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Designing with hawthorn

Designing with hawthorn

Hawthorn Crataegus crus-galli has colourful fruits throughout winter. Photo: Sarah Morgan

Crataegus are perfect for designing gardens with a natural look, says Sarah Morgan


Also known as hawthorn or quickthorn, Crataegus are deciduous ornamental trees or shrubs. They hybridise easily, so no one knows if there are 100 or 200 different species. Here in the UK, we tend to grow the ones from the northern hemisphere. Hawthorns all have a great deal of character in leaf, flower and fruit. As trees, they’re not very tall, but they do spread to 4-6m.

Everyone recognises the lobed leaves of C. monogyna in our native hedges. Its prickly, fast-growing stems keep out unwelcome visitors. These are the best place to start if clients want to encourage birds or small mammals into their gardens. Then there are the battered and windswept trees growing in some of the most inhospitable parts of our countryside, a testament to their adaptability.

Another native tree, the Midland thorn – C. laevigata – has more flamboyant red or pink flowers which can be used to mark the transition between wild and formal areas. One good trick along these lines is to frame an entrance or view by planting one or two to grow out of a native hedge.

Seasonal appeal

Designers often use Crataegus if they want something natural looking that’s also small enough for an urban garden, but they are also particularly lovely underplanted with spring bulbs or meadows. In early May, they announce summer is coming with billowing clouds of flowers. Some even keep the interest going until January – the gorgeous C. crus-galli holds its bright red berries until well after the leaves have dropped.

As they respond so well to clipping, you can buy standard or umbrella trees, or try more interesting shapes – Scandinavia’s leading landscape architect, Sven-Ingvar Andersson, has worked up some very imaginative hawthorn shapes in his garden in Sweden.

Designing with hawthorn

“Hawthorns would be my first choice for a rural landscape or a problematic site,” says Timothy Carless MSGD. “I’ve seen them grow even in sand and gravel by the coast or in heavy clay soil with their feet in water. I take inspiration from their natural tendency to produce beautiful gnarled architectural shapes, and I try to recreate that look if I have a feature such as a watercourse or ditch that I want to punctuate with a vertical. I then let deer graze the plants, and as they grow it pushes them into funny shapes, which works really well.”

Timothy has one caveat about the wildlife, however. “Over the past 15 years, I’ve seen a real increase in rabbits and deer, and as I plant vast quantities of hedging I have to use deer tubes. Unfortunately because the plants just grow out of the top of the tube you end up with a hedge on stilts. Now, for the first two years, I get my clients to cut the sides, not the top. In the third year, I remove the tubes using special secateurs with a notch in them.” He cuts halfway through the stems, bending over the top growth onto the ground as in traditional hedge-laying. “If you’ve used 60% hawthorn and the rest other natives, the thorny hawthorn protects all new growth and they end up as amazing hedges full to the floor,” Timothy explains.

From an aesthetic point of view, C. persimilis ‘Prunifolia’ AGM is the tree he uses most, as it holds its leaf for a long time, produces beautiful berries, bigger white flowers than the common hawthorn and better autumn colour. “The only downside to hawthorns is the thorny dead wood,” he says, “so I always bear in mind young children and mainly use them in front gardens.”

If he wants a focal point or to frame a view, he uses C. monogyna ‘Stricta’ – the only columnar cultivar. Another favourite is the grey-leaved C. orientalis AGM, “which gives a lovely Mediterranean feel. I like to grow it as a standard and clip its head into a neat topiary shape”. 

C. orientalis, previously known as C. laciniata, has grey leaves and clips well. Photo: Chew Valley Trees

For our expert plantsman’s choice of the best varieties of Crataegus to grow, see our Top hawthorns to grow feature

Top tips for growing hawthorn

• Encourage hedges to flower and berry yearly by pruning sections of a hedge biannually or cut one side one year and the opposite side the next.

• Hawthorns have been upgraded by surveyors on their subsidence risk list so don’t plant them within 5m of buildings.

• Hawthorns are ideal if clients want to garden organically, as they don’t suffer much from pests or diseases.

• Try to plant before Christmas when the ground is still warm, as this enables roots to become more established by spring, and they cope better with the droughts some areas have been experiencing   

Where to see and buy

• Chew Valley Trees Winford Road, Bristol, BS40 8HJ Tel: 01275 333752

• Crown Nursery A specialist plant nursery with a good range of hawthorns. High Street, Ufford, Suffolk IP13 6EL Tel: 01394 460755

• Dulford Nurseries Cullompton, Devon EX15 2BY Tel: 01884 266361

• Jardins en Marche French nursery and garden with 186 species of Crataegus. Plants can be shipped to the UK. 5 le Montabarot, 23400 St Dizier Leyrenne Tel: +33 (0)555 644398

• Sir Harold Hillier Gardens Jermyns Lane, Romsey, Hampshire SO51 0QA Tel: 01794 369317

• The Place for Plants East Bergholt Place, Suffolk CO7 6UP Tel: 01206 299224  

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