The Monthly Wort
The Monthly Wort will provide readers with detailed descriptions of specifically chosen herbs (aka “wort”, meaning a useful herb), splitting it into 4 categories over the span of the month. Herbal History, Medicinal Uses, Magical Uses and Growing/Harvesting. In order to get the full scope of each plant, stay tuned every week as we delve into spiritual and practical experience of Herbalism.
I have been absolutely dying to grow a Blackthorn and Hawthorn tree in the back yard ever since I started really reading about them. Unfortunately, I’m renting, so I’ll have to wait until I’m in a place to long-term nurture these trees. Are you ready to take on a Hawthorn tree? Despite how they are pretty self-sufficient, growing a tree is a big deal, especially if you plan on hedging with it. So let’s dive right in!
The Crataegus species are technically shrubs, although can be easily considered as small trees. They grow anywhere between 15-50 feet tall. The bark is gray with shallow fissures and narrow ridges. When it’s younger, the bark is smoother. Like many trees, the bark darkens with age and gains more characteristics, which is why it might be difficult to identify this tree at a glance, especially if you don’t spot those thorns right away. The thorns themselves are very sharp and should be approached with caution, as puncture wounds tend to infect easily. Typically 1-3 centimeters long (although there have been reported cases of them growing to be 11.5 centimeters), the thorns can grow from branches or the trunk of the tree.
The leaves of the Hawthorn, for the most part, grow in a spiral motion, starting as spur shoot clusters and growing out into longer shoots. Their shape varies across the different species, but they tend to have serrated edges. The Hawthorn flowers, mostly pollinated by bees, midges and other insects, are hermaphroditic that appear in late spring, usually the first of the forest or field to bloom. They have five white petals with multiple red stamens. To someone in the middle ages, they might smell like decomposing bodies, but for us modern folk, they have a lovely, musty fragrance! Later in the year, the flowers will wilt and produce a fruit known as a haw. While they may look like brilliantly red berries, they are actually a pome that contains 1-5 seeds. Their taste is compared to overly ripe apples.
One of the best things about growing Hawthorn is that it is very adaptive to environments. Despite that it’s optimal soil is well-draining and loamy (to make it slightly moisture-retentive), it can still thrive in other soils! The important thing to remember is to plant it in a place that isn’t near marshlands or areas where there is an excess of standing water. There are also several ways of growing Hawthorn, all with varying degrees of difficulty. You can sow the seeds, plant suckers and cuttings, or graft it into the seedlings of other species.
Growing Hawthorn From Seed
The best time to harvest the haws is after the first few frosts have happened, around the beginning of October for most places. Timing is important because the seeds can be immature if picked too early in the season. With the way the berries grow in bunches, it’s easy to collect many in a short amount of time, particularly if you have a basket collector to save you the pokes and scratches from those thorns.
The haws can be stored in buckets for a few weeks, so long as they are kept cool and dry, such as in a root cellar. To extract the seeds, all you need to do is mash the berries, putting the pomace (“waste”, although I fully believe most “waste” can be used in other ways) and seeds through a colander or sieve to separate. The pomace can be used for jams, syrups or pies, while you can clean and treat the seeds for germination.
Hawthorn can be fairly tricky to grow and takes a lot of patience. The pot you are going to plant it in will have to sit outside for 18 months in a shady spot.
Much like other plants in the rose family, you will want to plant it in horticultural sand (if I don’t have any, I just mix regular, clean sand with a compost in a 1:1 ratio – just be sure that it is peat free; leafmould works best). Note: Personally, I like to mix my own soils just so I know I’m getting the exact ratio that I need and can customize it to the individual plants I’m growing. The idea is to mix the seeds in with the sand/compost mixture ahead of time, the ratio around a handful of seeds for every two or three handfuls of mixture. This will help you choose the size of the pot, so read this thoroughly before moving forward. You want to make sure it’s big enough and strong enough to deal with the weight, especially since you’ll be putting a layer of stones at the bottom, topped with enough sand to cover them entirely, which will help with drainage, only then adding your sand/compost mixture on top. Does it feel like a gritty parfait yet? No? Good. Top THAT off with about an inch of MORE sand.
