A Rose by Any Other Name: Beautiful Hawthorns Redux

Crataegus-marshallii-DSC_0209A rose is a rose is a rose, I suppose!  The rose family sprawls across dozens of species of edible plants.  This is the plant family of peaches and apricots, but also covers a wide variety of native fruit plants including native plums, several native cherries, serviceberries, and hawthorns, many of which are edible. 

The best known of the edible Hawthorns is the Mayhaw.  Two species of hawthorn go by the name of Mayhaw:  Crataegus aestivalis, the Eastern Mayhaw, and Crataegus opaca, the Western Mayhaw.  The Mayhaws have some of the largest fruit among the Hawthorn species, and there are dozens of recipes for jellies, jams, compotes, wine, beer, pies and Mayhaw butter to be found scattered across the internet.

Mayhaws naturally grow in moist ground, at the edges of swamps and wetlands, which made them easy to collect in days gone by in canoes with pole baskets.  However, Mayhaws also adapt well to a regular orchard or garden situation with enriched, moist soil.  Not all hawthorn species want it rich.  There are other species that prefer dry well drained soil conditions, which is a little unusual for shrubs or trees with heavy fruit loads.  Two species that prefer dry conditions are described further down in this post.

All of our native hawthorns are beautiful early bloomers, starting in late March and going through April and May. Hawthorns start blooming very soon after the early trees, when the plums and other fruit trees are putting on their show, providing much needed early bee and butterfly support with their offerings of pollen and nectar.

Dwarf Hawthorn, Crataegus uniflora

Dwarf Hawthorn, Crataegus uniflora

But the pollinator support doesn’t stop there. Hawthorns are among the top larval host plants in Doug Tallamy’s list of “Best Bets: What to Plant” to support butterflies and moths. They are number twelve out of the top twenty woody plants. The link to that list is here.

The height and cover provided by hawthorns for cup-nesting songbirds is pretty much perfect. Many songbirds nest between 5-15 feet off of the ground, and need a shrub that gives them good site with plenty of camouflage. Hawthorns are thorny, so are roses and some apple species. Does that mean you should avoid the Hawthorn in your shrub layer? No! Birds such as the Brown Thrasher will nest in thorny shrubs or greenbriar tangles, here’s a link to nest watch. Thorns would add a layer of protection from some egg and nestling predators.

Mockingbird nest in Parsley Hawthorn, Crataegus marshallii

Mockingbird nest in Parsley Hawthorn, Crataegus marshallii

The haws, or pomes, are also an important addition to your garden to support migratory birds like Cedar Waxwings. But if you’ve ever heard of Haws or Mayhaw jelly, people have been using the fruit of the hawthorn as well, from the cuisine of various Native American tribes through the traditional foods of the Deep South. One of our favorite blogs “Eat the Weeds” has an article on Hawthorns here .  Colonists used haws, both Marshallii and uniflora are species recorded as being used as food by colonists and Native Americans.

The Hawthorn is closely related to the rose and apple, the flowers of hawthorns reminiscent of plum or apple blossoms and the fruits often resembling rose hips.  The scarlet berries are so prolific on our Parsley Hawthorn that the winter resident birds can never finish the fruit during the winter, it often takes a flock of famished Cedar Waxwings to polish them off.  Flower quantity and berry set are greater if planted in the sun.

Crataegus-uniflora-berries-IMG_9758

Fruit of the Dwarf Hawthorn, Crataegus uniflora, smells like an apple.

The Hawthorn species that we grow at Beech Hollow are Crataegus marshallii and Crataegus uniflora.  Both of these species are tough, preferring well drained sites.  They can easily handle full sun to dappled or open shade.  Right now Crataegus marshallii is blooming now in front of our location in Scottdale GA.  The flowers are gorgeous; marshallii has plentiful flower clusters that hold about a dozen inch wide blooms.

We now have Crataegus uniflora saplings; hoping they will be a good size in two years.  But this species will never get beyond shrub sized. The common name for this species is Dwarf Hawthorne; its height ranges from 3-6 feet tall. The Dwarf Hawthorne has flowers that are singular, about quarter-sized, and matt white.   The fruits are nickel sized pomes that smell like apple and have the color of a really ripe golden delicious apple with a pink blush when fully ripe.


There’s Nothing Wrong With Those Leaves, They’re Just Dying.

One of the best parts about going to plant sales and setting up a booth is that you get to hear everyone’s story about their favorite plants that you may or may not be selling.  Seeing people enthusiastic to learn and share plant knowledge refills my inner reservoir of hope.   We participated in the Hall County Master Gardener’s Fall Expo last weekend and talked to some wonderful people (many of whom were Hall Co. Master Gardeners, y’all were awesome!) and sold a bunch of plants.  One exchange in particular made me incredibly happy because I finally heard someone express the concept I’ve been trying to convey to anyone that will listen for years:  Leaves on a perennial plant (especially in fall ) are expendable and don not necessarily reflect the overall health of the plant.

Agastache leaves showing some yellowing as they break down.

I was talking to a couple as they browsed our plants, and as the wife decided she would like a Giant Hyssop (Agastache scrophularifolia) she picked up two pots and started comparing the plants in them.  She asked her husband, “Which one?” He responded that they looked about the same.  She expressed concern about the yellowing leaves on one of the plants, but it had more stems, so she kind of wanted it more. He turned to me and asked “It’s perennial, right?” I said that it was with a nod.  He said “Well, then you’re buying the roots. Those leaves are going to be gone in a few weeks anyway.”  I think I just found my new best friend.  I’m pretty sure I saw the wife roll her eyes and then select the plant with 2 stems.

Magnolia macrophylla with some leaves that have seen better days, but quite healthy roots

Leaves on a perennial plant go through an annual life cycle that eventually ends with them shutting down and dying.  This is known as ‘leaf senescence’ and most people know it more commonly as “when the leaves change color in Autumn.”  This cycle was summed up incredibly well in a paper about the molecular causes of leaf senescence that I came across:

“Leaves initiate their life as leaf primodia. During their development and growth, they become photosynthetically competent and accumulate nutrients. Leaves then enter the senescence stage, followed by their death. Leaf senescence partly involves the process of ‘wear and tear’ during aging, but mostly is a tightly regulated process with a crucial biological purpose.”    – http://jcs.biologists.org/content/126/21/4823

Leaves are formed, perform their function of collecting solar energy to build roots, stems, more leaves and flowers, and then are systematically dismantled and their components are resorbed and redistributed to other parts of the plant.  The remaining framework is then dropped to the soil, most likely to be reabsorbed by the roots after passing through the soil food web.

In this context, looking for the leaves to be green and healthy on a plant in October seems a bit absurd.  Plants that bloom in spring usually shut down in the summer heat, and the ones that bloom in fall are sending all their resources to make flowers and then seeds before a frost comes along.  Another quote from the aforementioned paper again sums it up well:

“The blooming of spring flowers occurs through the utilization of nutrients that have been relocated from senescing autumn leaves. Thus, senescence and death in leaves are active developmental strategies that crucially contribute to the fitness and survival of a plant.”  –ibid

Just look at this beautiful Georgia Aster bloom:

Now take a look at the leaves closer to the base of the stem:

Not nearly as aesthetically appealing as the flower, but part of a totally necessary and natural process on a healthy plant.

Fall is the best time to plant perennials, so now is the time to shop at one of the many plant sales going on in the next few weeks.  If you see some less than perfect leaves, don’t worry. They won’t be there much longer. They too shall pass, and in doing so enable the roots to survive the winter.