English hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata) is a deciduous large shrub or small tree, native to western and central Europe and North Africa but also naturalized in some parts of western North America. It is a dense, thorny-branched plant with multiple stems that criss-cross to form a rounded crown in mature plants. The leaves are glossy and dark green, and in spring the plant is covered with an abundant array of small flowers in shades of white, pink, or red. For some varieties, red fruits are evident in fall. English hawthorn grows in difficult environments that most trees will not tolerate, such as poor air and soil conditions, as well as locations where the roots are confined to small spaces. That's why it's a popular choice as a street tree as well as in urban landscapes, and is also grown as a bonsai or espalier tree. But it's also susceptible to a number of troublesome pests and diseases.
This shrub is normally planted as a container-grown nursery plant in fall, though they usually do fine if planted in spring. English hawthorn has a moderate growth rate, adding 12 to 24 inches per year (dwarf varieties are slower growing).
|Common Name||English hawthorn, smooth hawthorn|
|Botanical Name||Crataegus laevigata|
|Plant Type||Shrub, tree|
|Mature Size||6–25 ft. tall, 5–25 ft. wide|
|Soil Type||Well-drained, loamy|
|Soil pH||Acidic, neutral, alkaline|
|Bloom Time||Spring, summer|
|Flower Color||White, pink, red|
|Hardiness Zones||4–8 (USDA)|
|Native Area||Europe, Africa|
English Hawthorn Tree Care
When choosing a location for your English hawthorn, be sure it's a place where fallen fruit isn't a nuisance. You should also keep in mind that though these trees can live anywhere from 50 to 150 years, they grow relatively slowly. Its flowers are beautiful, but they emit a musky scent that some may find unpleasant.
The planting technique is characteristic for most potted hawthorns (or any woody shrubs, for that matter). The planting hole should be two to three times wider than the rootball and equal in depth. Add compost to the planting hole and blend it in well. Position the plant in the hole with the rootball just slightly higher than the surrounding ground, then backfill with loose soil, tamping periodically to eliminate air pockets. Water thoroughly upon planting, then weekly for the first year.
Young trees may need to staked against the wind. Once well-established, pruning may be necessary to keep the thorny branches well away from pedestrian traffic.
The English hawthorn prefers full sun but will do fine in light shade.
The English hawthorn grows in a variety of soil types in lowland areas, but it does seem to prefer moist, disturbed places as well as areas with high precipitation. Soil should always be well-drained. English hawthorn will do well in slightly acidic to slightly alkaline soils (pH 6.0 to 7.5).
You'll want to water a young English hawthorn tree during dry weather; after the first year or two of growth, natural rainfall will be adequate. Try to avoid watering these trees while they're blooming. Established trees can tolerate dry conditions.
Temperature and Humidity
English hawthorn is hardy in USDA zones 4 to 8, though it can be marginal in the colder parts of zone 4 (zone 4a).
Fertilizer isn't required to promote the growth of the English hawthorn, but if your tree's growth appears sparse, you can try applying a slow-release fertilizer in autumn. For the amount to use, follow the product label instructions.
Types of English Hawthorn
There are several good named cultivars of Crataegus laevigata, including:
- 'Paul's Scarlet' has double rose-red flowers. The fall fruits are vivid red.
- 'Punicea' has reddish-pink single flowers with white centers. It has a good resistance to leaf spot diseases.
- 'Rosea Flore Pleno' has double pink flowers and bright red fall/winter berries.
- 'Crimson Cloud' has large single red flowers with star-shaped white centers.
- 'Aurea' has yellow fruits.
There are also several other hawthorn species worth considering for your landscape:
- Crataegus phaenopyrum (Washington hawthorn) has bright white flowers that appear in late spring, with good orange, scarlet, or red fall color. It has good disease resistance.
- Rhaphiolepsis indica (Indian hawthorn) is a compact evergreen shrub, white to pink or red flowers.
- Crataegus pinnatifida (Chinese hawthorn) is often grown for its large, edible red berries. It is less thorny than other species.
English hawthorn naturally assumes a multi-trunk growth habit, but if you want to train it as a standard tree, you will need to prune away competing stems in favor of a single trunk. It's also often necessary to prune low-hanging branches to keep the sharp, long thorns away from pedestrians or vehicles. Damaged or broken branches should be removed as you notice them. Also cut back any suckers that appear around the base of the plant.
Most pruning is best done during the winter dormant season. Make sure to wear sturdy gloves and long sleeves, as the long thorns can inflict painful puncture wounds.
Propagating English Hawthorn
Named cultivars of hawthorn are usually produced by grafting, so propagating them by cuttings may not produce a plant with the same characteristics as the parent plant. For example, a new plant started from a cutting taken from a scion branch may not have the same cold hardiness. If you have a pure Crataegus laevigata shrub rather than a named cultivar, however, you can start a new plant from a softwood stem cutting taken in midsummer. Here's how:
- Use sharp pruners to cut 4- to 6-inch cuttings from tips of young, flexible stems. Remove the bottom leaves.
