Hawthorn berries: identify, harvest, and make an extract

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Washington hawthorn berry cluster

Washington hawthorn berry cluster, in early November

Hawthorn berry harvesting is a new one for me this year. They are sweet and mild if you get them at just the right time, and in past years I was tasting them too early in fall. This year, Washington hawthorn was sweet and mild in late October. But by that time, single-seeded hawthorn was beginning to rot, so next year I’ll look for those in mid-October.

I owe some credit to Josh Fecteau’s recent hawthorn post, which inspired me to try hawthorn berries again. As Josh points out, there are many hawthorn species, perhaps 50 in New England. And, in all of North America, possibly a thousand species, according to George Symonds (from his wonderful book Tree Identification Book : A New Method for the Practical Identification and Recognition of Trees, my favorite guide for learning tree ID). Fortunately, you don’t need to be able to identify particular species. You just need to know it’s a hawthorn, because all hawthorns have edible berries.  HOWEVER, like apple seeds, hawthorn seeds contain cyanide, and should not be eaten. Don’t panic; just spit out the seeds.

Why bother with hawthorns? They are beautiful, interesting, and tasty wild edibles with known health benefits. Some people use the berries to make hawthorn jelly, but I have yet to try this. Berries, leaves and flowers can be used to make a tea. Scroll down to the bottom of the page to see how I am making hawthorn berry extract.

I’m going to describe two species here, to exemplify the general characteristics. That should help you recognize a hawthorn when you see one, but if you are uncertain that you have a hawthorn when foraging, please check with additional sources until you ARE certain, before eating the berries.

Washington Hawthorn, Crataegus phaenopyrum

Washington hawthorn (Crataegus phaenopyrum): berries, leaves, and thorns

Washington hawthorn (Crataegus phaenopyrum): berries, leaves, thorns in early November. Coin for scale.

Thorns of Washington hawthorn

Formidable thorns of Washington hawthorn

This grows as a small tree or large shrub, and bears clusters of white flowers in late spring. The berries turn red in September (here), but sweeten later. By October 31st, they were sweet, and maybe slightly past peak. Each berry has 3-5 seeds.

The leaves are lobed and toothed, as you can see in my photo above. Many other hawthorn species have similar leaves. The tree is heavily armed with long thorns, up to about 3 inches in length. However, with reasonable caution, you can easily harvest the berries, which tend to hang away from branch. It’s even easier later in the season after many of the leaves have fallen and no longer obscure the thorns.

Single-seeded hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna

Single-seeded hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) berries, leaves, and thorns

Single-seeded hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) berries, leaves, and thorns

Also called common hawthorn, this is a European native which has escaped cultivation and naturalized in North America. It is sometimes branded as an invasive plant, but I don’t find it very often, and when I do see it, there isn’t a lot of it in one area. Perhaps it is invasive in other parts of the country, but it does not seem to be particularly aggressive here. Like Washington hawthorn, single-seeded hawthorn grows as a shrub or small tree, and bears clusters of white blooms in late spring. The oval red berries ripen a little earlier (than Washington hawthorn) in fall and contain a single seed (hence the name). The toothed leaves are more deeply lobed than those of Washington hawthorn, but the thorns are much smaller, only about 1/2 inch to an inch in length.

Compare leaves, berries, and seeds of Washington hawthorn (left) and single-seeded hawthorn (right)

Compare leaves, berries, and seeds of Washington hawthorn (left) and single-seeded hawthorn (right)

Summary of hawthorn characteristics

Washington hawthorn loaded with berries

Washington hawthorn loaded with berries

  • Grows as small tree or shrub
  • Smallish, toothed leaves which are lobed to varying degrees
  • Thorns which vary in size, depending on species
  • Clusters of flowers  (usually white, but some species have pink or red) in spring
  • Clusters of edible red berries in fall
  • Berries contain one or more seeds which should not be consumed due to cyanide content
  • Fruits most prolifically in sunny spots

Where to find hawthorn berries

Hawthorns are common in the forest understory here in Massachusetts, but those are scrawny specimens which do not fruit well. It’s too shady in the forest. To find fruit laden hawthorns, look in sunny spots, such as shrubby fields and thickets, at pasture edges, and along streams. They are often planted as ornamentals, so if your friend has one and doesn’t mind you picking some berries, you have an easy foraging experience at your fingertips.

Make hawthorn berry extract

This is my first experience using hawthorn berries, and I am using them to make an extract, with the same process you would use to make vanilla extract. I hope to use hawthorn extract as a flavoring in cooking and baking. I filled a clean canning jar about 3/4 full with berries, covered them with 80 proof vodka, and capped the jar. I am not sure how long it will take to extract enough flavor from the berries, so I will be checking it daily. I know that other extracts, (such as vanilla extract) take weeks, so that’s what I’m expecting here.

Hawthorn berry extract in progress: After just 24 hours in 80 proof vodka, berries faded to yellow.

Extract in progress: Hawthorn berries in vodka. After just 24 hours, berries faded to yellow.

Sources consulted for species identification:
These are the authoritative sources for plant identification in the US.

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Hawthorn berries: identify, harvest, and make an extract — 13 Comments

  1. I wonder if we have them around here ( Western PA ) This was very interesting! :) I ‘ll have to Google and see if we do but if we do they must be uncommon / while I have heard of them, I have not really heard of anyone doing anything with them locally…but learn something new every day ! :)
    Thanks for your comment on my Hawk post..I’d not have known if it was an adult or juvenile without your comment : ) They fly around ( I see them coasting in the skies and hear them often ) but it’s the first close-up visit that I have had.

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Deb! – the first comment on any post is always exciting – like opening a Christmas present, LOL!

    Bet you do have hawthorns out there. They’re very common, and once you learn to recognize them, you’ll be amazed how often you see them.

  3. Hello, I found you on the Natural Living Link-up. I LOVE hawthorn! I have been sneaking hawthorn into my dad’s teas and foods (with my mom’s help) for a few years now because he has heart issues. Thanks for the information and the beautiful pictures! I loved how you used a quarter to show the size of the berries! That was genius. :)

  4. Thank you so much. We have hawthorns here and I love using wild plants for jellies and extracts. This was extremely informative. I can’t wait to try these ideas next year.

  5. I have tentatively identified a tree on our property as hawthorn, although I want to confirm before I consume any of the berries. It’s BEAUTIFUL this time of year with so many red berries on this one tree it almost looks like a red tree from a distance! Thank you so much for sharing this post (visiting from FarmGirl Friday hop)

    ~Taylor-Made Ranch~
    Wolfe City, Texas

  6. Learned from a naturopath treating my wheezy 4yr old that hawthorne extract taken as a tincture in 1/4 tsp doses every 10-15 minutes until symptoms subside will open the airway. It can ward off asthma attacks if taken at first signs. Also, my 9 year old has been suffering from a terrible bronchial cough after flu for the past several days that has made sleep difficult. Remembering hawthorne and wheezing success, I decided to try it. 2 doses later, she is sleeping soundly and not coughing. There are no side effects, except that is is a mild sedative (along the lines of chamomile) which is a plus for us. Online, there is no information on its benefits for breathing support, but I am convinced. Thanks to Dr. Pais, Whom I have learned this from years ago….We will attempt making our own extract this summer as bushes flower and fruit. Until then, I have some liquid available from Emerson Ecologicals. Only place I found it in liquid form.

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