Plant Profile: Hawthorn
Crataegus oxycanthoides or Crataegus momgyma
Leaf, flower, and berry
A tree with the virtues of hawthorn could benefit everyone’s garden or yard or at least grow nearby. Having said that, this luxury is not mine, but my planting dreams definitely include hawthorn. This tree boasts hundreds of species variety, but the most commonly referenced for herbal medicinals are the English Hawthorns. Each species grows differently with varied hardiness. Generally a slow growing tree, it reaches moderate 15-30 foot height, but often is contained to a smaller shrub or hedge. The small white flowers bloom in clusters right at May’s beginning thus bestowed the nickname Mayblossom. While gathering full bloom flowers, the leaves are harvested as well because it is difficult to separate the two parts. Perhaps the major hawthorn deterrent arises from branches with large 3 to 5inch thorns interspersed within leaves. Birds love this thorny provision of safety from predators. The berries hang low on branches so the thorns do not usually interfere with picking if care is taken. The red, round berries called haws resemble mini-apples and appear in early autumn. By the end of October they achieve their sweetest best. Each berry has seeds, the number depending on the species (monogyma means one seed). Most have three to five seeds, which like cherries or apples must not be eaten. Once picked, the task of separating haws from branches takes time, but I find that most herb harvesting has some consuming aspect to it. The end result is well worth the effort. If you wish to attempt growing a hawthorn tree, seeds can be purchased from Horizon Herbs.
Several options exist for purchasing hawthorn in all forms: dried, powdered, tinctured, in capsules and preparations such as honey, solid extracts, and syrups. Dried hawthorn berries also commonly act as an ingredient in herbal tea blends and extract formulas because of the truly tonic and restorative nature of this plant. Without access to a hawthorn tree, I resort to reliable sources for purchasing hawthorn berries or flowers and leaves. Mountain Rose Herbs sells dried hawthorn leaf and flower in 4oz, 8oz and one pound packages and hawthorn berries dried, powdered, and in capsules. Occasionally the berry’s seasonality limits stocks.
Frontier Co-op, sells herbs in bulk form, offering 1 pound packages of berries and leaves/flowers.
Herbalist and Alchemist, my first choice for herbal tinctures, sells hawthorn tincture that is a mix of berries, flowers, and leaves. The owner of the company, David Winston is one of the leading authorities of herbal medicine and teaches that by using the part mixture, the full power of the plant can be achieved. The company also makes hawthorn solid extract from the berries, an antioxidant packed scrumptious spread eaten by the spoonful. Several of Herbalist & Alchemist’s compound formulas target the heart, both physical and emotional and all contain hawthorn in the blend. One in particular called Grief Relief, a formula created by David to address sadness that lingers and seems to not go away exemplifies the beauty of combining herbs to nourish the emotional aspect of healing for the heart.
Hawthorn tea bags are available from Alvita and Traditional Medicinals. Hawthorn jelly and syrup options are available on Amazon.
Hawthorn’s etymology offers clues to its character. Literally translated hedge with thorns, haw means hedge in Old English, it also carries the name whitethorn because of its white bark and mayblossom because flowers bloom in May. The Latin Crataegus derives from the Greek words kratos meaning hard and oxcus meaning sharp as in thorns. Indeed hawthorn’s hard bark burns hot and long making excellent firewood. Various parts contain different chemical compounds. Flavonoids and phenolics in leaves and flowers while berries also contain high amount of tannins. Mixing all the parts in preparations renders the highest benefit. Nutritionally, the berries offer a rich antioxidant source being high in vitamin C, rutin, proanthocyanins and quercitin all of which provide protection from free radical toxin damage within cells. Hawthorn provides two vital trace minerals, selenium and chromium, both often deficient in the standard American diet. With all of its effect on the heart, there is no evidence of danger in using hawthorn along with medications for the heart; however, it is best to consult with a health care practitioner if this is the case for you.
One of the more puzzling nicknames for hawthorn is Bread and Cheese. Really, you may wonder. I have not tried, but hawthorn leaves carry the distinction of tasting like cheese. Especially in days of food scarcity, this nickname was used to encourage using hawthorn leaves as food. No one who writes about this taste reputation reports it as actually true. Perhaps this is more related to smell than taste, see below. The berries while used commonly as food condiments, blend sour and sweet flavors. The lean more to sour makes them not an eating berry and likely the reason uses involve the addition of a sweetener. Jelly or jam for example.
Hawthorn flowers place low on the exquisite perfume scale. Instead of floral their scent is rather musky. The reason incorporates the fact that flies and bugs pollinate hawthorn flowers, which creates a stink rather than the bee’s sweet smell. The odor has been associated with that of sexual arousal, which gained the flowers an aphrodisiac reputation. Hawthorn berries have a distinctive fruit smell, somewhat on the sour side like their taste.
Most of hawthorn’s traditions and folklore arise from Old English customs. May Day rituals naturally included signs of spring as the celebration was bound up in crop fertility blessings. On May 1st, European hawthorn varieties were covered in blossoms barely allowing leaves to show through. Thus, the tree is intertwined with Mayday ceremonies such as gathering branches and flowers and making crowns with thorns. Contrasting mystical beliefs range from protective to evil to superpower, witches brooms and thorny crowns, marriage traditions to funeral rites. A prickly hawthorn hedge symbolizes a living fence protecting property and setting physical and spiritual boundaries. Hawthorn amulets placed in homes and worn as necklaces also were thought to hold demons at bay. European folkloric wisdom advises never to cut down hawthorn trees, as they are portals to the fairy world. Branches were placed at the threshold of homes to protect from evil entry, but not brought inside for fear that mischievous fairies would come in as well. Several different marriage traditions involve decorations and dancing using hawthorn branches. A hawthorn thorn crown may have been placed on Jesus’ head before his crucifixion, which led to sacred elevation of the tree in Druid culture. Associations with fire and planet Mars signify cleansing, warmth and a heart connection. It is a tree of protection, enchantment and love.
