Hawthorn is one of the last fruits available to forage or wildcraft in Fall. I have harvested Hawthorn berries while standing in the snow. Some herbalists prefer to harvest Hawthorn after the first hard frost. They believe it sweetens the berries. This is a matter of personal preference; there’s no right or wrong. I would urge you not to wait too long. Eventually a big windy storm will knock the fruits from the branches and then you will find yourself, as I have, digging around in the leaves at the base of the tree, scrounging, like a squirrel, for what’s fallen on the ground.
Botany and Natural History
The Hawthorn genus, Cratageus, is a large genus that is found in the Eastern United States as well as in Europe and parts of Asia. There are over 100 species in North America and a dozen found in Minnesota. Identifying the different Hawthorn species is tricky business, even for botanists. Hawthorns like to hybridize. Although distribution maps show Hawthorns all over the state of Minnesota, according to Welby Smith, author of Trees and Shrubs of Minnesota “Hawthorns, as a genus are generally uncommon in Minnesota…Today, hawthorns must find habitat in a landscape created largely by human activity.” Many herbalists and plant lovers that I speak with echo this observation and have trouble finding them in the wild. It seems easier to find cultivated or planted varieties, often in public outdoor spaces. You are a lucky herbalist if there is a Hawthorn tree nearby that you can gather from.
Hawthorn Trees are a member of the Rose family and share the readily indentifiable characteristics of many trees and shrubs in this genus. The trees are covered with characteristic 5 petaled white blossoms that flower early in the season. The trees often have the gnarly, architectural silhouette of crab apple and apple trees. And they produce a fruit, called a haw, that looks almost indistinguishable from the small crabapples that are so popular in today’s gardens and parks. And of course, the thorns. Yikes! The thorns look so intense and painful and sharp. Yet, interestingly, when you get up close to gather the Hawthorn berries, they tree yields them up easily. It takes little effort to fill your bucket. When I am gathering Hawthorn I often smile; this tree is all bark and no bite.
Hawthorn has a rich history of folklore. It was one of the sacred trees of pre-christian Europeans. Hawthorn blooms in May and has long been a plant associated with Beltane or May day.
Much like Elder, Hawthorn is a plant that offers protection but it also considered unlucky. For instance “sprigs of hawthorn attached to the cradle of newborn baby afford protection against illness and evil, “ (Mcintyre). But Hawthorn is considered unlucky to bring indoors.
Also like Elder Hawthorn is associated with the world of fairy and there are many stories and poems about people who met fae folk beneath the Hawthorn or fell asleep beneath the hawthorn and were then lost to the world for some time.
As Europe was transformed from Pagan to Christian, so did the spiritual plants of those who practiced Earth-based spirituality find their way into the symbology of Christianity in Europe. Hawthorn became a prominent tree in Christianity. Jesus’s crown of thorns was said to be made of hawthorn.
Hawthorn, like a variety of other herbs, Nettle, Rosehips, Elderberry, can be treated as both a food plant or a medicinal plant. Hawthorn syrups and jelly are common. In Asian markets you can often buy delicious dried and sugared hawthorn berries. Although the berries, flowers and leaves are used in contemporary herbal medicine, I tend to use the berries. Primarily, because they are more convenient to gather and they tend to be ripen around here in late September or early October, a time when most of my herbal gathering for the year is over and it’s easy to find the time to trek over to the Hawthorns and gather a bag of berries. I make both a tincture and a syrup of Hawthorn Berries. The berries make a fantastic syrup, that has an apple-like flavor and is slightly sweet, slightly sour with just a hint of bitterness.
Historical and Contemporary Medicinal Use
The history of the use of Hawthorn is interesting. Hawthorn is mentioned in Gerard’s Herbal and Culpeper’s Herbal (from the 16th and 17th centuries, respectively) but is given only cursory treatment. Hawthorn is not mentioned at all in Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica. Skip through a century and across the pond to North America and you find that Hawthorn is also not mentioned in that great Eclectic tome, King’s Dispensatory. We find it mentioned in Ellingwood’s American Materia Medica with an introduction that states that the “agent has not yet received much attention from the profession”. And the entire monograph is a quote from one Doctor who was using the plant. Yet the contemporary herbal literature is brimming full of the many uses of Hawthorn. Curious isn’t it? How could this plant, so closely related to other medicinal plants, with low toxicity not become a popular or widespread remedy until the 20th century?
