Picking Hawthorn Berries – Harvesting hawthorn berries is new to me this year. They are sweet and mild if you get them at the right time, and in years past I tasted them too early in the fall. This year the Washington hawthorn was sweet and mild in late October. But by then, the single-seeded hawthorns have started to rot, so next year I’ll be looking for those in mid-October.
I owe some credit to Josh Fecteau’s recent post on hawthorns for inspiring me to try hawthorn berries again. As Josh points out, there are many species of hawthorn, perhaps 50 in New England. And, in all of North America, perhaps a thousand species, according to George Symonds (from his wonderful book Tree Identification Book: A New Method for Practical Tree Identification and Recognition
Picking Hawthorn Berries
, my favorite ID tree learning guide). Fortunately, you shouldn’t be able to identify specific species. You just need to know it’s a hawthorn, because all hawthorns have edible berries. HOWEVER, like apple seeds, hawthorn seeds contain cyanide and should not be eaten. Don’t panic; just spit out the seeds.
Picking Hawthorn Berries….and Jam Making!
Why bother with hawthorn? They are beautiful, interesting and delicious wild foods with known health benefits. Some people use the berries to make hawthorn jelly, but I have yet to try this. The berries, leaves and flowers can be used to make a tea. Scroll down to the bottom of the page to see how I make hawthorn berry extract.
I will describe two types here, as an example of the general characteristics. That should help you recognize a hawthorn when you see one, but ie
If you are not sure that you have hawthorn when foraging, please check with additional sources until you are sure, before eating the berries.
This grows as a small tree or large shrub and bears clusters of white flowers in late spring. The berries turn red in September (here), but later turn sweet. By October 31st they were sweet and maybe a little over the top. Each berry has 3-5 seeds.
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The leaves are lobed and toothed, as you can see in my photo above. Many other species of hawthorn have similar leaves. The tree is heavily armed with long thorns, up to about 3 inches in length. However, with reasonable caution, you can easily pick the berries, which tend to hang away from the branch. Later in the season it is even easier after many leaves have fallen and are no longer obscuring the thorns.
Also called common hawthorn, this is a European native that escaped cultivation and naturalized in North America. It is sometimes labeled as an invasive plant, but I don’t find it very often, and when I do, there isn’t much of it in one area. It may be invasive in other parts of the country, but it doesn’t seem to be particularly aggressive here. Like Washington hawthorn, single-seeded hawthorn grows as a shrub or small tree, bearing clusters of white blossoms in late spring. The oval red berries ripen slightly earlier (than Washington hawthorn) in fall and contain one seed (hence the name). The toothed leaves are more deeply lobed than those of Washington hawthorn, but the spines are much smaller, only about 1/2 inch to one inch in length.
Hawthorns are common in the forest floor here in Massachusetts, but they are stunted specimens that don’t fruit well. It’s too shady in the forest. To find hawthorns loaded with fruit, look in sunny spots, such as scrubby fields and thickets, at the edges of pastures and along streams. They are often planted as ornamentals, so if your friend has one and doesn’t mind picking some berries, you have an easy foraging experience at your fingertips.
This is my first experience using hawthorn berries, and I use them to make an extract, using the same process you would use to make vanilla extract. I hope to use hawthorn extract as a flavoring in cooking and baking. I filled a clean canning jar about 3/4 full of berries, covered them with 80 clear vodka and sealed the jar. I’m not sure how long it will take to extract enough flavor from the berries, so I’ll be checking it daily. I know other extracts, (like vanilla extract) last a few weeks, so that’s what I’m expecting here. Hawthorn is fairly easy to identify and harvest – I’d go so far as to say it’s one of the easiest plants to feed on because it’s so distinctive and grows in abundance throughout most of the world. Like all wild plants, hawthorn needs to be harvested with care and respect, and there are a number of foraging fundamentals to adhere to. According to George Symonds, in his wonderful book, The Book of Tree Identification: A New Method for Practical Tree Identification and Recognition, there are more than 1,000 species and subspecies of hawthorn berries in North America alone—that’s not including all the species in Europe, Asia, Africa and the rest of the world.
Hawthorn Berry: Your Heart’s Best Friend
Family, hawthorn is related to both roses and apples, along with a variety of other edibles, including cherries, peaches, meadowsweet, and rowan. Hawthorn is rich in natural compounds, nutrients, minerals and micronutrients that make it an incredibly valuable medicinal herb. It is the oldest known medicinal herb, appearing in records from around the world as early as the first century, and even gaining popularity among mainstream physicians today.
Its primary use is for heart disease, but it is also used for digestive ailments, as an immune booster, anti-inflammatory and general tonic, as well as for some mental health conditions and skin problems. You can learn more about the health benefits of hawthorn here. Slimes (another name for berries) have a mild apple flavor and make super delicious jams, jellies, pie fillings and ketchup substitutes. Hawthorn also has a huge amount of folklore associated with it, including the belief that it is a fairy tree.
First, don’t just obsess over harvesting native species. Most hawthorns, even if not truly native, have been naturalized for hundreds if not thousands of years. For me, if I’m sure it’s a hawthorn, it’s growing vigorously and producing large amounts of healthy leaves, flowers and berries, I look for food from it.
Hawthorn leaves are small, deeply lobed and about as wide as they are long. Leaves usually appear before the first bloom. Hawthorn blooms in early to mid-spring and is known as Mayflower. In bloom, the tree (or shrub) displays a myriad of small white (or pale pink) flowers. Hawthorn flowers appear in round-tipped clusters towards the ends of the branches. Each flower has five calyx lobes, one carpel and twenty stamens.
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The fruits ripen in late summer to late fall and vary in color, shape, and size, from orange-yellow to deep red. Shapes vary from round to oblong or pear-shaped. The flesh of the fruit is dry and floury – like the inside of a barberry. Hawthorns are commonly used as hedge shrubs, but they also grow as trees, up to 12 meters tall, although it is more common to see them between three and six meters.
Outside of hedgerows, you’ll find them in woods and as solitary trees in the middle of fields and meadows. In some locations, they are commonly used as parks and roadside trees.
Due to the high risk of contaminants and chemical absorption, I avoid foraging from any trees that are close to roads.
A word of caution: As the name implies, hawthorns, also known as whitethorns or livethorns, have sharp spines along their branches, which makes them so valuable as hedge plants because they create a dense, thorny wall that is not easily penetrated. .
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The length and sharpness of the thorns varies among species, but can reach more than three inches. They are thin, strong and extremely sharp, so they can cause significant, painful injuries if you are not careful when harvesting.
Now you’re sure the tree you’re looking at is a hawthorn, it’s time to harvest. If you are using the leaves, harvest them from mid-spring to early fall – this is when they are at their healthiest and contain the most nutrients. Later, when the leaves start to turn, they lose their power.
The flowers are collected in clusters in mid to late spring when they are fully developed. For an extra early harvest, you can also pick the buds before they open.
The berries, or chasers, ripen from early to late fall, depending on your location and the type of tree. Once fully ripe, remove the hawthorn berries from the branches, carefully avoiding the sharp spines.
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Remember, when looking for hawthorn berries or anything else, never take more than half of what’s available. You are just one small part of a larger ecosystem – and you share nature’s bounty with other creatures, from insects to birds and small mammals – it’s a delicate balance, so don’t be greedy.
Plus, of course, only taking a maximum of half is the best foraging practice, as it ensures that the plants will continue to thrive and spread for generations.