By Julie Carlson
Edited by Jesse Eastman
Originally published in Vol. 1, Issue 4 of Fort Collins Nursery’s TreeTalk Newsletter
This past fall, many of you came to the nursery seeking plants that add fall color to your yards. You’d seen it all around town – from the flaming rose-red of Burning Bush or the orange heat of Tiger Eyes Sumac to the brilliant yellows of Ginkgo or Honeylocust. These shrubs and trees offer up dramatic leaf color, but another plant can add even more richness to the landscape than mere changing leaves.
The Hawthorn is traditionally known as a shrub – many an English hedgerow is comprised of Hawthorns. The English Hawthorns are also easily cultivated as ornamental trees and work well at adding interest to a yard as single specimens. Crimson Cloud Hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata ‘Crimson Cloud’) is one such Hawthorn that has miniature maple-shaped leaves of glossy dark green and flowers of striking white-eyed magenta pink clusters. A close relation to Crimson Cloud is Toba Hawthorn (C. mordenensis). It is pearled with double white fragrant flowers maturing to a medium pink. Also remarkable about the Toba is its unusual tree trunk that develops seams over time and eventually looks like four or five trunks fused together.
These two varieties of English Hawthorn are most showy in the spring because of their flowers, but other Hawthorns have an even more splendid color display in late summer and autumn. The Hawthorn is aptly named for its haws, or red berries that develop in late summer, and on many Hawthorns hang on the bush or tree into winter. These small red fruits are a profusion of color. On Russian Hawthorn (C. ambigua) they dangle like a wealth of rubies offsetting its sparsely-leaved twisting branches. Thornless Cockspur Hawthorn (C. crusgalli inermis) accentuates its widespread branches of shining rounded leaves with half-inch coral gems.
The Hawthorn genus does not disappoint those who are set on intense leaf change either. Some, like Thornless Cockspur and Russian offer up yellows and gold fading to russet, while Washington Hawthorn (C. phaenopyrum) turns a scarlet orange bordering on red.
Of course the leaves eventually drop, leaving behind bare thorny branches. The thorns add texture and silhouette, and berries on some hawthorns persist – continued color as we welcomed winter and begin to think of snow-covered landscapes and bedecked trees. The Hawthorn is naturally ornamental throughout our harsh winters.
Hawthorns are a truly visual treasure of flowers, interesting leaves, fruit, and structure. They are also very hardy, many of them tolerating and even thriving in Colorado’s poor soil, cold winter temperatures, and dry climate. Most varieties are disease resistant as well and supply a low-maintenance shrub or tree for someone looking for a plant that is unique. For those who are planning for years of color, look no further than the impressive Hawthorn.
Originally published on February 4th, 2016. Updated on March 3rd, 2023.