Much of what we know about Hawthorn comes from more recent practice and much of it comes from clinical studies and chemical profiles. Hawthorn finds its’ place in modern herbal practice as a the preeminent heart remedy.
Rich in a variety of flavonoids including rutin, Hawthorn is an ideal food for the heart. Studies show that an increase of bioflavonoids decrease incidence of heart disease, heart attack and stroke (Hoffmann). Hawthorn is used for long-term treatment of loss of cardiac function (Hoffmann) and taken over time it improves the function and tone of the myocardium (Kenner and Requena). It is believed to decrease inflammation throughout the vascular/circulatory system, improve coronary circulation and increase nutrition and oxygenation.
A comprehensive list of indications from British herbalist David Hoffmann includes:
- Oppressive feelings in the chest and congestive feelings
- Mild arrhythmia or tachycardia (rapid or irregular heartbeat)
- Angina (chest pain or discomfort that occurs if an area of your heart muscle doesn’t get enough oxygen-rich blood).
- Weakness of the heart following infectious disease
- Age related degeneration of the heart muscle
- Hypertension (sometimes)
- Arteriosclerosis (hardening or narrowing of the arteries)
- Dyspnea (trouble breathing)
- Cardiac hypertrophy (overbuilding of the heart muscle/enlarged heart)
Hawthorn is a very safe herb. It is safe for pregnant women, children and the elderly, however, some of these heart conditions listed above are quite serious. When and how to use herbs safely and concurrently with the types of medication used for cardiovascular disease is complex and controversial and to discuss it exhaustively here is outside of the scope of this little article. My general recommendations are to continue to do your research and proceed with caution when using herbs for yourself or others with serious heart disease. If you are an aspiring herbal practitioner, work on becoming conversant about various types of heart conditions and the medications used to treat them. Some medications like blood thinners, have a narrow therapeutic window.Think about the boundaries of your practice and how you will communicate those boundaries to your clients. A good contemporary herbalist looks to our history of traditional practice but doesn’t ignore emerging research. When using tinctures be specific in your choices and use lowest effective doses.
Hawthorn has many other useful applications outside of heart disease. I find that like other fruity, sour, cooling remedies, Hawthorn is great for allergies, especially seasonal and environmental allergies that are characterized by heat, inflammation, dry and irritated mucous membranes. And like other cooling remedies it has a calming effect on anxious or over-excited people. Consider Hawthorn for ADD/ ADHD. It is one of my favorite remedies for ADHD in children. Hawthorn blends well with another fruity remedy, Linden Blossoms, for both allergies and ADHD.
It may help with other symptoms associated with heat and irritation including insomnia, hot flashes, vertigo and tinnitus(Kenner and Requena).
Matthew Wood shares this specific indication from clinical practice: clients in need of hawthorn often have dryness on the back of hands and the wrists. He also finds that “if the meaty parts of the palm, especially near the wrist, are red this indicates capillary congestion of red blood cells. If these fatty tissues are depressed with a finger and this is followed by blanching (the area stays white for a few seconds), then the indication is that there is heat and irritation in the capillaries…This is a keynote indication for hawthorn.”
From Traditional Chinese Medicine we learn that Hawthorn is considered good for menstrual and postpartum pains as well as abdominal bloating and distension. “It is used to increase stomach acidity to help digest meat and fats,” (Requena and Kenner). Both traditional Western and Eastern traditions use hawthorns as an astringent for diarrhea and enteritis.
Hawthorn is also not an original Bach Flower Essence, which I find interesting, given Dr. Bach’s choices of traditional trees found in Britain and the use of trees that were historically considered sacred or spiritually significant. However, there is a flower essence. And like so many of the Rose family plants, it is a remedy for the metaphysical heart. Anne McIntyre writes that “On an emotional level Hawthorn is said to work on the heart chakra, opening the heart and enhancing the expression of love. It can be used where there are problems both giving and receiving love. It is a remedy recommended to heal broken hearts, disappointment, anger or bitterness after a failed love affair,” (McIntyre).
