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It’s pretty easy to identify and harvest hawthorn – I’d go so far as to say it’s one of the easiest plants to forage because it’s so distinctive and grows in abundance across much of the world. Like all wild plants, hawthorn needs to be harvested with care and respect, and there are a number foraging basics you should adhere to. According to George Symonds, in his awesome book, Tree Identification Book: A New Method for the Practical Identification and Recognition of Trees, there are more than 1,000 species and sub-species of hawthorn just in North America – that doesn’t include all the species in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the rest of the world.
A Little Bit of Background
Hawthorn belongs to the Crataegus genus and is part of the Rosaceae family. As part of the Rosaceae family, hawthorn is related to both roses and apples, along with a variety of other edibles including cherries, peaches, meadowsweet, and rowan. Hawthorn is bursting with natural compounds, nutrients, minerals, and micronutrients that make it an incredibly valuable medicinal herb. It’s the oldest known medicinal herb, appearing in records from around the world as early as the first century, and is even gaining popularity with mainstream physicians today. Its primary use is for heart conditions, but it’s also used for digestive complaints, as an immune-booster, anti-inflammatory, and a general tonic, as well as for some mental health conditions and skin issues. You can find out more about the health benefits of hawthorn here. The haws (another name for the berries) have a mild apple-like taste, and make super-tasty jam, jelly, pie filling, and ketchup substitutes. Hawthorn also has a huge amount of folklore attached to it, including the belief that it’s a faery tree.
How to Identify Hawthorn
Firstly, don’t obsess about only harvesting from a native species. Most hawthorns, even if they aren’t truly native, have been naturalized for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. For me, if I am certain it’s hawthorn, it’s growing vigorously and producing large quantities of healthy leaves, flowers, and berries, I forage from it.
Hawthorn leaves are small, deeply lobed, and roughly as broad as they are long. The leaves generally appear before the first blossoms. Hawthorn flowers in early to mid spring and is commonly known as May blossom. In bloom, the tree (or bush) exhibits a huge number of small white (or pale pink) flowers. Hawthorn flowers appear in round-top clusters toward the ends of branches. Each flower has five calyx lobes, one carpel, and twenty stamens.
The fruits ripen in late summer to late autumn and vary in color, shape, and size, from orange-yellow to deep scarlet. Shapes vary from round to oblong or pear-shaped. The flesh of the fruit is dry and mealy – like the inside of a rosehip. Hawthorns are commonly used as hedgerow bushes but also grow as trees, up to 12 meters high, although it’s more common to see them between three and six meters. Outside of hedges, you’ll find them in woodlands and as solitary trees in the middle of fields and meadows. In some locations, they are commonly used as park and roadside trees.
CALLOUT: Because of the high risk of pollutants and the absorption of chemicals, I avoid foraging from any trees that are close to roads.
A word of caution: As the name implies, hawthorns, also known as whitethorns or quickthorns, have sharp thorns along their branches, which is what makes them so valuable as hedging plants, because they create a dense, thorny wall that isn’t easily penetrated. The length and sharpens of the thorns vary among species, but can reach in excess of three inches long. They are slender, strong, and exceptionally sharp, so can cause significant, painful injuries if you don’t take care when harvesting.
How to Harvest Hawthorn
Now you’re certain that the tree you’re looking at is hawthorn, it’s time to harvest. If using the leaves, harvest them from mid-spring to early autumn – during this period they are at peak health and contain the most nutrients. Later than this, once the leaves start to turn, they lose their potency.
Harvest flowers in clusters in mid to late spring when they are fully developed. For an extra early harvest, you can take the buds, too, before they open.
The berries, or haws, ripen from early to late autumn, depending on your location and tree species. Once they are fully ripe, strip them from the branches, carefully avoiding the sharp spines.
Remember, when foraging hawthorn or anything else, never take more than half of what’s available. You’re just one small part of the larger ecosystem – and you’re sharing nature’s bounty with other creatures, from insects to birds and small mammals – it’s a delicate balance, so don’t be greedy. Plus, of course, only taking a maximum of half is best foraging practice because it ensures that the plants continue to thrive and spread for generations. If you recklessly and carelessly deplete these natural resources, within just a few years, they’ll be gone, and there’ll be nothing left for future generations. So always be respectful when harvesting.
Always stay aware when harvesting hawthorn because of the sharp thorns, and pay close attention if you’ve got children with you, as the tree can cause nasty injuries, particularly to little ones.
Other than that, there isn’t much too it – as long as you’re careful not to catch yourself on the thorns, harvesting hawthorn is easy.
How to Preserve Hawthorn
I prefer to use hawthorn fresh whenever I can, whether that’s for medicinal purposes or in baked goods. However, it’s not always possible, plus I like to have a supply to see me through the winter months. So, the easiest way is to wash and freeze your supply. You can also dehydrate the berries and leaves – but I find the flowers too delicate for my dehydrator.
One of the key ways I use hawthorn is as a tincture, because of its many healthful properties. It’s surprisingly easy, too. Learn how to make hawthorn tincture with or without alcohol here.
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