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Unknown Population of Rare, Endangered Tree Discovered

Posted by Michelle Banks Tice, USDA Public Affairs Specialist in Conservation
Jun 17, 2021
Harbison's hawthorn tree

Until now, only a single Harbison's hawthorn (Crataegus harbisonii) tree was thought to exist in the wild, growing in the limestone soils of Percy Warner Park in Nashville, Tennessee.

“It was the most robust hawthorn I’ve ever seen! The thorns alone demanded attention,” said ecologist Barry Hart with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. He made the discovery on a routine ecological site survey in Obion County, Tennessee.

Verifying the Discovery

After finding two hearty plants one mile apart on private lands, Hart began “keying-out” the plant. This “key” is a series of questions or statements capturing an organism's specific characteristics.

“There was no way it could be anything else. I was blown away!” said Hart.

Multiple runs through the key repeatedly landed on the same species that had not been seen in West Tennessee since 1948: Crataegus harbisonii. Snippets sent to universities and botanical authorities confirmed this was a newly discovered population.

The population discovered by Hart is now recorded as the largest known.

Conservation Efforts

Limited research exists on this tree species. Even today, the species mainly exists in cultivation. The tree is on the State of Tennessee’s endangered species list but does not have federal protections under the Endangered Species Act.

Hart is working with NRCS staff in Tennessee and several conservation groups to propagate and establish new populations on protected lands.

“All native species warrant our attention,” Hart said.

Harbison's hawthorn flowers

About the Harbison's Hawthorn

The Harbison’s hawthorn is a small tree or shrub that grows to 25 feet. It typically flowers in mid-April and produces clusters of reddish fruit in early fall. Their flowers look similar to the apple blossom.

Opinions vary on the number of hawthorn species, but a reasonable estimate for North America is between 100 to 200 species.

Michelle Banks Tice is a Public Affairs Specialist with the FPAC Business Center.

Harbison's hawthorn fruit
Category/Topic: Conservation

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James r patrick
Aug 16, 2021

I think I have 2 or 3 of these in Wayne county wv. Small but have giant thorns.

Ashley Cantrell
Jan 19, 2022

I'm working on a park revitalization project in Nashville, wherein volunteers are replacing invasive plants with native plants. Is there any way I could obtain one of these seedlings to introduce into Green Hills Park, south of Nashville, TN?

Ben Weaver
Jan 20, 2022

@Ashley Cantrell - thank you for your comment. You can contact our conservation district office in Tennessee. Below are the contacts.

Carol Edwards, Conservation Technician, Davidson County Soil Conservation District, (615) 880-2030 (seedlings)
Trevor Hunt, District Conservationist, Davidson County, (615) 989-3566

Another contact would be Katherine Burse, the Tennessee state public affairs officer, at 615-277-2533

Lisa Buick
Apr 04, 2022

How can I tell if a tree is a hawthorn, specifically this type? We have what I believe to be several Hawthorns growing in our subdivision, but I fear some that look like Hawthorns are the dreaded Bradford Pear trees since several people have used them in landscaping and they are multiplying. I assume the thorny ones are Hawthorns, am I right? Thank you.

Ben Weaver
Apr 04, 2022

@Lisa Buick - thank you for your comment. Most native hawthorns of the U.S. produce distinct thorns that differ from the spiny spur shoots that are so common on young, escaped Bradford (Callery) pears. The sharp spur shoots of the Bradford typically produce at least one bud for future leaf development and are often much thickened at the base. True thorns of the hawthorn typically lack buds along their length, do not produce leaves or flowers, and are often slender - elongating to a thin, spinose tip. One additional difference is that the broadly ovate leaves of the Bradford are glossy and leathery. The leaves of most hawthorn species lack this combination of shape, appearance, and texture.

Lisa Buick
Apr 05, 2022

@Ben Weaver, thank you so very much for your quick response. Our property is located right next to a small TVA area. There are so many vines (honeysuckle) and other unidentifiable vines, as well as Chinese Privet growing amongst many beautiful trees. It hurts my heart to see this because the vines and privet are overtaking the trees. I am so very glad to read that this hawthorn is alive and that conservationists are working to keep our natives happy, healthy, and thriving. Thank you for all you and the others are doing to keep our areas native. Lisa Buick