Hawthorn is also used topically for a blotchy complexion, acne and rosacea. (McIntyre).
This recipe is easy to scale up to make much larger batches.
1 cup fresh Hawthorn Berries (or Rosehips or a combination) per 3 cups of distilled or filtered water.
Simmer and mash as much as possible, with a potato masher. The liquid should be flavorful and reddish organge and mostly clear like a tea. Some people like to blend the mix in a food processor or with an immersion blender, resulting in a much thicker finished product. A syrup made after blending like this will settle during storage with visible particulate matter and will be slightly cloudy. Simmer until your liquid is reduced by 1/4 to 1/2. Strain liquid.
Mix with 1 cup of the sweetener of your choice and heat the syrup gently until the sweetener is dissolved and well combined with the Hawthorn liquid. White sugar is a nice choice to let the delicate fruity flavors shine through, however, honey can be used or maple syrup or glycerin. The choice is up to you.
Add brandy if desired. Approximately 1/3 cup per batch is an amount the adds preservative properties while not overpowering the fruity flavor with alcohol. At this proportion this syrup is suitable for use with children or during pregnancy. You can use as much alcohol as you like. The more you add the more you transform your syrup into an appertif or cordial.
***Hawthorn does have bitter undertones. It’s normal for your syrup to have a hint of bitter to it. That’s ok. The bitter flavor is good for you; it sends a message to your body to start releasing things…saliva, pancreatic and digestive enzymes and gets the colon going.
Store in the fridge.
Here’s a lovely recipe for Spiced Hawthorn Rose Syrup from Rebecca Altman. I haven’t tried this yet, but if you are looking for something a little more fancy to do with your Hawthorn bounty, this might be it.
Hawthorn Tincture and More Things to do with Hawthorns
Hawthorn tincture is one of the easiest tinctures you can possibly make. Just place the clean haws (no black or moldy one) into a clean, dry glass jar. You can fill the jar to the top but you don’t have to pack them in tightly and there’s no need to smash or grind the hips. The alcohol will penetrate the whole fruits without any help from you. Fill the jar with 80 proof vodka, label. After six weeks, simply strain off the liquid and bottle–that’s your tincture–and compost the fruit. The resulting tincture is a beautiful red color and the flavor is wonderful. Lucky is client who gets Hawthorn Berry tincture!
Hawthorn Berries are wonderful in a tea blend. They lend a fruity flavor and Vitamin C and bioflavonoids. I use Hawthorns and/or Rosehips in my pregnancy tea blend and in my tonic syrup, both of which are described in my post about Rosehips.
Culpeper, Nicholas. The Complete Herbal. N.p.: n.p., 1653. Culpeper’s Complete Herbal. Web. 6 Nov. 2014. <http://www.complete-herbal.com/completeherbal1814.htm#h>.
Ellingwood, Finley, and John Uri Lloyd. American Materia Medica, Therapeutics and Pharmacognosy, Developing the Latest Acquired Knowledge of Drugs, and Especially of the Direct Action of Single Drugs upon Exact Conditions of Disease, with Especial Reference to the Therapeutics of the Plant Drugs of the Americas. Chicago, Evanston, Ill.: “Ellingwood’s Therapeutist”, 1915. Henriette’s Herbal Homepage. Web
Hoffmann, David. Medical Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts, 2003. Print.
Kenner, Dan, and Yves Requena. Botanical Medicine: A European Professional Perspective. Brookline, MA: Paradigm Publications, 1996. Print.
McIntyre, Anne. Flower Power: Flower Remedies for Healing Body and Soul through Herbalism, Homeopathy, Aromatherapy, and Flower Essences. New York: Henry Holt, 1996. Print.
Smith, Welby R. Trees and Shrubs of Minnesota: The Complete Guide to Species Identification. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota, 2008. Print.
Wood, Matthew. The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic, 2008. Print.