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.
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.
Habitat and distribution
Found in deciduous woodland, hedgerows, scrub. Native to Europe, Britain and North Africa.
Parts used for food
Leaf, flower, fruit.
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.
The young leaves and shoots of common hawthorn are edible and were once known as “bread and cheese”.
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.
In some parts of Portugal, children were given haws to eat because of their high nutritional content.
Herbal medicine uses of hawthorn
Hawthorn has been described as “nutrition for the heart” being widely recommended in herbal medicine for heart complaints.
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.
The tree’s finely grained and tough timber can be used for engraving, carpentry, furniture, boxes and even boat parts.
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.
Banbery, S. (2010) Collins beekeeper’s bible: bees, honey, recipes and other home uses. London: HarperCollins.
Kress, H. (2018) Practical herbs vol. 2. UK: Aeon Books.
Sánchez-Mata, M. de C. & Tardío, J. (eds.) (2016) Mediterranean wild edible plants: ethnobotany and food composition tables. [Online]. New York: Springer.
Sterry, P. (2007) Complete British trees. London: Collins.Thiselton-Dyer, T. F. (1889) The folk-lore of plants. London: D. Appleton.
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.