1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Hawthorn (plant)

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For works with similar titles, see Hawthorn.

HAWTHORN (O. Eng. haga-, hag-, or hege-thorn, i.e. “hedge-thorn”), the common name for Crataegus, in botany, a genus of shrubs or small trees belonging to the natural order Rosaceae, native of the north temperate regions, especially America. It is represented in the British Isles by the hawthorn, white-thorn or may (Ger. Hagedorn and Christdorn; Fr. aubépine), C. Oxyacantha, a small, round-headed, much-branched tree, 10 to 20 ft. high, the branches often ending in single sharp spines. The leaves, which are deeply cut, are 1 to 2 in. long and very variable in shape. The flowers are sweet-scented, in flat-topped clusters, and ½ to ¾ in. in diameter, with five spreading white petals alternating with five persistent green sepals, a large number of stamens with pinkish-brown anthers, and one to three carpels sunk in the cup-shaped floral axis. The fruit, or haw, as in the apple, consists of the swollen floral axis, which is usually scarlet, and forms a fleshy envelope surrounding the hard stone.

The common hawthorn is a native of Europe as far north as 60½° in Sweden, and of North Africa, western Asia and Siberia, and has been naturalized in North America and Australia. It thrives best in dry soils, and in height varies from 4 or 5 to 12, 15 or, in exceptional cases, as much as between 20 and 30 ft. It may be propagated from seed or from cuttings. The seeds must be from ripe fruit, and if fresh gathered should be freed from pulp by maceration in water. They germinate only in the second year after sowing; in the course of their first year the seedlings attain a height of 6 to 12 in. Hawthorn has been for many centuries a favourite park and hedge plant in Europe, and numerous varieties have been developed by cultivation; these differ in the form of the leaf, the white, pink or red, single or double flowers, and the yellow, orange or red fruit. In England the hawthorn, owing to its hardiness and closeness of growth, has been employed for enclosure of land since the Roman occupation, but for ordinary field hedges it is believed it was generally in use till about the end of the 17th century. James I. of Scotland, in his Quair, ii. 14 (early 15th century), mentions the “hawthorn hedges knet” of Windsor Castle. The first hawthorn hedges in Scotland are said to have been planted by soldiers of Cromwell at Inch Buckling Brae in East Lothian and Finlarig in Perthshire. Annual pruning, to which the hawthorn is particularly amenable, is necessary if the hedge is to maintain its compactness and sturdiness. When the lower part shows a tendency to go bare the strong stems may be “plashed,” i.e. split, bent over and pegged to the ground so that new growths may start. The wood of the hawthorn is white in colour, with a yellowish tinge. Fresh cut it weighs 68 lb 12 oz. per cubic foot, and dry 57 lb 3 oz. It can seldom be obtained in large portions, and has the disadvantage of being apt to warp; its great hardness, however, renders it valuable for the manufacture of various articles, such as the cogs of mill-wheels, flails and mallets, and handles of hammers. Both green and dry it forms excellent fuel. The bark possesses tanning properties, and in Scotland in past times yielded with ferrous sulphate a black dye for wool. The leaves are eaten by cattle, and have been employed as a substitute for tea. Birds and deer feed upon the haws, which are used in the preparation of a fermented and highly intoxicating liquor. The hawthorn serves as a stock for grafting other trees. As an ornamental feature in landscapes, it is worthy of notice; and the pleasing shelter it affords and the beauty of its blossoms have frequently been alluded to by poets. The custom of employing the flowering branches for decorative purposes on the 1st of May is of very early origin; but since the alteration in the calendar the tree has rarely been in full bloom in England before the second week of that month. In the Scottish Highlands the flowers may be seen as late as the middle of June. The hawthorn has been regarded as the emblem of hope, and its branches are stated to have been carried by the ancient Greeks in wedding processions, and to have been used by them to deck the altar of Hymen. The supposition that the tree was the source of Christ's crown of thorns gave rise doubtless to the tradition current among the French peasantry that it utters groans and cries on Good Friday, and probably also to the old popular superstition in Great Britain and Ireland that ill-luck attended the uprooting of hawthorns. Branches of the Glastonbury thorn, C. Oxyacantha, var. praecox, which flowers both in December and in spring, were formerly highly valued in England, on account of the legend that the tree was originally the staff of Joseph of Arimathea.

The number of species in the genus is from fifty to seventy, according to the view taken as to whether or not some of the forms, especially of those occurring in the United States, represent distinct species. C. coccinea, a native of Canada and the eastern United States, with bright scarlet fruits, was introduced into English gardens towards the end of the 17th century. C. Crus-Galli, with a somewhat similar distribution and introduced about the same time, is a very decorative species with showy, bright red fruit, often remaining on the branches till spring, and leaves assuming a brilliant scarlet and orange in the autumn; numerous varieties are in cultivation. C. Pyracantha, known in gardens as pyracantha, is evergreen and has white flowers, appearing in May, and fine scarlet fruits of the size of a pea which remain on the tree nearly all the winter. It is a native of south Europe and was introduced into Britain early in the 17th century.