As a Nation of gardeners eager to make our plots pretty and pristine as we strive to keep up with the Joneses, you would think we have the whole plant spectrum covered in our quest to grow the most wonderful and beneficial plants possible. There is something us Brits seem to forget though. Trees.
Few gardeners regularly propagate trees and yet in terms of biodiversity, wildlife, structure, beauty and frankly importance to our planet they are second to none. Maybe it is the fear of an overwhelmingly large tree rampaging over our little plots or maybe it is the patience required to see the tree through from seed to maturity. Whatever it is, it doesn’t have to be this way as ‘large’ and ‘slow’ do not have to feature in the garden tree vocabulary.
I have decided to grow a tree this autumn. My garden is small-medium in size and somewhat lacks height and tall structure save for two fig tree’s in the back lawn and a row of forsythia and dogwood hedging down the side of an external wall at the roadside. I’ve no space for a major Oak but I want something native and of almost equal value for wildlife – not much to ask! Hawthorn it is then.
I can imagine the bemused look on some of your faces as I type. Hawthorn? Isn’t that a bush? A hedge? A weed? True, it has been used widely as a hedging plant for hundreds of years and for good reason, its fairy fast growing (hence another name for Hawthorn – ‘Quickthorn’), its strong, hardy and of course has thorns that grow up to three inches long which help to keep live-stock in or out. Common Hawthorn however, can and does make a beautiful stand-alone tree. If you have ever been walking on higher ground like the Cornish hills or the Peak district you will have come across wickedly gnarled and windswept single Hawthorn trees perhaps not even knowing that’s what they were. These old, other-worldly trees add something very atmospheric to the surroundings especially in such desolate isolated spots.
Indeed these short, compact trees do not have to be used as hedging at all. Growing to a height of around 15 metres in total (after around 50 years!) they are easily pruned and shaped to stay much shorter than that. The ‘May Tree’, so named for its prolific, gently scented white blossom in the month of May have made their mark on folklore and Celtic tradition and are considered to have magical properties (they do have magical properties – Haws are now scientifically proven to provide considerable benefits to the Heart) and in Ireland they are still highly respected as a ‘faerie tree’. Of course various human benefits and another reason to grow Hawthorn arise mainly from the edible parts – new leaves with their nutty flavour can be added to salads and sandwiches, the flowers and fruits can be used to make a whole host of jellies, jams, wines and syrups.
The real Magic I find in Hawthorn are its vast benefits to the natural world. Hawthorns are known to support well over 150 different species of insects alone. In turn these insects provide vital food for a variety of birds such as Blue, Great and Long-Tailed tits, Wrens, Tree Sparrows and more. The spectacular blossoms in May are a vital source of pollen and nectar for Bees, Hoverflies and Butterflies whilst the caterpillars of several important Moth species feed on the leaves. The thorn laden thickets in Hawthorn hedges provide shelter and protection for small mammals such as Wood Mice and Voles and the declining common Toad also finds protection and food here. The tight network of branches and twigs are a favoured nesting site for many birds such as Dunnocks, Robins, Thrushes, Blackbirds and Yellow Hammers and of course in Autumn and Winter the red berries or ‘Haws’ are adored by Thrushes, Redwings, Fieldfares, Blackbirds, Greenfinches, Starlings and Waxwings to name just a few.
Hawthorns are notoriously difficult to propagate by cuttings, though it can be done and whilst a foolproof method of growing a Hawthorn is by collecting young saplings often found in abundance beneath an established hedge and simply digging up and growing on I’ve decided that I want a little bit of my edgeland in my garden and the simplest, most ethical and least damaging way of doing this is by collecting and sowing seed.
There are many, seemingly difficult (I’m sure they’re not) guides on sowing Hawthorn seed involving stratification, purification, periods of warmth, magification (I made that last one up) using cold-frames, sharp sand, plungers, pestles sticks and stones but I’m going to follow the simple, natural Monty Don (my hero) method. Here is how it’s done:
- Collect Haws between mid-October and December (if they have yet to be plundered by the birds) any earlier and the seed inside may not have matured enough to be viable.
- Squeeze and scrape away the flesh revealing the seed and wash away any excess. (you can leave the seed to soak in water over-night if you wish, this helps soften the outer membrane of the seed and theoretically helps germination)
- Test the seed’s viability. Simply place the seed in a container of water, if it sinks then it’s viable. If it floats it’s not so you can discard it or better leave on the bird table for a hungry blackbird.
- Fill a small plastic pot (9cm pots should be fine) with standard potting compost. If you want you can add grit or sharp sand for drainage.
- Put the seed on top and cover with another 1-2 centimetres of compost.
- Water and put in a cool, light and damp spot in the garden, not in a cold-frame or greenhouse! Hawthorns need a significant period of cold for the seeds to properly germinate. If sowing now, simply leave the pot in the garden over winter where it will be subject to frost and freezing temperatures.
- With luck, your seeds should germinate and begin to sprout in late February or March however sometimes seeds need longer and can take 18 months to germinate!
- Pot on as and when required or plant out in your desired location when large/strong enough.
- Hawthorns will grow happily in partial shade but will thrive in full Sun. They can withstand exposed sites with the best of them but will also appreciate a sheltered position. The perfect tree!
What are you waiting for? Go on. Give it a go. Nature will thank you for it. If you really don’t fancy growing a Hawthorn or you are put off by spikes and thorns why not try a native Rowan? They are similar in size and bear fruit birds adore but are a little more child/pet friendly perhaps and are very pleasing on the eye. It may take a bit of patience, but there can be no greater pleasure than sowing a seed and watching as it grows into a strong, healthy, mature tree. You never know, in thirty years time you might remember this blog post whilst gazing through the kitchen window at the very tree it inspired you to sow as that tiny, improbable little seed.