While walking through the Turtle Mountain aspen forest recently I noticed a hawthorn tree with heavy fruit set. I lingered around the tree to see if a ruffed grouse would flush nearby, but to no avail.  Most grouse hunters will often thoroughly check around these trees because the fruits are utilized by grouse, particularly once the winter snow arrives.

Hawthorns, sometimes known as thornapples or haw, are members of the Rose Family.  They are native to temperate zones of North America, Europe, Asia, and North Africa. The genus to which they belong (Crataegus spp.) is extremely variable thus has been a difficult group for plant taxonomists.  They hybridize profusely, may differ in the numbers of sets of chromosomes, and some can even produce fruits and seeds without fertilization, a phenomenon called apomixes.

Hawthorns are highly variable, densely branched, small spreading trees or shrubs with stout sharp thorns 1-2 inches long.  The leaves are alternate, entire or lobed with glandular tipped toothed margins, and the flowers are generally about a half-inch in diameter with five showy white petals.  The fruits of hawthorn often resemble a small apple about a half-inch in diameter.

There are probably three species native to North Dakota.  They are widely distributed across the state, although they are perhaps most commonly observed in the Turtle Mountains, Pembina Hills, and Killdeer Mountains.  I have also noticed them frequently on the Missouri Coteau.  For example, most of the woody thickets observed while driving highway 3 from south of Harvey to north of Steele are dominated by hawthorn.

The edibility of the fruits of hawthorn is quite variable, but all are edible if you use the term loosely.  Euell Gibbons in his Stalking the Healthful Herbs (1966) colorfully described the variability when he quoted an eleven-year-old girl that described hawthorn as “When they are good, they are not very good, and when they are bad, they are horrid.”

But if you sample several hawthorns and find one that tickles your taste buds, you might try making some jam or jelly from them.  I have even heard of a compote made of them along with highbush cranberry.  But perhaps we should just leave the fruits to the ruffed grouse and other birds that apparently find the fruits much more to their liking.

Chuck Lura

Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Dakota College at Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.


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