By John Chapin
An ornamental tree that never fails to attract attention this time of the year is the hawthorn, with its displays of brilliant red fruit that persist well into the coldest winter months. Of the over 200 hawthorn species worldwide, nine are native to North America, and three have varieties that are widely planted. Although the fruit, known as haws or thornberries, will eventually be eaten by songbirds, especially chickadees, mockingbirds, catbirds and cedar waxwings, but also turkeys, the softer fruit of crabapples, dogwoods and viburnums are the first choice, so hawthorn berries provide beautiful winter interest for months.
The straight species of Cockspur Hawthorn (Crataegus crusgalli) certainly earns its name with 2-inch thorns that can cause serious injury. Luckily, the variety Thornless Cockspur has all of the good features of the species except for the thorns! The pure white blooms, which are rather foul-smelling, bloom in May for over a week, followed by lustrous dark green leaves that turn bronze-red to purple in fall. The deep red fruit persists for months after the leaf drops.
The Washington Hawthorn (Crataegus phaenopyrum) blooms last of the three species, and the profuse flowers are not badly scented. Unfolding leaves are reddish purple, gradually changing to lustrous dark green; fall color varies from orange to scarlet through purplish. The variety Washington Lustre has many fewer thorns and bright, glossy red fruit that persist all winter.
The Green Hawthorn (Crataegus viridis) is regarded as the most outstanding hawthorn species for landscape use. The variety Winter King was introduced by the Simpson Nursery Co. in Vincennes, Ind. and is probably the most widely planted variety. It has a lovely, rounded habit, with an almost vase-shaped branching structure. The white flowers are followed by bright red, very persistent fruits that are larger than the species, and the stems are often thornless. Leaves are a lustrous medium green, changing to purple and scarlet in the fall.
These three hawthorn species can grow over 20 feet tall and wide but are more often the size of dogwoods or redbuds. With thoughtful placement, keeping in mind those thorns, they can be a beautiful addition to the landscape.