Hawthorn hedgerows

Hawthorn hedgerows

Hawthorn hedge © Chris Gomersall/2020VISION

The white flowers brightening hedgerows at the moment mainly belong to hawthorn. This spiky shrub is important for lots of wildlife, providing sheltered nesting habitat, berries later in the year and nectar late in spring. It is also firmly rooted in folklore and tradition, with ancient uses for the wood, flowers and branches.

Which thorn is hawthorn?

Hawthorn plants can easily be confused with blackthorn. The easiest way to tell them apart is by looking for leaves. If it has flowers and leaves, you are looking at hawthorn (also known as the May tree as it flowers in that month, later than blackthorn) and if it only has flowers or leaves it's blackthorn.

As the name suggests, the bark of blackthorn is darker and smooth compared to the textured, twisted brown of a hawthorn. Both have sharp thorns though, so careful with your investigations. In autumn telling the difference between the two plants becomes simpler again, with the shiny red berries of hawthorn a total contrast to the matte purple of blackthorn sloes.

To most of us, hawthorn flowers smell quite bitter, but there is a sweet note of almond too. The smell could be behind one of the old tales relating to hawthorn, as people never brought it into the home.


Hawthorn is a common sight in hedgerows along farmland and grassland, providing a home for many species. Small mammals, birds and reptiles all find a home within the safety of the thorns and it supports over 300 different insects. It is also one of the most important plants that make up scrub. This much-maligned habitat is hugely important for all sorts of wildlife. Iconic species, including the nightingale, yellowhammer and bullfinch, need scrub. The dense thickets provided by plants, including hawthorn, provide the ideal habitat for breeding birds and the edges allow wildflowers to flourish. Scrub does need management to make sure it retains its use for wildlife, cutting back occasionally late in the year to stop it from turning into woodland.

Hawthorn is a perfect addition to a wildlife garden, growing easily in most gardens and making a great natural barrier hedge.