Hawthorn – A Guide to Its Food, Medicine and Other Uses

Common hawthorn in blossom is a familiar sight along hedgerows, woodlands and scrubs in spring.

It was famously known as the May-Tree or may-blossom for it was said to flower in May, and it once played a large part in May Day festivities.

Today it is no longer a fairy tree but it is a useful plant to herbalists and foragers of wild edibles.

Scientific Name

Crataegus monogyna.

Family

Rosaceae.

Botanical Description

A tree reaching up to 13 ft; it takes around 20–50 years to reach its ultimate height. The bark is deeply fissured with orange lower layers and greyish-brown upper layers. The spiny twigs are stiff red-brown or greenish with brown buds.

The leaves are long, roughly oval and lobed into three segments, dark green above and paler below with a tough feel, the stem is tinged pink. Flowers are five-petalled and white (although sometimes described as creamy and tinged pink); they appear as flat, spraying clusters. Dark red berries appear in autumn.

Status

Perennial. Native.

Habitat and Distribution

Found in deciduous woodland, hedgerows, scrub.

Native to Europe, Britain and North Africa.

Parts Used For Food

Leaf, flower, fruit.

Harvest Time

Spring and Autumn.

Food Uses of Hawthorn

Traditionally hawthorn berries are used to make jellies, wines and ketchup. Honeybees foraging on hawthorn blossoms bring a harvest of dark amber and nutty hawthorn honey.1

The young leaves and shoots of common hawthorn are edible and were once known as “bread and cheese”.2

Hawthorn Recipes

Nutritional Profile

Hawthorn contains flavonoids with heart-friendly antioxidant activity, as well as tannins, essential oils, fruit acids and sugars. The plant also contains vitamins B and C.3

In some parts of Portugal, children were given haws to eat because of their high nutritional content.4

Herbal Medicine Uses of Hawthorn

Hawthorn has been described as “nutrition for the heart” being widely recommended in herbal medicine for heart complaints.5

Other Uses of Hawthorn

Common hawthorn remains a frequent shrub of hedgerows in Britain and is an effective barrier against livestock and humans thanks to its thickly twisted, thorny branches.6

The tree’s finely grained and tough timber can be used for engraving, carpentry, furniture, boxes and even boat parts.

Cautions

The haws, or berries, may cause a mild stomach upset.

It is advised that the herb is avoided by pregnant or breastfeeding women; although other sources suggest that there have been no adverse effects caused by hawthorn in pregnancy or when breastfeeding; it is still best to exercise caution.

References

  1. Anon (2010) The Beekeeper’s Bible: Bees, Honey, Recipes and Other Home Uses. London: HarperCollins.
  2. Thiselton-Dyer, T. F. (1889) The Folk-Lore of Plants. London: Chatto & Windus.
  3. Kress, H. (2018) Practical Herbs. S.l.: Stylus Publishing.
  4. Sánchez-Mata, M. de C. & Tardío, J. (eds.) (2016) Mediterranean Wild Edible Plants: Ethnobotany and Food Composition Tables. New York: Springer-Verlag.
  5. Yance, D. R. (2013) Adaptogens in Medical Herbalism: Elite Herbs and Natural Compounds for Mastering Stress, Aging, and Chronic Disease. Rochester, Vermont: Healing Arts Press.
  6. Sterry, P. (2007) Complete British Trees. London: Collins.

About The Author

Robin HarfordRobin Harford is a plant-based forager, wild food educator and has published over 40 foraging guide books. He established his wild food foraging school in 2008. His foraging courses were recently voted #1 in the country by BBC Countryfile.

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Share your experience. Leave a note for others

    • I have a small garden but have managed to plant 18 Common Hawthorn whips which are flourishing with foliage and new growth this year. Already they’re providing cover for small birds and insects. Fingers crossed for flowers and haws in 2020!

