A large number of Thornapple trees (Crataegus sp.) are native to or have naturalized in Texas. Even so, these members of the rose family are not generally well-known or appreciated. For instance they are skipped in Matt Warnock Turner’s excellent book Remarkable Plants of Texas. One reason might be that mayhaws (as they are also known) tend to be wickedly thorny and exhibit inelegant crooked branches. Although they bear gorgeous white blooms in spring that look like strawberry flowers, these blossoms stink in a way that only flies (the attracted pollinator) would like.
In his Field Guide to Texas Trees, Benny Simpson attempted a chart that he hoped would clarify both the series and the species of hawthorns in our state. There could have been nothing simple about that undertaking. “Hawthorns are a complex and confusing group” primarily “because they crossbreed so readily,” Howard Garrett explains in Texas Trees. Even when they self-fertilize subtle mutations can emerge. So in Benny Simpson’s time as well as today, there has been little agreement about the accuracy of efforts at hawthorn identification. Unfortunately there is a lingering dispute over whether these plants do actually crossbreed.
In Hawthorn: The Tree That Has Nourished, Healed and Inspired Through the Ages, author Bill Vaughn considers some of this botanic complexity. Vaughn also appears to be interested in recovering our lost memory of the role of thornapples in our cultural history. The plant was cultivated to serve as fence-like hedgerows to keep large animals in or out of fields. That may sound easy to do: this shrub-like tree is comprised of tangled living and dead branches that are gnarled and twisted. Yet both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson failed at this kind of cultivation. As Vaughn nicely details, there is an art to hedging with mayhaws, including the horticultural practice of plashing.
Birds rely on the plant for protection and food while voles, deer and bears are also reported to nibble its fruits. Native Americans made medicinal use of various hawthorn leaves, flowers and berries (haws). Some preferred this little tough tree for bows and sewing awls. In China, hawthorns provided medicine, tea and have a use in the art of bonsai, while centuries ago in Europe the dense wood of this plant was converted into charcoal that burned distinctively hot when used at smelting sites. The cooked pomes of Crataegus mexicana still play “an emblematic role in the holiday experience of many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans,” Vaughn observes.
Capable of absorbing volatile organic compounds, mayhaws are good air cleaners. Conservation efforts in Europe emphasize hawthorn species and growing practices resistant to fire blight, which is a pathogenic bacterial infection easily spread among plants in the rose family.)
Thornapple also has a long heritage of serving symbolic functions, particularly celebrations of fertility. In a critique of Mao Zedong’s revolution, this tough tree symbolized the enduring legacy of better lives and hopes in Chinese culture. In Ireland, where hawthorns serve as “devotional trees,” its flowers are believed to bring bad luck if brought indoors. Roads in Ireland are likewise superstitiously built around these trees.