Hurray for Hawthorns!

Hawthorn (Crataegus sp.), also called May-tree, is unmissable in May, with its beautiful and delicate flowers gracing roadsides and field boundaries up and down the country. Ever heard the old saying ‘Ne’er cast a clout till May be out’? It could simply mean ‘don’t take off your winter clothing until the end of May’ but there is another possible interpretation of the ‘until May is out’ part which is actually until the Hawthorn tree is out in flower.

Longhorn beetle Grammoptera ruficornis on Hawthorn flowers - Nadine Mitschunas

Hawthorn identification

There are about 200 species of hawthorn, growing all over the Northern hemisphere. Our two native Hawthorns in Britain, which you will most commonly encounter when doing your FIT counts, are the Common Hawthorn (Crategus monogyna) and the Midland Hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata), which can both hybridise. Both look very similar and are characterised by their dense, thorny appearance, though they can grow as a small tree with a single stem. Both have brown-grey, knotted and fissured bark, with slender twigs which are covered in thorns. Flowers are highly scented, with five white or occasionally pink petals. 

For a FIT Count, the Hawthorns are grouped together as one. However, if you would like to tell them apart, there are a couple of ways to do it. Common Hawthorn flowers have a single stigma, whereas Midland Hawthorn flowers have two or three. The fruit of Common Hawthorn has a single seed, whereas the fruit of Midland Hawthorn has two or three seeds. The leaves of Common Hawthorn are deeply cut into 5 more or less pointed lobes, while the leaves of Midland Hawthorn are shallowly 3-lobed, and the side lobes more rounded. More information is available from the Woodland Trust: Common Hawthorn and Midland Hawthorn.

Hawthorn and wildlife

Solitary bee Andrena haemorrhoa on Hawthorn - Martin Harvey

Hawthorns are important plants for wildlife as they provide food and shelter for many species of birds, mammals and reptiles such as yellowhammer, wood mice and slow worms. The flowers are important for many pollinators and produce pollen and nectar, which is very good in some years possibly depending on adequate rainfall or tree's roots’ access to water.

Honeybees like the flowers. In the years when Hawthorn nectar flow is good, honeybees will make a high quality honey which is dark amber and very thick (some think almond-flavoured), and sometimes mistaken for heather honey. Solitary bees such as Andrena, Halictus and Lassioglossum are also frequent visitors. Hawthorns are used as food plants by the larvae of a large number of butterfly and moth species such as the Small Eggar Moth, Eriogaster lanestris. Hawthorns are also important for wildlife in winter, particularly thrushes and waxwings, which eat the Hawthorn berries and disperse the seeds in their droppings.

Hawthorn and FIT Counts

A total of 952 insects have been counted during 133 FIT Counts so far, an average of 7 insects per 10-minute count. Flies, including hoverflies, seem to be really fond of Hawthorn and have been counted as the main insect group visiting the flowers with 47% of all insect visitors being flies. Small insects such as tiny beetles are the second most counted group with 17% of all insect visitors. Honeybees, solitary bees and beetles are less common visitors to hawthorn flowers with just 7% for each group. See our flower charts for more information.

Hoverfly on Hawthorn - Nadine Mitschunas

Hawthorn and its uses

Hawthorn berries (haws) and leaves are edible and can be used in various ways. Haws can be made into jellies and wine, the leaves picked when young and used in salads. Hawthorn is also used in medicine for homeopathic remedies such as infusions or tonic extracts made from leaves, flowers and fruit. These are applied for cardiovascular diseases like chronic congestive heart failure, to support cardiac and circulatory functions. The wood of the Hawthorn tree has a fine grain and takes polish well. It can be used for carving and making wands.

Beetles (Ischnomera sanguinicollis above and Cantharis rustica below) on Hawthorn - Martin Harvey

Mystical hawthorn

Hawthorn is a sacred tree in many Pagan religions. The blossoms, called May Flowers, are used in spring celebrations. The May Pole is traditionally made of Hawthorn or decorated with Hawthorn flowers. This tree was considered beloved by fairies who lived within and one must ask permission before taking the blooms or sprigs and must certainly leave an offering when cutting down a whole tree. Planting Hawthorn around other trees, or near your home, is said to protect them from lightning strikes. Planting it as a hedge around your home will keep out unfriendly spirits.

Hawthorn flowers - Nadine Mitschunas

Get counting!

Why not take part in our FIT Count on a warm sunny day in May and count pollinators on Hawthorn flowers? You can enjoy the sunshine and hopefully see some interesting insects, and maybe even a fairy or two! Don`t forget to submit your count to our website afterwards.