  1. Hi Robin,
    Well, there’s a little herbal magic. I’m sitting here writing a herb book at the moment which has a really short deadline so I’m having to force myself to stay focused. I was just writing about hawthorn and about to add a haw brandy recipe, when the notification for this email came in, so I couldn’t resist looking. Lovely post. And some folklore I hadn’t heard in there. I don’t know if you knew Christopher Hedley, but he always took us herbal students to visit the Faery hawthorn trees on Primrose Hill in London.

    I used to run herb walks along the Regents Canal in London and there was a fine lone hawthorn tree on the bend of the canal with a bench underneath. The bench was always populated by a few old guys drinking from paper-bag concealed bottles, and one day as I approached the tree and was about to swing into my stories about hawthorn, one of the old guys piped up and started telling my group about it being carried from home to home on May Day and how the blossom smells like plague and so on. They’d heard me do it so many times, they decided to take over the walk at that point.

  2. A wonderful piece Robin, a real treat in time for the solstice. Thank you. I live in the wilds of Ireland, and so enjoy being amongst amazing Hawthorn.

  3. Hello, thank you for this insightful post. I was always lead to believe a Hawthorn tree was planted for protection outside a house, much like a Rowen in Scotland – it is bad luck to cut it down.
    A question on making Haw recipes: I’ve made a Haw tonic/elixir (with vodka and honey) and Haw brandy this year but both have gone curdled and the brandy scummy… do you know if this is common and/or ok?! I also made your (I think!) Haw ketchup and it seperated but tastes divine 🙂

  4. thanks Robin, love reading your information, living in New Zealand, I recently bought a section 2yrs ago, and discovered Hawthorn which happily lives in the bush and is as tall as our native trees

  5. Thank You Robin for such an interesting and informative write up about the Hawthorn. I seem to be attracted to all things prickly. A couple of years ago I found a small seedling growing in my back garden, not knowing what it was I put it in a pot, it has been potted on a few times since, it is now in a round tub approx 12 inches deep by 15 inches across, standing now at about 5ft tall, it is the most perfect Hawthorn. To begin with I thought it was a Pyracanthus, I had put one of them in about four years ago along with a Cotoneaster for the birds to feed on. Although my garden is postage stamp sized I am sure it will end up being planted in the ground. Thank you again.

  6. Dear Robi

    thanks a lot for these information,

    Forager myself in New Zealand, I am delighted that we are us forager on the rise.
    Keep the good work.
    At the moment I am collecting samphire, the people of my community does not know at all this marvelous plant.
    At the moment,they big and delicious and full of oyster catcher nest as well as ducks.
    I serve them pickeld or sautee in garlic butter and peper.
    Bon appetit.
    ps. Isn’t Jesus crown with hawthorn

  7. sorry to raise the same comment, but wouldn’t it be better to say right at the beginning DO NOT EAT THE SEEDS: THEY PRODUCE DEADLY CYANIDE rather than mention it near the end?
    Incidentally, in Teesdale we called early leaves ‘bread and butter’.

  8. I really enjoy reading such articles but “where” instead of “were” jumps out at me. So does “lightening” instead of “lightning”. Pedant that I am.
    I used to eat the freshly picked leaves when I was a nipper. We called it “Bread and cheese.”

  9. An article that is wide ranging about the subject and took me back many years to my childhood wandering and eating young shoots in the spring. Excellent article .

  10. Lovely article, not sure where I’ve us this but in the past, Pagan folk were once known as Faerie/Fee, so that might explain a little… Also I knew a Hedge witch who would bring flowers indoors ‘even though its said to be unlucky’ because the scent was ‘similar to a woman’ and turned men on, pleasing her lovers. Plague victims, well I don’t know, best leave it there

  11. I love the sight and smell of hawthorn when it covers the overgrown hedges along the local cycle tracks, Glorious.

    Have made fruit leather from the haws by hand mashing, spreading out in a thin layer in a warm place to dry. Concentrates the flavour better

