Garden Story #1: The Saga of the Black Hawthorn

“What is a weed?  A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.”
~Ralph Waldo Emerson, Fortune of the Republic, 1878

I’m the sort of gardener that, when faced with a decision on whether to let a plant I don’t recognize continue on its path, or just pull (or dig, as the case may be) it out, I just leave it until I can discover its virtues.

I figure I can always pull it out later if I find we are not a good fit (like the forget-me-not’s a few years ago). I’m still paying for that one! I’ve learned to pick my battles. So, don’t assume that just because you don’t recognize a plant growing in your yard, it doesn’t mean its it has no virtue’s and should be disposed of immediately. Remember, you can always take it out later. Read on…

About 4 years ago as I was in my usual gardening position (read: on my hands and knees pulling out weeds) when I came across a spindly little woody-like plant growing at the upper lot of our backyard. No leaves or any hint to its identity. It was about 10 inches high. I found it interesting – just a stick growing straight and tall (about 10 inches). I scratched the woody stem with my thumbnail to see if it was alive or dead. The scratch showed green under the bark telling me it was indeed viable. I just let it continue knowing I just needed to let it do what it needs to do.

As time went by, I pretty much forgot about it, until last Spring. It suddenly seemed to be about 6 ft. tall. It had grown enough for me to see that it was, in fact, a tree and that it had thorns. Hmmmm…some sort of Hawthorn, I thought. I just didn’t know what kind of Hawthorn (there are many species in the Crataegus family). In fact, the thorns were turning into branches. I did some research on it and it turned out to be the Crataegus douglasii lindl. A Native from Alaska to California and in Eastern US. So glad I didn’t yank it out when it was just a stick. Ya never know!

I continued to monitor it as Spring rolled into summer. After all of its leaves were out, I was checking on it only to find that the leaves were laden with aphids! Arrgggg!! I dug up one of the Alyssum’s we’d planted around the roses to protect them. I say protect because Alyssum is one of those plants that attracts beneficial insects (more beneficial insects in an upcoming blog and what plants attracts them to your yard). In this case, a small wasp that feeds on aphids are attracted to the summer annual Alyssum. After a week or so, I went up the hill to water the Alyssum and noticed a few Ladybugs on the leaves happily munching on the aphids. YAY! I thought. Well, I am just going to let nature take its course on this one. I found out that the tree itself attracts beneficial insect’s like ladybugs (the flowers attract other pollinators). The ladybugs lay their eggs on the underside of the leaves. When the aphids show up, the hatching eggs have something to eat after the hard work of coming to life.

If you want more information on good bugs and bad bugs, check out a book titled “Good Bug, Bad Bug” by Jessica Walliser. There are other books and websites helping inquiring minds learn more about beneficial insects. Check out the Resources page on my website.

A week or so later when I went the check on it, I found not only that all the ladybugs were gone, but had been replaced by a bug that looked pre-historic (see picture). They were all over it! At first, I thought, “okay, the tree comes out tomorrow.” Then I realized the pre-historic insects were in fact, the larvae of the Ladybug! Yay! Momma bug laid her babies all over the tree! I knew I wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore. It was fun over the next couple weeks watching the larvae morph into Ladybugs. So many different forms in the process, it was a thing of natural beauty in its process. Happy was I!

This past spring the Hawthorn bloomed beautiful white flowers for most of March. Every branch was covered with the beautiful white flower. I am excited to know that it will be bearing fruit this year, and excited to see what critters are attracted to the red fruit.

If you want to know more about this awesome tree/shrub and its cultural aesthetics, check it out here. Its fall color appears to be lit by an inner candle. But its greatest importance to the yard is that it attracts beneficial insects like Ladybugs, pollinators and offers shelter for birds from predators.

“The black hawthorn is an important species for wildlife, providing protected nesting and edible fruits for birds and other small wildlife. It also attracts pollinators. It was a useful species to indigenous people, who used the thorns for fishing, lancing blisters, and piercing ears. The fruit was used in the treatment of some cardiovascular conditions.”