The humble hawthorn is one of the most magical and enchanted trees of Britain’s hedgerows, with so many traditions and folklore associated that is considered a fairy tree amongst hedge witches.
Hawthorn enliven the countryside with its deep scented blossom in Spring that develop into shiny red berries in autumn, just when the tree starts to shed its leaves.
Description and species
Hawthorn (Craetagus sp), also known as thornapple, May tree or hawberry is an extensive genus of shrubs and trees in the rose and apple family Rosaceae and it is native to temperate regions in Europe, Asia and North America.
The genus has a lot of variability, but jawthorns are mostly medium-sized deciduous trees with very characteristic shape and erratic thorny branches, often with distinctive parsley-like shape leaves. Flowers in spring are shiny white and deeply scented, while their bright red berries pop up in autumn, resembling pea size little apples.
Common hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) and Midland hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata) are native species to Britain. They are very similar and often hybridise (Crataegus × media), making it hard to tell apart sometimes. Common hawthorn has a single seed, whereas Midland hawthorn has two seeds. Furthermore leaves on the last one are deeply cut in comparison.
Notes on edibility
Children in past generations were enthusiastic to forage for young hawthorn leaves and unopened flower buds or “bread & cheese”. While much healthier, unfortunately they taste of neither and culinary speaking not worth, as they can seem slightly disappointing.
However, berries are rich in vitamin C and anti-oxidants. They can be eaten raw, but it is best to cook them, as they improve in flavour and are easy to use once you have discarded the seeds. The flesh is dry and dense and the flavour is mild and starchy, much like over-ripe apples.
They have a good scientific record in traditional medicine and have been used as a restorative for the heart and blood circulation. A long term use under supervision will lead to improvement in cardiovascular health.
There are no poisonous hawthorns, but it’s not advisable to eat the seeds, as they contain amygdalin. This is a natural substance also found on apple seeds or apricot kernels that can make you sick, as it releases cyanide when metabolised.
Foraging in season
Hawthorn is commonly found growing in hedgerows all over the country, perhaps not as far as the north of Scotland. Millions of trees were planted to mark off land in the historical Enclosure Act in the 19th century, becoming today an emblematic tree in the British landscape. They will grow in most soils and can also be found at the edges in woodland, roadsides and parks.
Flowers can be picked in May-June early in the morning on a hot day, when they preserve their gorgeous light aniseed scent. Avoid harvesting them after the rain, as they will become dark when dried and lose their fragrance.
The miniature-apple-like berries appear from August to November. You will best enjoy haws late in the season when they are soft and slightly squishy, as early ones are low in sugar and flavours. On the other hand, they are high in pectin when just-ripe comparing to over-ripe haws.
Storage and processing
Flowers harvested for infusions should be used straight away to make the most of the perfume. Don’t wash them, but shake to remove any little insects remaining inside and leave in a paper towel to give them the chance to escape.
Haws are best processed to take advantage of their high pectin content. Boil them in hot water and obtain a jelly after discarding the seeds. It makes a great sauce or soup base. Spread the jelly on a baking tray and dehydrate to make fruit leather, combining with apple, blackberry or sloes. It will last for long if dried properly.
Dried berries can mainly be used on medicinal teas to benefit blood circulation.
Culinary uses and recipes
Young spring leaves are edible and can be tossed in a salad. However, haws are the main crop. They have a rather starchy flesh with mild and fruity flavour only compared to over-ripe apples. The size and seed content makes it difficult to eat raw and therefore cooking is the best course of action.
They are most appreciated in Asia, where they cultivate the native Chinese hawthorn (Crataegus Pinnatifida), which is much bigger than our native counterparts. They are highly regarded as medicinal food and have been used to make soups, jellies and desserts.
Back in the UK, preserving is the most popular procedure amongst foragers: jams, jellies and syrups, often combined with apples are a delight. You can also make sauces, haw ketchup and infuse berries in vinegar.
Fruit leather made of hawthorn is delicious and apparently an extremely popular treat for Asian kids, known as haw flakes. I bought it once in a Chinese shop and it tastes pretty much like the homemade stuff. I envisage it should be brilliant as a substitute filling for fig rolls.
The berries have also been used in the production of country wines and homemade schnapps, where haw vodka and haw infused brandy have been tried and tested. A tea made of 1 tablespoon of berries or leaves make a healthy drink to boost your blood circulation.