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The Hawthorn

The botanical name is crataegus, and to the genus belong about two hundred species of shrubs or small trees, with deciduous leaves, widespread in the natural state in Europe, Asia, Africa and North America; they belong to the Rosaceae family, and the common name is due to the fact that the most widespread species in Europe and in Italy, have white flowers, similar to very small simple roses, and the branches carry very sharp thorns.
It is usually called hawthorn crataegus monogyna, a species widespread in Europe, but the term is commonly used to refer to any crataegus, and not only.
In Italian gardens, even in street trees, we usually find crataegus monogyna and crataegus laevigata (which offers the advantage of having a beautiful pink or red bloom) and their various hybrids created over the centuries; in nature, in Italian woods, we also find crataegus azarolus.
These plants have dark green, shiny foliage with a lobed shape; the flowers are small, and bloom in early spring, gathered in corymbs, or in small bunches; the flowers are followed by small, edible fruit, even if the taste is sometimes slightly sour; the fruits are typically bright red, but there are species with yellow, green, or purple fruits; crataegus azarolus has fruits a little larger than the other species, and belongs to the group of ancient and forgotten fruits, the shrimp were once grown as a source of cheap fruit, and with tiny apples sauces, compotes and jams were prepared.
Shrubs do not become very large, generally they do not exceed 3-5 meters in height; generally used in the garden as single specimens, it is infrequent to see hawthorns positioned to form hedges, despite their erect and compact growth habit.

Grow hawthorn

Family and gender
Rosaceae, gen. Crataegus, almost 1000 species
Habit Shrubs or trees
Height Up to 12 meters
Cultivation Easy
Ground Tolerant, it prefers calcareous and rich substrates
Irrigation plentiful
Exposure Most do not fear frost
Playback Talea, layering, seed, graft
plant From October to March
colors White, pink or red flowers, red fruits
Flowering April May

Being part of the Italian spontaneous flora, it is easy to understand how hawthorn can be safely grown in the garden; it is a completely rustic shrub, which is grown outdoors throughout the year even in regions where winters are very cold, with minimum night temperatures below -10 / -15 ° C.
The hawthorns settle in sunny or semi-shaded places, where in any case they can enjoy at least a few hours of sunshine every day; they love calcareous soils, and they fear particularly acid soils, so it is good to avoid placing a hawthorn in the flowerbed of acidophilic plants.
These are low-maintenance plants, which generally do not require great care, if they have been at home for at least 3-4 years; a shrub that has recently settled down may need summer watering, especially in the case of prolonged drought, and even regular fertilizations, to be supplied in spring and autumn, using manure or slow release granular fertilizer.
Pruning is generally only cleaning, as the hawthorns tend to form a dense and rounded crown, without the need to form it; therefore it generally intervenes after flowering, slightly compacting the growth of the shrub, and removing the branches ruined by the winter weather.
In recent years in Emilia Romagna a bacterial disease has spread in a similar way to an epidemic, affecting the Rosaceae in a particular way; the most sensitive plants to this disease are the pear trees and the apple trees, very cultivated in this region; to contain the spread, until 2013 it is forbidden to plant new hawthorns in the entire Emilia Romagna region. This is not because it is believed that the bacterium comes from the hawthorn, but because a disease that affects a garden shrub is more easily underestimated or even can go unnoticed by the superficial gardener, and therefore it often happens that uncontrolled epidemics develop in the gardens of residential areas. uncontrollable, which also rapidly pass to fruit garden crops.

Hawthorn characteristics

Hawthorn is a shrub known to man since ancient times. Its name Crataegus derives from the Greek "kratos" which means "strength" and refers to both its wood (very robust and requested by the carpenters), and to the general appearance of the plant which, from the first glance, gives an impression of great resistance.
In horticulture it is widely used as an isolated specimen, but the most common use has always been for the formation of hedges. These combine aesthetic beauty with the undeniable advantage of giving the property protection from intruders and wild animals. The crataegus is in fact capable, if properly pruned, of creating impassable thorny barriers.
Another undeniable advantage is the ability of this shrub to make the garden "alive": among its fronds many small birds nest, which also feed on its berries during the winter. During the vegetative period, however, with its abundant flowers it is able to attract pleasing insects like bees and butterflies.