Again, set the pot in a shady spot, preferably near a brick wall where the cold and dryness will play a part. Water them if they dry out and keep them protected from animal interference. Again, you will have to wait a while, as these seeds are very dormant and don’t like being bothered (I blame the faeries), so you should generally sow the seeds the second spring following collection. You will check them in the early season for signs of germination, of which you will only need about 10% germination success in order to sow them. You will sow 3 seeds per quart sized container and cover with less than a half of an inch of grit (I use chick grit, just because it’s readily available at stores). Firm and water. They will want to be kept moist at all times. With the need for moisture, you might also encounter issues with mildew. You can spray them with a fungicide, preferably organic, to avoid this or simply adopt clean gardening practices, such as not touching them when they are wet or watering the foliage too late in the day. Once more, you must instill patience and wait one or two more seasons before planting them in their permanent homes outdoors.
Again, try to pick a place without a lot of standing water. Dig a hole large enough to fit the root ball and firm back the soil. If you’re hedging, you can find more information on how to do that with trenches in my Blackthorn: Growing and Harvesting blog, where I posted information and a link towards the bottom.
Growing Hawthorn from an Established Plant
The softwood stems of a Hawthorn tree can be identified by the stangs protruding from them. They are tender but still able to be snapped off with a pop. These are used to propogate Hawthorn trees without having to start them from seeds. Cut 5-inch softwood stems just below the knode (hump where leaf or bud projects from the main stem) and strip the lower half of leaves. Dip into powdered rooting hormone (a perennial gardener’s secret weapon) and plant in the same compost (no peat) and sand mixture as listed above in the seed germination section, prepping the pot in the same manner for optimal drainage. You will want moist mixture, not soggy.
Just as you would do with leggy sproutlings, poke deep holes into the soil with a thin, long object that is the same or bigger than the Hawthorn sprig, which you will place in the hole after. Firm the soil and cover the container with a clear plastic bag, using a rubber band to keep the edges down, which creates a greenhouse effect. Maintaining 60-70* F, the cuttings should be comfortable out of direct sunlight. If you’re using a terracotta pot (recommended), you can wet the pot instead of top watering, which will also help you avoid over-watering the plant. In a few weeks, your cuttings should root.
Two or three months should be more than enough for the Hawthorn cuttings to be ready to plant, so long as they’ve managed to avoid mildew or drought. Carefully remove them from the pot and replant into individual containers if the roots aren’t longer than ½ inch in length. You can use general potting mixture at this time, so long as the pot is still well draining. Repeat the plastic bag routine, although make sure to poke a few holes to let fresh air in. This helps harden the plants off to a less humid and warm environment by exposing them to cooler elements.
Spring will be a good time to move them outdoors, so long a they are in a protected area away from extreme temperatures or powerful sunlight (the sun is always a dangerous beast at high altitudes, like where I’m at in Colorado – don’t let it fry your babies!). Mulch them during the winter with materials like straw, which are dense. After two seasons, they should be ready to be transplanted to their permanent homes; once more, springtime is optimal. You can continue to mulch as long as you see fit, or until the Hawthorn adjusts to its new environment.
Dangers for Hawthorn
There are numerous diseases and pests that can strike the hawthorn tree, some of which are common to a variety of trees and some of which are unique to the hawthorn. Leaf spot, leaf rust and stem rust are all fungi that attack the hawthorn's leaves or fruit, causing discoloration and dropping of leaves. Mildews such as fire blight will cause leaves to blacken and drop off, appearing as if they have been burned. Additionally, pests can be a large problem. Varieties of worms, scales, moths and bugs will target hawthorns, procreating in the trees and/or eating different parts of the tree. This will weaken and often fatally harm the tree.
There it is, another Monthly Wort in the pocket! I can’t get enough information on these fantastic trees, but I also can’t wait to talk about another “pokey” plant come June’s Monthly Wort. I’ll leave it as a surprise for now. Looks like you’ll just have to stay in touch to find out.