Description & Overview

Downy Hawthorn is unmistakable in the Wisconsin landscape and especially breathtaking on snowy winter days where its distinct, sprawling form is on full display. This tree has a variable shape and can be found as a single or multi-stem. The trunk is gray-brown, with a chunky/platy texture. Relatively few thorns (1-2″ in length) develop on the branches.

You may also know this plant as Scarlet/Red Hawthorn.

Core Characteristics

Category: Tree

Wisconsin Native: Yes

USDA Hardiness Zone: to zone 3

Mature Height: 15-25 feet

Mature Spread: 25-35 feet

Growth Rate: Moderate

Growth Form: Usually single-stem but also grows as multi-stem

Light Requirements: Full Sun

Site Requirements: Average to moist conditions, average soil

Flower: 1", 5-petaled, white flowers are produced in corymbs. Musky, unpleasant fragrance.

Bloom Period: May, June for two weeks

Foliage: Oval with 3-5 shallow lobes, margins are serrated. Medium-green and rough texture because of sparse, stiff hairs. The underside is paler and pubescent, including along the veins. Petioles are also pubescent

Fall Color: NA

Urban Approved: No

Fruit Notes: A pome – “apple-like fruit." Young fruit is pubescent, light green, maturing to yellowish red, and hairless. Inner flesh is pale yellow and a tad juicy. Flavor is “apple-like, sweet-tart flavor." Each fruit contains 4-5 seeds. 1/2-1" in size.

Suggested Uses

Downy Hawthorn is relatively common along the eastern portion of Wisconsin, along the southern border with some scattered along the southwestern border. This is a quintessential, picturesque staple of SE Wisconsin prairies. Their horizontal spread and textured bark are uniquely theirs, and along with winter snow, they have a mood all their own. This species has extreme variability in regard to its tolerance to soils as well as the size and shapes of its leaves.

Restoration: There is a saying, “No woody in a prairie.” But a case can be made to Downy Hawthorn in a prairie restoration project. The top reason to provide diversity, the more species are in an area, the more functional that area becomes as a whole. More plant types provide a wider variety of resources that in turn, sustain a wider array of wildlife species. Aside from the benefits the tree parts provide, Downy Hawthorn also provides shade to the creatures passing through. Everyone has had that moment, say in the dead of summer, where they have had to search for shade and were more than grateful for that shrub, boulder, or tree, just for a small amount of respite. This is the value of some woody in a prairie. Also, from afar, it would look fabulous as a lone tree on a bed of grass backlit by blue sky.

Border: As a border plant – it is nature’s barbed wire! Just avoid planting in an area where you would need access.

Wildlife Value

Downy Hawthorn blooms for about two weeks in late spring. The smell of the flowers is unpleasant, attracting midges, which are its main pollinator.

Many forms of wildlife benefit from Downy Hawthorn. Songbirds and game birds such as American Robins, Loggerhead Shrikes, Wild turkeys, Cedar waxwings, Northern Flickers, and more will eat the fruits. Black bears, foxes, coyotes, skunks, squirrels, and raccoons will also feast on the fruits.

The state endangered Loggerhead Shrike, also known as a butcher bird, will impale its prey on thorns as a way to kill it, and ‘hold’ its food.

The thorns also offer excellent protection from predators, providing nesting habitat for birds such as the Yellow-breasted Chat and Brown Thrasher.

White-tailed Deer and Cottontail rabbits may browse twigs and branches, though it is not their first choice.

Downy Hawthorn is a host plant for the caterpillars of Red-spotted Purples, Hawthorn Underwings, Woody Underwings, and the despised Gypsy moth. The Question Mark butterfly, found throughout Wisconsin, but somewhat uncommon, will visit flowers to gather nectar.

A variety of short- and long-tongued bees, flies, beetles, and wasps will visit for both nectar and pollen.

Maintenance Tips

Thorns can make pruning difficult. Fortunately, the only pruning necessary is to cut any dead branches in late winter/early spring.

If the tree is sited in an area that needs to be mowed, then creating a mulch ring directly underneath will prevent one from being forced to mow the lawn under a tree with low hanging branches with two-inch thorns.

Pests/Problems

Black Walnut Tolerant: Yes
Deer Resistant: Unknown
Rabbit Resistant: Unknown

This is an example of a tree that can cause problems if planted in the wrong location. With its thorns, it should not be sited in a location where access is required. Flowers bloom for a short time but emit an undesirable odor that you or others may not want to experience in a high-traffic area.

As a member of the rose family (Rosaceae), Downy Hawthorn is highly susceptible to several foliar diseases, including Cedar-Apple Rust, scab, and fire blight. These diseases stress the tree, causing early leaf drop, which usually occurs by the end of the summer.

Juniper trees are hosts of Cedar-Apple Rust. If Downy Hawthorn is planted near an infected juniper tree then they will infect each other, forever. Avoid this scenario.

Leaf Lore

The genus ‘Crataegus‘ is derived from the Greek word ‘kratos’ commonly translated as ‘strength’. Other synonyms to better describe it are ‘power’, ‘dominion’, and ‘authority’. And ‘-akis’ means sharp, tip. The specific epithet ‘mollis‘, translates to ‘soft; with soft hairs,’ is in reference to Downy Hawthorn’s pubescent petioles.

The “Haw” in the common name is old English for ‘hedge’, as it was used as a barrier to keep peasants from entering private land.

Hawthorn extracts are used to treat hypertension.

Wisconsin is home to about 40 species of Crataegus!

Companion Plants

Downy Hawthorn would be well accompanied by other prairie plants that enjoy moist soil such as Meadowsweet (Spiraea alba), Saint John’s Wort (Hypericum kalmianum), Grey Dogwood (Cornus racemosa), Glossy Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa var. elata), Spotted Joe-Pye Weed (Eutrochium maculatum), Purple Meadow Rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum), and Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis).

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Written by Beth DeLain