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Hawthorn Trees

Written by Rhonda Ferree, retired horticulture educator

I was recently asked to identify a hawthorn tree growing on the Bradley campus in Peoria.

Hawthorns are among the groups of small trees that are noted for their wintertime berries.

Washington hawthorn (Crataegus phaenopyrum) is a hawthorn for all seasons. The flowers, foliage, winter berries, and dense growth all make it an attention getting tree.

The Washington hawthorn starts out as a rather slender young tree, but broadens with age to a twiggy tree 25 feet tall with a 20 foot spread. It has shiny, rather small leaves that develop fall colors ranging from orange to purple. The profuse array of white flowers appears as large clusters in early June.

During winter, the berries are this tree's outstanding feature. The bright red clusters of berries ripen in September and last all winter. Hawthorns are in the same plant family as apples and thus the berries are edible. Early spring robins will congregate in Washington hawthorn trees until the trees are finally stripped of the fruit. The tree also attracts a bevy of other fruit eating birds.

Cockspur hawthorn (Crataegus crusgalli) is quite a thorny tree. It has a broad rounded shape with wide spreading slender thorny branches. It is a very dense tree about 30 feet tall and 30 feet wide. Often it is grows with its branches to the ground.

There are several Cockspur hawthorns at Lakeland Park in Canton. I helped plant them when I worked for the Canton Park District during college summers. Most are found in the circular turnarounds at the edges of the park.

Cockspur hawthorn has relatively small (2 to 3 inch) glossy, dark green leaves. In the fall the leaves develop tones of bronze-red to purple. The flowers are relatively unimportant, but the fruit (apples) are deep red, ½-inch in diameter and last into January.

This tree is best used as individual specimens, group plantings in parks or landscaping commercial buildings. It is typically too thorny for home landscape use, unless you want to stop someone from entering your yard! A better choice for homeowners is the thornless variety (Crataegus crusgalli var. inermis) also known as Crusader Hawthorn.

I believe that the Bradley hawthorn tree was a Winter King Green Hawthorn (Crataegus viridis 'Winter King'). Attributes include a lovely vase-shaped habit, dark green leaves, white flowers, lasting red fruit, and beautiful colored bark.

If you want a plant with red fruit that lasts throughout the winter, hawthorns are an excellent choice; and as an added bonus, hawthorns are native plants!



As horticulture educator, Rhonda Ferree inspired citizens in local communities to grow their own food and improve their home landscapes. She focused on high quality, impactful programs that taught homeowners how to create energy-efficient landscapes using sustainable practices that increase property values and help the environment.

After 30 years with University of Illinois Extension, Rhonda retired in 2018. She continues to share her passion for horticulture related topics as “Retro Rhonda” on social media.

ILRiverHort is a blog that helps people connect to nature and grow.