Hawthorn is one of the Britain’s most prolific and ancient trees that enliven the countryside with its heady and dazzling May blossom in spring and its bright red berries in autumn, just when the tree starts to shed its leaves.
The tree has many traditions and folklore attached to it and is considered a fairy tree. The Glastonbury Thorn still attracted many tourists and pilgrims with a long religious history, being a mysterious tree that flowers in both Christmas and Easter.
Description and species
Hawthorns are mostly medium-sized deciduous trees with very distinctive shape and erratic thorny branches and leaves. Flowers in spring are shiny white and deeply scented, while their bright red berries pop up in autumn, resembling pea size little apples.
Hawthorn species (Craetagus) is part of the apple family and has a lot of variability. The common hawthorn (Craetagus monogyna) is native to Britain, but there are lots of different foreign species. Midland hawthorn (Craetagus laciniata) is probably the best for their berries.
Notes on edibility
Hawthorn berries are cultivated in Asia for food, but they are not really appreciated in Britain. However, young leaves and unopened flower buds or “bread & cheese” were commonly eaten by people in the countryside in the past. Unfortunately, they taste of neither.
There are no poisonous hawthorns, but it’s not advisable to eat the seeds. They are so annoying you would not want to anyway. They can be eaten raw, but it is best to cook them, as they improve in flavour and are easier 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. Freeze and thaw the berries to make them lose moisture; the sugars and flavours in the fruit will intensify, making them sweeter.
Hawthorn is also one of the most validated of all herbal medicines with special emphasis on the heart, improving cardiovascular health. The berries are also rich in vitamin C and antioxidants.
Foraging in season
You will find them everywhere: in most hedgerows, in wild woodlands and planted as ornamental trees in local parks and gardens across the country, except north of Scotland. Millions of trees were planted to mark off land in the historical Enclosure Act in the 19th century.
The 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. However, they are high in pectin when just-ripe comparing to over-ripe haws.
Pick the flowers in early spring, the earlier the better though, as they may lost their fragrance. Pick the young ones 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.
Storage and processing
Berries are best processed pouring a bit of boiling water and mashing them with a potato masher to get a puree. Push the mixture through a sieve and discard the seeds. The resulting puree will be easily used for sauces, soups and fruit leathers.
Spread the puree on a baking tray and dehydrate to make fruit leather and store. This will last for long if dried properly.
Culinary uses and recipes
The most recommended recipes using haws include jams, jellies, syrups and fruit leathers, very often pairing with crab apples. You can also make sauces, ketchup and infuse vinegar. Hawthorn soup can be made based on the traditional Nordic apple soup.
Dried berries are used in medicinal teas good for your heart and they last up to 8 years. Consuming berries daily will lead to improvement in cardiovascular health under supervision.
Berries and flowers are alternatively used in country wines and can constitute infused liqueurs maturing in alcohol for 3 months, resulting in haw brandy, vodka or schnapps.