There are many species of Hawthorns and confusing species, as Eloise Butler describes at the bottom of the page. Martha Crone wrote in the April 1961 issue of The Fringed Gentian™ "The trees in May offer many lovely sights, but none finer than when in bloom, especially the wild cherries, plum and hawthorns." Read Eloise Butler's notes below.
Cockspur Hawthorn will grow into a small tree up to 30 feet in height. Tree or shrub, they have a top that develops a somewhat flatted form with age; spreading branches that have very many long sharp stout thorns, some to 3 inches long, straight to slightly curved. Branches usually remain on the lower part of the tree. Bark is a scaly dark brown. Twigs are mostly hairless, green when new, then light brown, then turning to gray into by the end of the second year. Buds are terminal and lateral and have reddish overlapping scales.
The leaves are variable in shape, size, and margin characteristics. Size is from 3/4 to 4 inches long and 1/4 to 1-1/2 inches wide, elliptical to ovate (broadest above the middle), stalked or with no stalks, finely serrate to finely crenate on the margins. The mature upper surface is a shiny dark green and usually free of hair.
Varieties: There are two recognized in North America and it all has to do with leaves. Var. crus-galli has wide leaf leaf blades - length 1.5 to 2.5 times the width; var. pyracanthifolia has narrow blades - length greater than 2.75 to width.
The inflorescence is a loose cluster of 8 to 20 stalked flowers appearing with the new leaves and rising from the leaf axil. Flower clusters and leaves appear along the twigs and branch.
The flowers are 1/2 to 2/3rds inches wide, 5-parted, white petals, 10 or 20 stamens with ivory to pink anthers that turn dark reddish-brown at pollen maturity. There are 1 or 2 styles (occasionally 3). Around the base of the stamens are a cluster of yellowish nectar glands. The calyx has 5 narrow sharply pointed lobes, which persist onto the fruit. Flowers are beautiful but have an unpleasant odor. (See note at page bottom).
The fruit of this species matures to a fleshy red berry (a pome), 8 to 15 mm in diameter (to 3/8"). At maturity, the calyx lobes of the flower are reflexed from the mature fruit. The pulp holds 2 or 3 stones (called pyrenes - a seed surrounded by a hardened outer coating). Fruits of Hawthorns are sometimes called 'haws'. Seed germination requires scarification of the seed, then a warm moist period, followed by a cold moist period, followed by another warm moist period. Each period needs to be at least 90 days. Planted in the ground, they will germinate in the second year.
Habitat: Cockspur Hawthorn will grow in a wide range of soils that are not high in acidity. Full sun is best for shapely growth but the plant will grow and flower in the understory if it gets partial sunlight during the season and more sunlight in the spring before the over-story gets dense. The root system goes deep with a taproot so transplanting should not be attempted. Besides seed germination, the plant can be propagated by grafting a cutting onto a suitable rootstock.
Names: The genus Crataegus is from the Greek name for the tree, derived from kratos, meaning 'strength' and alluding to the strength or hardness of the wood. The species name, crus-galli, means 'leg of a cock' and refers to the thorn resembling a 'cock's spur'. The author name for the plant classification - 'L.' refers to Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and the developer of the binomial nomenclature of modern taxonomy.
Comparisons: As Eloise Butler explains below, Hawthorns are very confusing. There are a number of very similar trees and one must look at the type of thorns, the size of the pome, number of flowers and the leaf. The MN DNR lists 12 species that are native to Minnesota with 7 of those found in Hennepin County. Fortunately botanists have consolidated many species, previously described as separate species or varieties. However the list in North America is still huge. There are 39 previously listed species or subspecies alone that have been consolidated into C. crus-galli.
Above: The bare form of Cockspur Hawthorn creates and imposing thicket of branches and thorns. When grown in a thicket, it is impenetrable. Drawing from Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York.
Below: 1st photo - The lovely flowers have 10 or 20 stamens, in this case 10, with pink anthers, two styles in the center. 2nd photo - the 5 green sepals are narrow and sharply pointed, shorter than the petals.
Below: Leaves and flowers open about the same time. The flowers in clusters (corymbs) spaced along the branch.
Below: 1st photo - 2nd year twigs are light brown; buds are both terminal and lateral and have overlaping reddish scales. New twigs are green; older ones gray. 2nd photo - Leaves open with the flowers. These are obovate, widest above the middle and much longer than wide, characteristic of var. pyracanthifolia.
Below: 1st photo - Thorn are numerous, stout, long and slightly recurved. 2nd photo - fruit is a brick red pome about 3/8 inch in diameter.
Notes: Cockspur Hawthorn is not native to Minnesota but is planted as an ornamental. In North America is is reported to be found in all the eastern half of Canada and of the U.S., but per the U of M Herbarium the record for its presence in the wild in Minnesota is erroneous. In its native area, Cockspur is very abundant. There are 12 species of Hawthorn that are native to Minnesota, including Fireberry Hawthorn.
Some of those 12 native species of Hawthorns are indigenous to the Garden area. Eloise Butler simply catalogued 'hawthorns' in her Garden Log as early as April 29, 1907. Cockspur Hawthorn is not indigenous nor native but was planted in the Spring of 1912 when Butler brought in one from Horsford's Nursery of Charlotte Vermont. Susan Wilkins re-introduced the plant in 2019.
Eloise Butler wrote: "Many are the allusions to the hawthorns of England in poetry and prose. Indeed, the very name, England, calls up to the observer of plants a mental picture of hawthorn thickets and hedges. It is pertinent to ask why writers neglect to extol the American species. For our hawthorn trees or shrubs are of extreme beauty, when covered with their snowy fleece of bloom, or when glowing with the sweet tasting, stony bright red “thorn apples.” The leaves of the hawthorn may have margins varying from toothed to lobed or divided. The thorns may be long and stout, or few and feeble; thus belying the name.
Of all the botanical mazes, that of the hawthorn is the most intricate. In Gray’s seventh edition, no less than sixty-five species of the genus are described, as well as many varieties. Some botanists go so far as to affirm that every individual is a different species. When the ordinary student wearies of cudgeling his brain over minute differences of stamen, nutlet or whatnot, he ignominiously names the species “Crataegus sp.?” or passes on the puzzle to the greatest authority, Professor Sargent, the director of the renowned Arnold Arboretum of Boston. Those desirous of extending their acquaintance of hawthorns may see grouped together in this arboretum the largest collection of both native and foreign species known to the world." Published June 4, 1911, Sunday Minneapolis Tribune (read entire article).
Superstition: There is an old English superstition that bringing Hawthorn blossoms into the house would be followed by illness and death. It was asserted in Medieval times that the smell of the blossoms was similar to the smell from the Great Plaque. It would be years later before botanists would discover that the hawthorn blossom contains the chemical trimethylamine (N(CH3)3, which turns out to be one of the chemicals formed in the decay of animal tissue.
Pests and diseases: Cockspur, like many Hawthorns, is subject to Cedar-hawthorn Rust and fireblight. Cedar-hawthorn rust causes discoloring and yellow to nearly black spots on the leaves, fruit, or new twigs. These spots contain black pimple-like fruiting bodies that produce spores. It is caused by Gymnosporangium globosum The cedar-apple rust can also affect apples and crabapples.
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Identification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"