Photo by Dawn Combs
One of the last things we harvested on our farm each year is the hawthorn berry. It’s finally time to get our share before the birds take theirs. The rose family of plants is very near and dear to our hearts, and the hawthorn is a standout member. When we moved onto our farm, we were very happy to find that a previous owner had planted one right by our front door.
It turns out I’m not alone in my love for this tree. There’s quite a storied past for the hawthorn. My favorite bit of folklore being its affinity with the fairy folk. It was said that the hawthorn was a sacred tree for these elemental beings; those who harmed a hawthorn tree lost their lives, and those who tended one were rewarded. The trails of humans who were spirited into the fairy world often ran cold at a hawthorn tree.
The hawthorn blooms in May each year with a flurry of white flowers that are both repelling and striking. Each blossom is a perfect miniature rose that is attractive to flies and other carrion feeders. Traditionally, it was taboo to bring a blooming branch of hawthorn into the house. In the days of holding watch with the dead, it was well known that the hawthorn’s peculiar stench was that of death. To be honest, the hawthorn blossom aroma isn’t my favorite smell, but it’s worth enduring for the rewards to follow. The bright red berries are beautiful against a fall sky and magnificent to behold silhouetted on a blanket of snow while the cardinals eat their fill.
All parts of the hawthorn are beneficial. The leaves and flowers are delicious fresh, but can also be dried. The berries can be juiced, combined with other fruit, or made into wine, jam or jelly. If you buy the berries, you will most often find them dried and powdered. When used as a tonic, they’re helpful for the health of the heart and circulation. They’re especially useful for blood pressure and cholesterol maintenance. I tend to keep a big bag of hawthorn berries in the freezer so that I can make syrups in the off-season.
The hawthorn tree has long been used as an effective hedgerow, with many ancient examples still growing around the world. These trees were so well-loved for this purpose because of their thorns. When properly tended they can make an impenetrable wall to fence in livestock or create privacy. I think they would make an excellent addition as a living orchard wall. They’re prolific bloomers and can help attract bees to increase pollination in your garden.
Don’t have a hawthorn tree? Don’t despair! There are more than 1,000 different varieties of hawthorn, so there’s most certainly a variety that will grow in your part of the world. They aren’t too picky about the soil they’re placed in, and you needn’t worry that winter is upon us and planting season is over. You can continue to plant these beautiful trees in your landscape right up until the ground freezes.