Culinary and Cooking
Culinary uses of hawthorn perform more like condiments than main courses. Edible hawthorn berries, like many other fruits have seeds which like apple seeds or peach pits are not to be eaten due to a cyanide like substance. The taste of hawthorn berries although sour lends itself to jams, jellies, and preserves. In China hawthorn berries, referred to as haws sold as candy. Haws dipped in boiling sugar water are then placed on sticks and sold by street vendors. Packaged candies are processed fruit roll-ups by pressing hawthorn berries and sugar into leather type snacks. The sweet and sour flavor of hawthorn berries marries well with other berries and nuts as well as with spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, and cloves. Simmering hawthorn berries with apple cider vinegar; then straining out seeds and mixing pulp with spices, raisins or other dried fruits, and sugar can make chutneys. Another version can be called Haw Ketchup. Both condiments are more common in China where hawthorn is used to help digestion.
Beneficial Qualities and Traditional Uses
Hawthorn scores three pearls. Two relate to the heart, both physical function and emotional. Its versatility as a children’s remedy covers the third. When the heart needs restoration, think hawthorn. It is specifically indicated as a tonic for the heart and circulatory system. Hawthorn magically knows how to do what is needed whether it is gentle stimulation or calming, whether treatment or prevention for a heart problem. The key to hawthorn rests in its ability to nourish through opening and improving arterial blood flow to the heart, which in turn strengthens the muscle. Traditionally, hawthorn berries have been used for irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, chest pain, atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries and even heart failure. Somehow amazingly, this plant transcends both physical and emotional heart health. As a nervine, hawthorn is used for restlessness, irritability, nervousness, and anxiety. Through its calming effect on the nervous system and the heart, hawthorn improves focus especially for those who have trouble settling down, as is the case for people with attention deficit disorder. Here the third pearl jumps out of its shell as a diverse children’s remedy. There is evidence to support its use in protocols for those with autism as well as learning and focus difficulties. Fundamentally, hawthorn tastes good and lends itself to easy methods of administration such as solid extracts, jams, and teas. Hawthorn is anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, and antioxidant and can be used as part of protocols for rheumatoid arthritis. In Chinese medicine, the sourness of hawthorn berries translates to liver support and detoxification fighting sluggish digestion. Traditional practice believes hawthorn particularly helps fat digestion. Hawthorn berries are often combined with meats as digestive aids. Perhaps the most beautiful image for hawthorn’s medicinal effect is what herbal elders know as healing the broken heart, specifically extended grieving, hearts that do not seem to heal with time. How they know this I do not know, but it is used for intense and prolonged sadness, post traumatic stress disorder as well as chronic grief. In this way, hawthorn represents the true magic of plant medicine.
Dried ground or powdered berries can be infused, but if whole dried berries are used a decoction is the best method of preparation for tea. Either way, measure 1-2 teaspoons berries to 8 ounces of water. For infusion, pour hot water over powdered berries and steep for one hour. For decoction, combine berries and water in small saucepan, bring to low boil, then reduce heat and simmer covered for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to steep for additional 40 minutes.
Hawthorn berries produce a lovely rose-colored honey with a touch of fruity taste. To prepare use equal parts honey and dried hawthorn berries. Heat in double boiler over small amount of simmering water for approximately 6 hours. Strain while still warm, pushing on berries to extract as much honey as possible. Some type of press, such as a potato ricer can be used to press berries and extract as much honey as possible.
Prepare hawthorn infusion or decoction as above. Measure 8ounces of hawthorn tea and place in small saucepan with 1cup of organic sugar. Bring to simmer, stirring frequently until sugar is dissolved. Continue to simmer for 30 minutes on lowest heat setting until slightly thickened.
Jam, Sauce, Preserves
Traditional Chinese cuisine incorporates the sour taste of hawthorn sauce or jam as a digestive aid. Fresh hawthorn berries are soaked in salted water for 20-30 minutes, then washed. In food processor, pulse hawthorn berries with water until smooth. Place berry puree in a saucepan, add organic sugar to taste and simmer with lid slightly ajar for 1½hours. Halfway through cooking, add 1Tablespoon lemon juice. Pour into jars and allow to cool at room temperature.
Many recipes exist for making liquors and cordials with hawthorn. One example is to heat on very low heat 1cup honey with dried hawthorn berries, 1 cinnamon stick, 4 cloves, 1 grated nutmeg, and chopped peel of one orange. Pour all into a wide mouth glass jar and cover with brandy. Seal with a lid then leave in cool dark place for 6-8 weeks. Strain, reserving liquid.
The traditional method for preparing hawthorn tincture involves the addition of vegetable glycerin to prevent clumping. The best way to prepare a tincture is to mix all parts of hawthorn, using half berries and half flowers and leaves.
Prepare flower essence on a sunny day. When flowers are in full bloom, pluck them from leaves and branches in the early morning before the sun begins to shine too brightly, but enough that the dew has evaporated (mid-morning). Pour 32oz spring water into a large, clean glass bowl and cover water with hawthorn flowers. Place the bowl in a safe place where direct sunlight can infuse the flower essence into the water. Allow to sit for at least three hours then remove flowers using a wooden slotted spoon, skewer or chopstick. Measure water, pour into a glass bottle and add equal parts brandy. (for example if you have 8oz infused water, add 8oz brandy)