Origin & Ecology
Hawthorn is of the most well known herb for heart health. The genus, Crataegus, contains over 1000 species. While Crataegus species are found throughout Northern hemisphere, the best studied is C. monogyna. Our local trees are often hybridized species, and there’s great similarity between the leaves, flowers, and berries among them. They’re planted ornamentally, and readily naturalize. They readily cross-pollinate & hybridize, continually obscuring attempts at classification.
Hawthorn has been long used as a boundary marker, forming dense hedgerows. (In fact, the word haw applies to the fruit, and was originally it was an Old English term for hedge.) The trees are hardy & adaptable, tolerating both drought and high moisture conditions. The wood is dense, and the branches possess sharp thorns. Being rather short trees, they typically remain under 50’ tall.
Lore & Mythos
Hawthorn is rich with lore & recorded historical use, mostly in Europe. An alternate name for Hawthorn is Mayblossom, as the blooming of the tree heralded Mayday or Beltane in European folk traditions. The crown of Jesus Christ was reportedly constructed with Hawthorn branches. In Southern Europe, Hawthorn was considered an emblem of hope. Brides in Ancient Greece carried boughs of it to the altar, as it was sacred to the Greek god of marriage. In Ancient Rome it was used to protect babies as a tree of Cardea, the Roman goddess of childbirth. In Welsh lore, the Goddess Olwen “She of the White Track” once walked an empty universe and her white track of hawthorn petals became the Milky Way galaxy.
Hawthorn has a reputation of connection to the Fairy realms. Celtic lore holds that Hawthorn grew at the top of hollow hills, where passages to other realms could be found. Herbalist Sean Donahue tells of the legend of Thomas the Rhymer, who fell asleep under a hawthorn tree. In his dreams, he was taken to the world of Fairy, where he was shown 3 paths by the Queen of Fairy:
- The road to righteousness– the road laid out by the laws of civilization, that signifies logical thought & consciousness,
- the road of wickedness– instinct devoid of judgment or consideration of consequences. It’s a road of disconnection, alienation–a realm of hungry ghosts,
- the third road, leading from the Hawthorn itself, is the road of the Heart- path of self & earth awareness, balance & harmony.
Harvesting & Use: Leaves, Flowers & Berries
LEAVES & FLOWERS
Young Hawthorn leaves can be harvested in Spring and used fresh in salads or dried for tea. It blooms around Beltane or Mayday (May 1), displaying sprays of white, 5-petaled, carrion-scented blossoms for a few weeks. This is the stage in which they’re easiest to spot.
Fresh flowers have a distinct putrid aroma. (Extreme references include cat piss and rotting flesh!) Country villagers in England regarded the aroma of hawthorn as reminiscent of the Great Plague of London. There’s an evolutionary application of this characteristic of Hawthorn: carrion insects pollinate them. When animal flesh begins to decompose it forms trimethylamine, a colorless gas with a strong, fishy, ammonia-like odor. Hawthorn flowers produce this same chemical.
I dry the leaves & flowers for tea. I like to combine them with rose petals, linden blossoms, red clover blossoms, nettles, and/or yarrow leaves & flowers. I also tincture the whole flowering branch (leaves, flowers, thorns, twigs, etc) and combine with Hawthorn berry tincture for a calming heart tonic.
After pollination, the tree drops its flowers and berries form in late summer to early Fall. They’re bright red with a large seed (or 2 or 3), reassembling a small stony apple. It’s best to gather them when they’re plump and juicy—usually around late September/early October. (After the first frost, they get too mushy and are best left for wildlife.) The fruit of hawthorn, called haws, are edible raw but are commonly made into jellies, jams, syrups, wine. I like to tincture them and prepare teas throughout the winter. I dry them on trays & flat baskets, but prefer a dehydrator if available. They combine well with rose hips, conifers, medicinal mushrooms, and flowers like linden, rose, and elderflower.
Medicine for the Heart
Hawthorn has been used in Eastern and Western pharmacopoeias for millennia as a food and a medicine. It is the best-known herb for the heart health in Western herbalism, an application that dates back to the 17th century. It’s an official drug in the pharmacopoeias of Brazil, China, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Hungary, Russia, and Switzerland. It’s an ingredient in many commercial herbal formulas for the treatment of heart and cardiovascular ailments. In herb commerce, manufacturers try to isolate particular plant constituents responsible for its therapeutic effect. While this can strengthen some aspects of the end product, we lose the synergy of the whole organism. Hawthorn has always resisted this kind of isolation & standardization, and no active ingredient has ever been found. Hence, Hawthorn products on the market are made with the whole plant.
The antioxidants in Hawthorn reduce inflammation in the cardiovascular system, which help protect the blood vessels from oxidative (free radical) damage. With less inflammation and rigidity, the blood can flow in a more relaxed manner and burden on the heart itself is reduced. It’s the seminal heart tonic.
It’s also used as a calming nervine (nerve tonic), particularly in Britain. So it’s not only helpful for the physical heart, but the emotional one as well. For this purpose, I like to blend it with Rose, Motherwort, Crabapple flowers, and Elderflowers.
- Hawthorn & The Third Road by Sean Donahue: http://greenmanramblings.blogspot.com/2011/09/hawthorn-and-third-road.html
- Recipe: Hawthorn-Rose Turkish Delights by Rebecca Altman: http://www.cauldronsandcrockpots.com/2012/10/hawthorn-rose-turkish-delight/
- Rosalee de la Foret’s Hawthorn monograph: http://www.methowvalleyherbs.com/2010/04/hawthorne-for-this-little-heart-of-mine.html