If I knew where to find wild blueberries I don’t think I’d tell you. Choice wild mushrooms like morels or chanterelles? Definitely not. But haws? Haws are every where, my friends.
They grow abundantly in Asia, Europe, and here in North America. Sometimes planted as a windbreak for fields or as an ornamental for their showy flowers in the spring and bright red fruit in the fall. The fruit of the hawthorn, called haws, can have a strong flavour and they’re not very suited for eating out of hand but with their abundant natural pectin make an excellent jelly.
Now I know no one really reads disclaimers. I know this because I don’t read disclaimers. So, I’m throwing this one in the middle of the post here in hopes that you’ll actually be jarred into reading it. Don’t go around eating red berries off random bushes. Best-ish case scenario: You’ll spend a lot of time on the porcelain throne. You fill in the blank for the worst case. Get yourself a proper field guide to edible plants and take it with you.
From a distance a hawthorn bearing ripe haws distinguishes itself by its red haze. They’re shrubbier and shorter than wild apple trees.
Up close they can be identified by the tiny apple-like fruit in varying shades of red. All hawthorn bushes have daunting one- to three-inch thorns that aren’t at all flexible. We’re talking Christ’s crown thorns–scholars debate but this may be the biblical case.
The leaves vary widely. English hawthorn leaves remind me of primitive English oak leaves with their rounded, deep lobes. Coincidentally the wild ones I found here in Canada (pictured in the photo directly above) bear a resemblance to maple leaves with their roughly palmate shape but have many more teeth and a dominant, central vein. I was lucky that the ones I found exactly matched the photos and description my A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants: Eastern and Central North America.
As well as varying from continent to continent the hawthorn bushes that I found fifteen paces from each other showed remarkable differences. This means that it’s important when foraging for haws to sample frequently. (But again, keep that field guide handy and re-identify each tree.)
The hawthorns that were absolutely loaded with bright crimson fruit actually had some of the blandest tasting haws. Many of them were either too soft and mealy or rock hard and almost flavourless.
I preferred the taste of the haws with a lighter red colour that resembles a scarlet tunic faded by years of service in the sub-continent’s hot sun. There is a strong lemony acidic flavour but also another green flavour that brings shelled peas to mind. For whatever reason the bushes with the tastiest haws seemed to be struggling with disease or further along towards loosing their leaves for the winter. As you can tell from the picture these leaves were spotted and not fully green.
I found these ripe to my taste haws in south-central Ontario over the past two weeks.
What’s a good amount of haws to take? Well, unlike wild blueberries it does take more than a couple small handfuls to satisfy a craving. To make a decent amount of hawthorn jelly (recipe coming later in the week) you’ll want a couple pounds which, roughly speaking, will fill two sandwich size resealable bags.