Perusing a less-frequently negotiated area of our woods last fall, we found a small shrubby tree with long, dark, sharp thorns, the large-horned hawthorne (Crataegus macrancantha). Several small trunks coppiced (grew) from the base. The grey bark was smooth and thin with narrow, plate-like scales. A younger specimen might not be as easy to identify by its bark might be challenging: it changes from reddish-green to dark, shiny brown to the above-described grey as the shrub/tree matures.
Early small branches also change, from brown to reddish brown to the same grey hue as the plant matures. Leaves are long but can vary in shape; they are generally broadly oval with toothed edges. The dull, dark green leaves have short, soft, wavy hairs that can be found along the larger veins. Leaves are single and at the end of somewhat hairy petioles (stems). The leaves drop in winter but persist after frost for some time. Now might be a good time to look for this little gem. A few red fruits might also be visible.
What is glorious about this shrubby tree is seeing one in bloom. A species in the rose family, this hawthorn can be covered with numerous panicles of white, five-petaled flowers with pink or white anthers. It can be a spectacular sight, especially if it is sited well; then bloom is abundant. Hawthorne, an early bloomer, is valuable to native bees after our lengthy winters. Sufficiently lit areas that are hospitable to native pollinators will result in abundant clusters of red, fleshy fruits similar to the more familiar orangey-red rose hips. They will be similar in shape, but smaller, and will be at treat for winter birds. This species is low on the OPALS scale, the scale that indicates how much the plant’s pollen can cause allergic reactions. This is another benefit to the many folks who experience respiratory problems.
One most commonly finds this species in two places in the wild: 1.hardwood areas with heavy loam soil; 2. upland areas of conifers with thin, rocky soil. The species does not thrive in a heavily shaded forest canopy and reproduces most readily along forest edges or in areas of forest that allow good light penetration. Once established in a heavily canopy, the plant can survive but grows very slowly and may not spread. If it is in its happy spot, colonies will soon form.
This may not be a good yard specimen with children around. Injuries from the sharp thorns would be painful — also for adults on lawn mowers! Prune to a single trunk and remove lower branches and any thorns. Wide mulching to avoid being thorned when mowing would be good, too. This would eliminate that danger and still provide great beauty as well as an early and valuable food source for native bees and birds. Look for images of this species online to see if it is something that might suit your growing situation. I wonder, also, if it might provide a rather impermeable border that could be beautiful but maybe discourage deer once it grew on?
Click on “Yard and Garden at the University of Minnesota Extension website for gardening information. Local Master Gardeners will respond to your questions via voice mail. Call 218-444-7916, leaving your name, number and question. Our Facebook page may also be of help to you: <https://www.facebook.com/Beltramicountymastergardeners/>.