    Brilliant work Robin, regards Richard

  12. Beautiful magical tree people – I have met the hawthorns of Tottenham marshes…
    their young leaves are called bread and cheese.
    And after doing a fire ceremony using the fallen twigs of a hawthorn community my grandmother passed away three days later. I was then told by a friend that burning hawthorn brings death in the family.
    Luckily it was timely for my grandmother. But worth passing on here.
    I agree with other comments that warning should come first.
    Thanks for article. Nadia

    • Nadia – I won’t be putting the warnings at the top of any of my posts. How depressing that would be to read a possible negative every time you looked up a beautiful plant. To immediately be greeted with fear and wariness. I encourage respect for a plant, not fear.

      It is the readers responsibility to read any information thoroughly before experimenting with plants. It is also the readers responsibility to never put a plant in their mouth they are uncertain about. It is the responsibility of the reader to only put a plant in their mouth (and the correct part) that they are 150% certain is the correct plant and part of the plant. The wellbeing of a reader is theirs and theirs alone… I am not anyones parent.

      Foraging is about empowering the individual. I do my best to include the warnings as I know of them. Yet no matter which way I present them, someone will not be happy.

  13. As a child I remember making dens under the overgrown hawthorn hedge. Decorating the boughs with ribbons and jewellry.
    We used to snack on the young shoots in Spring and nibble on the berries which we called bread and cheese.
    I remember my mother would not allow the blossom indoors.

  14. Wonderful article Robin Thankyou for your generosity in sharing I will treasure this knowlage I was unaware of the amount of various uses and look forward to trying some out, Being from lreland I have a deep respect for the hawthorn and as you mentioned that traditional / religious interferance has had some influence on understandings or maybe mis-understandings in the past, I am fascinated by the terrior tasting its opened up a whole new level of thoughts on future flavours. Seasons greathings to you and your’s Robin have a good one. Respect man 🙂

  15. Well done Robin
    I had heard that the Hawthorn tree was used to surround farmers fields in the 18th century to keep unwanted out and the berries could be used for making jelly. Your information was way more extensive and informative then what I was able to find. Thanks so much for sharing. Truly enlightening.

    Would like it if you could do a piece wetland edibles encouraging the value of our wetlands.

  16. Thanks for this welcome article…
    I read in an old herbal that the tender young leaves were called Shepherds Lettuce as they would be put in their sandwiches.
    I made a ketchup of the berries years ago which was delicious & kept well (well the one that somehow didn’t get eaten did!)

  17. Enjoyed the article and it has served as a wee reminder to add the it to my spring picking list of elderflower, wild garlic etc. Being in the countryside 24/7, there are so many wonderful plants and bushes mostly ignored here on the outskirts of Stirling and your seasonal focus not only directs activity, it offers a feel good factor to be able to reach out and touch etc day.
    I will be adding the hawthorn brandy to my normal bramble whisky, wild raspberry vodka and sloe gin next year!
    Hope you have a lovely Christmas and best wishes for the new year.

  18. Thank you. I really enjoyed reading this it was a real treat. I’m doing a tree study on hawthorn for my own studies and really enjoyed learning more about the folklore.

  19. Thankyou for this article , Hawthorne is indeed magical as I was drawn to making a flower essence tinture back in May and the very date it was ready I lost one of my beloved companions , Barney, my dog.
    It is indeed a heart remedy and I have been so blessed to have this to hand to help with myself and my other dog and shared with others to soften the loss and grief of a loved one .

  20. Hi Robin,
    I was very interested to learn more about the Hawthorn. I thought you would like to know I have your elusive tree outside my flat. I live on Hawthorn Drive in Ipswich and there are red and white ones planted along the road. I recently noticed one of these has mistletoe growing on it. I thought it was strange when I saw it. There is also Deadly Nightshade growing around the trunk. I don’t know if there is any significance to this but it does seem unusual to find both.

