Gardening: Hardy Hawthorn thrives... despite the weather

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‘Cast ne’er a clout till May is out...” as the old saying runs and the jury is still out on whether that means May blossom or the month of May.

Personally, I won’t be casting anything off until well into June as our great British weather is so unpredictable that you can have a difference of 10 degrees C in the space of one day! We gardeners here at RHS garden Harlow Carr are always very cautious and my ‘Clout’ is definitely staying on until at least June!

Still, May blossom from the Hawthorn – Crataegus – is looking splendid just now and I thought I’d sing its often unsung praises on this page. It is so versatile and tough and at the moment its leaves are opening out to the most spectacular zingy lime green, as a tree or in hedgerows their bare branches are gradually getting clothed once again. The blossoms range from white to rose pink and have the attractive cup-shaped flowers that typify the rose family. This is followed in autumn by the forming of berries, these are usually red; but some species do have black or bluish-green colours, so not only are they versatile, they are also of interest for a long season.

Hawthorn hedges often denote ancient boundary lines in fields and if you are out walking you can sometimes see a straggly line of them, bowed over by the prevailing winds, which is all that is left of an ancient field boundary. The Hawthorn is very tough, it lives to a great age and can withstand all the elements really well – it certainly is not affected by sea salt either, so it is particularly good in coastal regions. Our common Hawthorn: Crataegus monogyna has scented white flowers and many thorns so it is a good deterrent for animals or unwanted visitors!

Other species you could try are Crataegus x mordenensis cultivars as these are thorn-less, and ‘snowbird’ has the most beautiful fragrant double white flowers whilst ‘Toba’ has pinky white blossoms aging to pink.

Neither of these cultivars will grow more than six metres high by six metres wide, so are suitable for a small garden if you are using them as a tree.

Another very attractive species of Hawthorn is Crataegus lacinata, which as its name suggests has deeply cut dark glossy green leaves and white flowers followed by large oval shaped red berries.

Our common hawthorn is fully hardy and will stand all soil types and most conditions, except extreme waterlogging – it is happy in either full sun or partial sun and shade. Give it a light trim after flowering or in the autumn to keep it in shape.

If you have a wildlife garden they are excellent for protecting nesting birds and provide a good source of nectar and berries for them too, in particular blackbirds, who can often be found plucking feverishly at the berries in the winter months.

If you have a fancy to try propagating hawthorn from seed it can be quite fun; as long as you’re not in a hurry! As soon as the seed is ripe you must remove the fleshy parts from the seed (gently crush the seeds and wash them over a fine sieve – put them in a prepared seed tray and leave them in a cold frame or sheltered corner of your garden, germination may take up to 18 months, so have patience, but how rewarding to be able to plant a hedge or tree propagated completely by yourself! The birds will be so grateful too.

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