, and once had a trunk circumference of four metres.
Hawthorns are most attractive when flowering or fruiting. The abundant white flowers, produced in late April and May, have round petals which fade to a pinky hue. They produce a sweet, heady fragrance which travels some distance attracting a wide variety of pollinating insects. The fruit, or haw, produced in autumn is slightly oblong and bright red. These fruits act as a magnet for many resident and migrant bird species. On the Norfolk coast hawthorn bushes can seem alive with migrant thrushes and warblers during October, when incoming or weather-driven birds stock up with the fleshy berries before moving further south.
The Tree Council
The Woodland Trust
Hawthorn is traditionally used in mixed hedges so why not plant one or two in your garden? As well as increasing hawthorn numbers, you will also be helping to attract other wildlife into your garden.
How to plant a hedge (pdf)
How to plant a hedge (video)
Common questions on hedgerow planting