  21. Very informative article. Thank you so much. For many years I have known about the berries for blood pressure and have collected them raw and eaten them (maybe with worms in them too) to reduce pressure. I did not know about all the other uses of berries and leaves. Can’t wait for spring now to try the leaves and make syrup from the flowers.

  22. Thanks Robin, I really enjoyed reading your article. I have spent many years enjoying munching on the leaves and berries while out walking with my doggy companion ?

  23. From all the way in mountains of NC in the US, I loved this article, Robin, as I do all of your articles, frankly. Even though I have to adjust some information to suit another continent, the information you give is always enlightening. I was just up on a mountainside on Sunday looking over a cabin I plan to live in for part of the spring and summer, and the owner showed me a hawthorne (we use an “e” on the end) tree she had just discovered growing nearby. They are not that common, so it was an exciting find. Thank you so much for all the ideas of how to put this magical tree to good use, and for the respectful way to do so.

  24. Thanks very much for this interesting article! I have used haws in a hedgerow “mixed wine” but never as jelly on its own, so next season I must try it out.

    Referencing the instances of bad luck, my mother would not allow hawthorn to be cut and brought into the house under any circumstances.

  25. Great article Robin. Thank you for taking the time and effort to write it. There is an abundance of Hawthorn in the village where I live…I shall be taking a great deal of interest in it now thanks to you.

  26. Hi wonderful read love the old stories and know there is some foundation to them. Is there a book on herbs with the old stories matching them. I’d love to to go on a course but they all seem very expensive as I’m 69 living on our pension. So I read your new letters which are very good. Thank you and pease keep ten coming and one more thing how on earth do you find or learn all this information, but I’m glad you do.
    Harry Evans Lincolnshire

  27. I like in Northern Ireland and have a lot of hawthorn round my property in the hills I brought in a bucket of flowers in May to make wine (considered a magical brew) and had 3 deaths all close that summer all tragic and unexpected. I won’t be bringing hawthorn into my house again I’ll do my work outside. But I adore the plant I love the flowers the smell of summer ?I loved your article so interesting

  28. I live in Northern Ireland and have a lot of hawthorn round my property in the hills. I brought in a bucket of flowers in May to make wine (considered a magical brew) and had 3 deaths all close that summer all tragic and unexpected. I won’t be bringing hawthorn into my house again I’ll do my work outside. But I adore the plant I love the flowers the smell of summer ?I loved your article so interesting

  29. That’s brilliant Robin. You are so thorough.
    I made a frothy, ‘MAY QUEEN MARGURITA’ last Spring; the delicate flavour of infused Hawthorn blossoms. To be drunk alongside the tale of the May Queen who was traditionally adorned with May/Hawthorn blossom.
    Happy Christmas. X Lucia

  30. Happy Solstice Robin. Thanks for yet another excellent article with loads of links. I’ll be sending you a copy of my new book in Spring, I’d love to hear your opinions (Book 2: Seven Plants to Save the World -The Human Plants). Keep on inspiring . . . . . Positive Harmonious Vibrations . . Karl . .

  31. Dear Robin thanks for your article. Hawthorn is an ally and a favourite friend of mine. I have lots of lone trees on my property here in the west of Ireland so I feel blessed to have the faeries so close. As to the confusion about whether to take blossom into the house or cut a branch I think you should not do so with lone trees as they are the Faery thorns; but it is permissable to do so with hedge Hawthorn.

    Solstice blessings, Terri Conroy

  32. A really good read Robin, I had no idea about the medicinal side of Hawthorns.
    I love Hawthorns, we have a couple of bushes right outside our garden. Every year I am picking at the early leaves and eating a few. Every autumn, I am making hawthorn jelly, it tastes really good.

