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Kinnikinnick Native Plant Society

Focusing on native plants and conservation in North Idaho


Species Paper by Lisa Shock 

Crataegus is from the Greek Kratos (Hard) referring to the very hard wood.  The German name is Hagedorn, meaning hedge thorn for its common use as a hedge to divide land and create a living fence.  The term Haw also means hedge.   The genus is easily identified by the long simple thorns on its branches.  

Hawthorn in September, with berries and thorn!

CAUTION: These are sharp dangerous thorns.  Eye scratches can result in blindness.

The many species, with hundreds of names proposed make the classification of species more complicated.  

Here are some that you might find: Black Hawthorn, Western Black Haw, or Douglas Hawthorn, Crataegus douglasii -- deciduous shrub or small tree often with several trunks, 3-20 feet tall, rough, scaly gray branches often with patches of lichen and with straight or slightly curved 1” or smaller thorns. Younger stems have more reddish brown bark.  Alternate leaves, 1-3 inches long and almost as wide, egg-shaped, sharply toothed, lobed at tip, wedge shaped at base, leathery, glossy, dark green above, hairless beneath, stalks with scattered glands.  Flowers whitish, saucer-shaped, about ½ inch wide, 5 round petals, in showy, flat-topped clusters, unpleasant scent appearing May to June.  The foul scent attracts carrion insects and flies.  Fruits blackish-purple pomes (like miniature ½ inch apples), pulpy, withered before winter, containing 1-4 seeds, and called haws, pixie pears, cuckoo’s beads, and chucky cheese.  Found in well-drained sites, often near water, foothills to sub alpine, BC and Alberta to Wyoming.

River Hawthorn, Crataegus rivularis  similar to black hawthorn, some call it a variety of it, it generally has longer thorns, up to 1½ inches, leaves narrower and not lobed, leaf stalks without glands.

Red Hawthorn, Columbia Hawthorn,  Crataegus columbiana or C.chrysocarpa or C. rotundifolia has smaller red or reddish purple pones and longer thorns, 2 – 4 inches. 

European cultivated Hawthorns, English Hawthorn,  Crataegus monogyna and C. oxyacantha  having escaped via wildlife spreading seeds, have deeply cleft leaves with 3-7 leaflets.  They are distinctly tree like in form and fruit may be red to yellow and one or two seeded.


The wood is very hard but the small size makes it more useful for small articles.  The fine grain takes on a beautiful polish, making lovely boxes, combs, and walking sticks even the root wood is used.  It is also the hottest wood-fire known and charcoal from it is said to melt pig iron without the aid of a blast. It will even burn while still green.  Fruits or “haws” are edible, bland and pulpy, but the birds relish them. The Indians mixed dried fruit, often hawthorns with their dried venison and fat to make pemmican.  Hawthorn is diuretic, astringent, and tonic.  The flowers, leaves and ripe fruit are all used medicinally.  However the fruit can quickly become overripe and ferment loosing much of its value.  Dried flowers, leaves, and fruit can be used to make a tea but the strongest medicinal value is the tincture of flowers or fruit.  The astringent tea has been used for sore throats.  As a diuretic it is useful for water retention and kidney troubles.  But it is best known as an herbal heart tonic for both organic and functional disorders.  It is a mild coronary vasodilator, increasing the blood supply to the heart as well as lowering peripheral resistance. It has been used to treat mild essential hypertension, and cardiac arrhythmias. It appears to act in a mild normalizing way to stimulate or depress the heart and circulation depending upon what is needed to normalize it. Extensive studies have revealed hawthorns ability to increase enzyme metabolism in the heart muscle and increase oxygen utilization in the heart both leading to improved coronary health.  In fact treatment with hawthorn in one study of 50 coronary patients found a 77% savings in oxygen required compared to only 25% savings with “standard” treatments.  Hawthorn extract produced improvement for all cases of primary heart disease in the studies, and while not all responded with secondary heart disease those that were helped showed significant improvement.  Hawthorn increases the heart rate and cardiac output in cardiac insufficiency.  The great benefits and lack of toxic or side effects has made hawthorn a favorite in European countries.    Tests on rats given about 1 powdered hawthorn berry a day showed their cholesterol fell 10 –18% in 2 months


The symbol of Hope, brides in ancient Athens used its blossoms to decorate their grooms on their wedding day while they carried a bouquet of hawthorn blossoms to the altar.  In Rome charms of hawthorn were used against witchcraft and sorcery, and leaves were put into the cradle of newborn infants.  Held sacred by Christians also it is believed to be the source of the “crown of thorns” that Christ wore, having touched his head it now cures the heart.  In France the Norman peasants put sprigs of the hawthorn into their caps in remembrance of this belief. Legend says Paul Bunyan always used a big hawthorn tree as a back-scratcher.  The Faires are said to love the hawthorn tree, and woe be to anyone cutting down a hawthorn tree, it would be very unlucky to do so.


1. Plants of the Rocky Mountains by Kershaw, MacKinnon, & Pojar
2. Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West
by Michael Moore
3. A Modern Herbal by M Grieve  
4. Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, Plants and Trees by Ernst and Johanna Lehner  
5. Magic and Medicine of Plants by Reader’s Digest  
6. The Holistic Herbal by David Hoffmann  
7. Tree Wisdom by J Paterson  
8. Scientific Validation of Herbal Medicine by Daniel Mowrey