The hawthorn in herbal medicine

The fruits and leaves of hawthorn contain multiple active ingredients, starting from many flavonoids, up to active ingredients with sedative, vasodilator, cardiotonic, digestive and anxiolytic effects.
In folk medicine the fruits were used as a remedy against various diseases, from heart problems to insomnia.
Even in traditional Chinese medicine fruits of some varieties of hawthorn are used, dried, for their beneficial effects on digestion.
The leaves and dried fruits are often found as ingredients of herbal teas and syrups, to be used in problems related to insomnia and excitability.
In fact, there are some clinical studies that confirm the usefulness of hawthorn fruit extract (but only of some species), which give advantages in the problems related to cardiac function, and in particular it seems that hawthorn fruits are able to adjust heart rate.
Hawthorn-based herbal products should therefore be used with caution and under the direct supervision of a doctor or a good herbalist.
Clear that the active ingredients contained in the plant can have harmful effects, but only if taken in massive quantities, which is very difficult; jams produced with fruits, and herbal teas that contain dried leaves or fruits, should not cause any concern.

Origins of Hawthorn

To give a valid description for everyone is quite difficult as it is a vast genre. Some authors indicate that there belong no less than 1000 species of European, Asian and North American origin. In the old continent at least ninety can be counted, of which only two or three (depending on the authors) are endemic to our peninsula. However, these are practically everywhere, up to an altitude of 1500 meters. Their chosen habitat is the edges of the woods.

The other hawthorns

The crataegus are called hawthorn due to the thorns present on the branches, and to the beautiful candid color; due to these characteristics, other plants, of genera and species completely or partially different from crataegus are often called hawthorns.
In the Anglo-Saxon-speaking countries the common name of the crataegus is hawthorn, and they are also so called the raphiolepis, or other rosaceae, with an appearance that significantly resembles the crataegus.
In some Italian regions, if we ask for a hawthorn in a nursery, it is very probable that they offer us a spirea, which is completely free of thorns, but which produces a candida flowering just in the period in which the hawthorns bloom.
The spiree are rosaceae originating from Asia, which give rise to small or medium shrubs, with a roundish shape and arched branches, which in spring are filled with small white star-shaped flowers.
In the last twenty years, varieties of spirea derived from spiraea japonica, a botanical species with a pink flower, have become particularly widespread; in particular the new varieties have a colorful flower and are very small. For this reason it may happen that we go to the nursery to look for a crataegus, and asking for a hawthorn we are presented with a tiny shrub with pink flowers.

Botanical description

It is generally a shrub or small tree. It has alternate and deciduous leaves, of variable shape depending on the species. The branches, very spiny, have initially reddish bark that over time becomes dark gray. Bring flowers together in bunches, white and hermaphrodite, in mid-spring. In autumn they turn into groups of red fruits ("berries") round about one centimeter in diameter. These, if opened, contain only one seed in the center.

Hawthorn in the language of flowers

Hawthorn is characterized by its deep red berries and white white flowers. The flower, according to ancient legends would be able to ward off evil spirits: in fact, the term hawthorn comes from the Greek "kratos" or force, "oxus" which means acuminate and "anthos" flower. On occasions of weddings or other important ceremonies, giving hawthorn is a very appreciated gesture as it is a symbol of protection and support. Moreover, like all white flowers, it is a symbol of purity, sweet hope, candor and fertility. According to ancient legends, the land where hawthorn grew was a meeting place for hunger and good spirits. For this reason, collecting twigs of hawthorn exclusively for pure aesthetic pleasure would bring bad luck to the alleged looter.

General cultivation advice

Basically it is a simple, adaptable and rather rustic plant. However, if we want to obtain really beautiful specimens in all seasons, thus being able to enjoy the flowers and fruits to the maximum, it is good to follow these indications.

Land and exposure

Hawthorn easily adapts to many types of soil. However, the one that suits him the most and which most encourages his growth, a little slow, must however be deep, rich, moist and calcareous. So all the rather heavy clayey substrates that would instead be an obstacle for many other plants go rather well.
The ideal exposure for this type of plant is without doubt the full sun. If you can enjoy this condition we will have the pleasure of seeing it grow faster as well as almost completely filled with flowers and consequently in autumn with beautiful fruits. It is also possible to grow this shrub in partial shade. It will not suffer particularly, but we will see a greater production of leaves at the expense of that of the inflorescences.


Absolutely do not let him miss the water, especially if he lives in a sunny position. It will therefore be necessary to intervene with a certain frequency, even once a week. The interventions will have to become more frequent if there is a prolonged period of drought or we find ourselves in front of a young specimen planted recently. We also evaluate the substrate well. If it is the ideal one, that is rich and calcareous, it will certainly be able to remain moist longer. If the plant is found in a sandy, peaty or stony soil, it will need more frequent interventions, especially during the summer and before flowering.

