When it comes planting a spring flowering tree, most Colorado gardeners immediately think of crabapples. Wildly popular all along the Front Range, crabs deserve their stellar reputation. However, they aren’t the only flowering tree that thrive in our harsh environment. There might even be a better choice! Consider their close relative, the Hawthorn.
Hawthorns smaller trees with horizontal branches that lend a sense of tranquility to the landscape. Like crabs, they too celebrate spring with a spectacular bloom. Flowers in white, pink or red cloak the branches—one simply has to stop and appreciate them. The trees leaf out as the buds swell, creating a green contrast to their floral display.
The flowers are followed by a multitude of small-but-showy red fruit, providing a feast for birds and other wildlife. Those that aren’t eaten hang on the tree until almost spring, offering color during the drab winter months.
Hawthorns have other assets as well. Their branches tend to be contorted, growing first in one direction and then taking a sharp turn in another. This sculptural form is best seen while the trees are leafless. And as their name suggests, most hawthorn species are defended by sturdy thorns up to five inches in length. Birds will appreciate the extra protection, but if thorns bother you, choose a thornless type.
But wait, there’s more! As if stunning flowers, colorful fruit, and interesting branching aren’t enough, some hawthorns have leaves that turn orange in the fall.
Hardy from USDA Zone 3 through 9, hawthorns should be planted in spring, giving them time to get established before the next winter. Choose a site in full sun, preferably in a prominent spot to showcase their flowers and form. They tolerate any soil type, so long as it is well-drained. The trees are quite xeric. Water regularly the first year, then irrigate only during prolonged dry spells. Feed lightly once a year, but don’t pamper the tree too much. Excess food and water will produce overly succulent growth that’s susceptible to all sorts of problems.
Because they prefer somewhat dry soil, hawthorns do best in a xeric border, rather than surrounded by turf. An optimal spot might be a hillside, with enough space so that their branches spread over the ground like a mother hen sheltering her chicks. Tall evergreens could provide a dark backdrop for the brilliant flowers. A shrubby groundcover will hide fallen leaves and fruit, eliminating clean-up chores.
Being another member of the rose family, hawthorns are susceptible to many of the same diseases as crabapples (and roses). Fireblight, leaf blights, leaf spots, apple scab, and various forms of rust (right) are all potential issues. Happily, disease resistant cultivars are available—‘Winter King’ and ‘Washington’ are two examples. An assortment of insects also feed on hawthorns. Well-grown trees won’t be bothered much, but keep an eye on them just in case they require spraying. Horticultural oil, applied in early spring while the trees are still dormant, will suffocate overwintering pests.
Hawthorns have so much going for them that it’s surprising that they aren’t more widely planted. Perhaps they just need a bit of publicity—a “Plant a Hawthorn” day to raise awareness!