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Quoddy Nature Notes

The Quoddy Tides of Eastport, Maine

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It's a good time of year to look for fruiting plants and marvel at what Mother Nature has and had in store for us. From my perspective, the blackberry and raspberry crops were only fair. The wild strawberry crop was OK, and the serviceberry — shadbush, wild pear — crop was pretty good. I even had a nice piece of pie made with these berries at a supper in Charlotte. The wild cherries had a super year, and I bet lots of jelly jars were filled and wine experiments tried. This was true only for the choke cherries, as the better-tasting pin cherries had good blossoms but little fruit. My favorite patches of blueberries, the ones that I had a chance to visit, seemed to be about average, and highbush cranberries are producing well. The mountain ash berry production seems to be fair, but the supply of apples along the road is amazing.

However, the reds of the best of these apples, even against the not-turned leaves, don't compare with the deep reds of the apple's cousin, the hawthorn. The hawthorn, a dinky, nondescript tree known only for its big thorns the rest of the year, is determined to out-red everything and is succeeding.

The hawthorn, Kikcokalokiqemus in my Passamaquoddy reference book, is a member of the rose family. Now, the rose seems to have always been associated with romance and the hawthorn is carrying on that tradition, as there are reportedly over 100 species of hawthorn of the genus Crataegus worldwide. Here in Maine we have about 22 recognized species and counting.

There are many uses for hawthorn, but start off by being cautious. First of all, hawthorn is sometimes referred to as "thorn-apple," for example, see Forest Trees of Maine, page 147. Be careful and never confuse hawthorn with any other thorn-apple, like "jimson weed," Datura stramonium. All parts of the jimson weed are poisonous.

Even if you learn the differences, there is another caveat, as people taking digox-in or any related drug should avoid any extracts of hawthorn. Hawthorn and some of the chemicals found in the fruit have been studied for years for treating heart ailments up to and including chronic heart failure. Some drugs have been approved, and others are still being tested.

The hawthorn fruit is like a small apple less than an inch in diameter. It has three to five big seeds, so the amount of edible stuff is pretty small. It is useful as a trail-side nibble, and that is the preferred way to test.

The Peterson field guide suggests to find a tree that the fruit tastes okay from, gather a bunch, boil in a little water, filter out the solids, sweeten as desired then seal in jelly jars. The halfway step makes a tolerable tea. The intermediate step is usually as far as I get, as my attention span is getting pretty limited, especially if I've been stabbed by a few thorns during harvesting.

Hawthorn has been used successfully as the rootstock for some types of pears, medlar and some types of apples. Since there are so many species of hawthorn and combinations possible, this use of hawthorn is very specialized.

The wood of the hawthorn is very dense and hard. Hawthorn apparently is not the "brier" of pipe fame, but it has been used for handles and other items requiring good strength and stability. It is used by some wood carvers for small, delicate carvings, and in a pinch the thorns can be used as a toothpick for picking the seeds out from between your teeth after you have sampled some of the fruit.

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Original Publication Date: October 9, 2015

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