Fertilizing hawthorn

As we have said hawthorn is a rather slow growing shrub. If we want it to become a fine specimen in the shortest possible time it is very important to intervene every year with good fertilizers.
At the end of autumn it is good to cover the foot of the plant with abundant flour or pelleted manure, perhaps adding a few handfuls of cornunghia (which increases the slow release nitrogen intake). These soil improvers will penetrate the soil thanks to rain and snow. What remains, in spring, can be incorporated with a light hoe. In this phase it will also be possible to spread some slow release granular fertilizer in which macro and micro-elements are present in a balanced manner. This will encourage both vegetative growth and flower and fruit production. The soil improvers will contribute to making the substrate rich, alive and permeable.

Hawthorn pruning

During the first few years, in order to obtain very thick plants, it is important to prune the very low plant. This will push her to grow numerous suckers as well as repel abundantly from the main trunk. This is also a good way to thicken a hedge. In this case you should not be afraid of cutting too low. In fact, the plant will only benefit from it. The same treatment will be reserved for adult plants that begin to undress in the lower part. The solution is always a good cut that will result in the emergence of new underground jets.
Pruning generally takes place at the end of winter. However it is not said that we should always intervene. We will do it if we want to get a well-ordered and regular barrier. However, it must be emphasized that this shrub gives its best when it is allowed to grow rather free taking the form of the specimens found in nature.

Hawthorn reproduction

The reproduction of hawthorn is not simple. The cutting is not always successful and to get a good agamic reproduction it is good to resort rather to the layering or to the crown graft. At home level you can instead try with sowing. The times in any case will be quite long. The fruits should be left to soak in water. Following this the seeds will fall to the bottom of the container. They must then be left to dry in the sun and buried in trays with light soil, always kept moist, in a cold greenhouse. Germination times are in any case very long: from two to three years depending on the species.


Unfortunately, hawthorn is often attacked by pests and diseases. For this reason it is not advisable to introduce it in the garden, especially if it is already populated by other rosaceae, because it can become the primary transmission vehicle. However, these diseases are rarely fatal to him. We can intervene with insecticides for parasites such as aphids and with specific fungicides for powdery mildew and rust.
It is very important to remember that in some areas of Northern Italy it is forbidden to implant new hawthorns as they are vehicles of propagation of the blast of fire (caused by Erwinia amylovora). So let us inform ourselves well before proceeding.

Medicinal properties

Crataegus has been known since ancient times for its cardiotonic qualities. The active substance is obtained from flowers, fruits and bark. It also appears to have sedative properties and is therefore used in herbal medicine and homeopathy.

Endemic varieties

- C. oxyacantha found spontaneous in Europe and northern America. It is a small tree with leaves with 3-5 roundish lobes. Brings flowers in groups of about 10 in May. It has red oval fruits. It can reach 10 meters in height.
It is widespread in gardens and consequently many cultivars have been developed: aurea (with yellow fruits), alba plena (double flowers, first white and then pink), candida plena (double flowers), punicea (with simple red flowers), Paul's Double scarlet (with red double flowers)
- C. monogyna widespread in nature throughout Europe and Asia. It has long straight spines and smooth branches. The leaves are ovate, with 3 to 7 lobes, serrated at the top. It has simple white flowers and round and red fruits. Also in this case many varieties have been developed: pendula, with weeping branches, pendula rosea with weeping branches and pink flowers, very compact semperflorens and with a very long flowering period, pyramidalis, with the shape of a column crown, alboplena, double white flowers , rubroplena, full red flowers, horrida, with short spines and acuminate, inermis, without thorns.
- C. azarolus also called lazzarolo or azzaruolo. Very widespread throughout southern Europe and throughout the Mediterranean basin. It can reach 10 meters in height and is very fragrant. It has twisted branches with few thorns. The new branches are tomentose. The leaves are rigid and divided into 3-5 lobes, slightly bristly. The flowers are white and larger than in the other species, very fragrant. The fruits also measure 2 cm in diameter, edible and tasty.

Varieties from Asia and America

- C. heterophylla Asian, has deeply lobed leaves of a beautiful green. It has large flower umbrellas.
- C. mollis from Kansas, South Dakota and Ohio. It is a tree with ovate leaves, with short lobes, tomentosi on the inferior page. It has flowers stained red and periformi fruits, beautiful but not very persistent. Very decorative.
- C. coccinea a native of the north of the States, it forms a broad and low crown. It has ovate to obovate, glabrous leaves. The flowers are red.
- C. crus-galli species widespread throughout the North American continent. It has dense and pendulous branches, with many thin thorns, first red and then gray. It has white flowers in corymbs and persistent dark red fruits. Beautiful autumn coloring. Suitable for colored hedges.


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