  33. Hi-Made some Hawthornberry Wine a good few years back-from a recipe from an old Friends of the Earth cookbook. It was a gallon of berries to make a gallon of wine-so serious picking and bashing etc. Anyway it took years to approach being drinkable-have never tried Turps but was a bit like that. Eventually, about 8 years on I tried it and it was pretty good-strong, a bit whiskyy, and a great colour. Am here in the N of Ireland and was briefly in the loop to give a BBC food and drink group a taste of some Bramley Wine-they were visiting a little Bramley festival in Richhill near Armagh. One was John Campion, the big scary guy from Masterchef etc. I gave a taste of the Haw Wine to them all-one thought it could work well as a mixer. I said about the Turps taste and Mr Campion looked at me and said, “Well at least Turpentine is useful”…

  34. Thank you Robin for the time and hard work you have put into this article. VERY much appreciated. I have been making Haw jelly for years to reduce palpitations and regulate the heartbeat. It’s one of my top 10, herbal medicine chest ingredients.
    Gratitude to you as always, Stella

  35. Hi, Robin!
    Thanks for the great article on Hawthorn! I am sad to say that our Hawthorn did not have any berries on it this past summer/fall. I am not sure if this is because it was not properly pollinated by bees; or if it was because of the cold summer we had. Whatever the case, I did miss the berries.
    The previous year, I did try the Hawthorn jelly recipe you sent to me. Unfortunately, I think I cooked it a little too long, and the consistency turned out like rubber bands! It certainly was delicious before it set up, though! I was looking forward to making it again, but as I said – no berries.
    I certainly hope we have berries this year!
    Thanks for all your information on this, and foraging!
    Beck Thomas

  36. Good ideas for recipes here, I have to try the bread, sounds interesting.
    I have tried those Chinese hawthorn rolls you mention and they taste very nice; they are essentially fruit leather. However I believe they are made of Chinese hawthorn (Crataegus pinnatifida) instead of monogyna. They are bigger and more flavourful. That makes them easier to handle.

  37. I stumbled onto this article because I’m about to cut down 4 hawthorn trees that are next to the walkway that leads to the church. We usually spray them so they don’t produce fruit but lately the groundskeeper has been forgetful and last year 2 elderly women stepped on the fruit and slipped. One required hospitalization. As a result, the insurance company is requiring us to cut them down. After reading your post I feel bad about it cutting such useful trees. I’m glad I learned something about them anyway. Thanks for your post.

  38. What a knowledgeable gem you are Robin! Flattery ( well meant) apart , my earliest memory at the age of five was sitting under a hawthorn hedge boundary in our school playground and chewing ‘ bread and cheese’ and sucking the honeyed ends of pink clover petals which I still occasionally do.
    I collected my haws yesterday for ketchup and now know to thank and bless the bushes in future! Perhaps I had better go back and apologise rather hastily! Thankyou for your fascinating information.

  39. Very interesting info ,thanks. What about “Cast ne’er a clout till May be out”? May being the hawthorn flowers, not the month, and clout being clothes, in other words keep your vests on! My mother and my husband’s family both had this saying.

  40. There’s a hawthorn tree totally full of mistletoe in the front garden of Headington Hill house, Oxford, which is public access and belongs to Oxford Brookes. I planted a fruit orchard close by as a student-community gift.

  41. How nice to read some of this comments. Event the older ones. Christopher hedley was my teacher when I lived in London and I did many walks with him. He is my great master. Even if he´s not here physicaly I often hear his voice talking about nettles or other plants he was pationate about. Thanks Robin for this wonderfull working you are doing.
    Fernanda Botelho

  42. Remember though that the berries are fattening food for winter for the birds. I always leave mine where they are as we have lots of other food. I recognise “bread and cheese” and “cast ne’er a clout” from my own childhood and still try a little bread and cheese in the Springtime.. I have wondered how old this saying is – does it predate the reformed calendar which deleted 11 days to catch the calendar up with all the leap years that had been ingnored? If so it would affect “cast a clout” dating as before that May would have been 11 days later. (There was an outcry at the time of “give us back our eleven days!)

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