- Fill a 6- to 10-inch pot with standard potting mix. Dip the snipped end of the cutting in rooting hormone, then plant it in pot down to just below the bottom leaves. Tamp the potting mix firmly around the cutting.
- Water thoroughly and place the cutting in a bright location but out of the direct sun. Check the potting mix periodically and water when dry.
- When new growth becomes evident, the cutting is rooted and the potted plant can be moved into a sunny location to continue growing. It can take two to four months for the cutting to root, so be patient.
- For the first winter, your potted plant should be moved into a sheltered location, such as a cold frame or porch, to shelter it from the coldest temperatures.
- Move the potted plant back outdoors in early spring. By late spring or early summer, your new plant should be ready to transplant into the landscape.
Growing English Hawthorn From Seed
Seed propagation a common method for propagation of English hawthorn, though it is a slow process. But again, remember that named cultivars produced by grafting will not "grow true" from the seeds they produce. The seeds from a pure Crataegus laevigata plant, however, are fairly easy to propagate if you are patient.
Collect ripened fruits in late fall. Mash the berries and strain them to extract the seeds. Blend the seeds with sand and sow them into a blend of potting mix and fine compost. Keep them well-watered; the seeds will germinate and sprout in about 18 months. The seedlings are normally grown in pots for another year or so before transplanting into the landscape.
In the the colder parts of zone 4, this plant may benefit from a thick layer of mulch to protect the root zone, though this mulch should be kept well back from the trunk. In other areas, no winter protection is needed, but debris should be cleared out to eliminate overwintering fungal spores and insect larvae.
Winter dormancy is the best time to perform major pruning on this plant.
Common Pests & Plant Diseases
English hawthorn is susceptible to quite a sizable number of pest and disease problems. Common pests include borers, caterpillars, lace bugs, mites, aphids, leaf miners, and scale.
- Aphids may cause distorted leaves and sooty mold on leaves. They can be controlled by spraying them off with hard streams of water.
- Borers can cause stems to die. The best prevention is to keep the plants healthy through good fertilization and regular watering. Dead branches should be cut back to healthy wood.
- Tent caterpillars form webs at the tips of branches as they feed on foliage. These can be pruned out by hand.
- Scale, mites, leaf miners, and lace bugs cause various forms of leaf distortion. Control them with horticultural oil.
The most common serious disease is fire blight, a disease that affects many members of the Rosaceae family. The first symptom is browning branch tips and dying leaves, followed by cankers that quickly spread the Erwinia amylovora bacteria to the rest of the plant. There is no effective treatment, other than to prune out affected branch tips well down to healthy wood. Avoid fertilizing with a high-nitrogen fertilizer, which can encourage the disease.
Other common diseases include:
- Leaf blight causes small reddish brown spots on the leaves, which eventually merge together.
- Cedar hawthorn rust causes orange-rust spots on the leaves, which leads to defoliation. This disease is most prevalent in areas where host species, cedar and juniper, are present.
- Scab causes leaf spotting and gradual defoliation.
- Powdery mildew causes white powdery growth on the leaves.
These fungal diseases are rarely fatal. They can be controlled with fungicide sprays, which are most effective if applied early.
Common Problems With the English Hawthorn Tree
Other than the unfortunately large number of insect and disease problems that can affect English hawthorn, the most common complaint is the thorny branches that make pruning difficult and can cause painful prick injuries when the shrub is planted near pedestrian areas. But the thorniness is what makes hawthorn plants ideal for forming impenetrable barriers for hedges. And the thick thorny growth protects birds against predation from mammals.
Make sure to wear sturdy leather work gloves and thick long sleeves when working around this plant.
How can I use this plant in the landscape?
Any use of this plant must take into account the serious thorns, which can be a full inch long, very sharp, and very plentiful. This is the reason why hawthorns are traditionally used for impenetrable hedgerows. It is also a common feature of expansive cottage gardens. English hawthorn is also known as a magnet for birds, who feed on the berries and nest within the thick, impenetrable branches.
Is English hawthorn invasive?
No. Unlike some other species of hawthorn, Crataegus laevigata is not considered invasive and there are no warnings regarding its use. This makes it a much better choice than common hawthorn, C. monogyna.
What is the difference between English hawthorn and common hawthorn?
Crataegus monogyna, or common hawthorn, is a less well-behaved plant that is decidedly invasive in the western states of Oregon, Washington, and California, as well as some areas of the Northeast U.S.
These species are quite hard to tell apart, but C. monogyna is usually a larger plant, with leaves that are narrower. C. laevigata, by contrast, has leaves that are wider than they are long.
Further complicating the issue is that these plants readily hybridize—both with each other and other hawthorns. It's best to buy your plant from a reputable nursery to ensure you are not planting an invasive species.
Is this a messy tree?
No. The fruits of English hawthorn stay fast on the tree and do not drop onto surfaces to cause staining.