Hawthorn~ Healer of the Heart September 30 2015
A Botanical Romance...
Crataegus spp. ~ Rosaceae Europe - C. monogyna, C. oxycantha and C. laevigata North America- C. Douglasii, C. columiana
One of my dearest friends is the hawthorn tree. Twice a year I get to spend quality time harvesting hawthorn medicine, and I plan for these moments all year long. In the month of May I go to gather the flowering branches, and then in the fall I collect baskets of little red berries. We have been in relationship like this for well more than a decade, and I have learned a great deal from this precious tree.
Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) is a 'hearty' -pun intended- small tree who offers a medicine of strength, protection and nourishment. The genus name Crataegus, comes from the Greek word kratos, meaning strength. As a heart remedy and cardiovascular tonic there are a few things worth mentioning about the heart as it pertains to the hawthorn tree.
The heart is at the very center of our nervous system. Placed at the middle of our chest and directly in connection with our lungs (and source of breath). The heart is quite literally an organ from which we feel as its interstitial matrix is three quarters nervous tissue, by weight. Making the heart, not just a muscle, but a giant bundle of nerves. Nerves are how we feel the world around us. It is the nervous system that allows us to experience pleasure, pain, and each of our five senses. Touch, taste, sight, sound, smell and even that sixth sense are all expressions of our nerve fibers in response to our environment. The ability to embrace our feelings is a signature of the hawthorn tree. To feel is to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is true strength. This is one of the teachings of hawthorn.
This little tree with its great thorns provides protective space for birds and small creatures to nest. Energetically, this thorny medicine helps us to feel safe allowing for the heart to open. When we have become closed down due to grief, heartache, and depression, the entire chest cavity tightens and becomes restricted, as it does with many lung conditions. Hawthorn protects us and makes us stronger, allowing our hearts and chest to open again so that we may breathe more deeply. Hawthorn berry syrup is indicated with coughs, lowered immune function, and respiratory conditions in this way. There is some evidence that hawthorn can be useful in treatment of asthma and allergies.
Our dear rose family membered friend, is a nervine as well as a cardiovascular tonic. Relaxing the nerves is one mechanism by which it strengthens the beat of the heart. When the nerves are relaxed and blood vessels toned they can more fully contract and retract allowing for a firm pulsation with each heartbeat. Many herbalists use the flowering branches (with the blossoms, bark, leaves and thorns included) specifically for this nervine tonic effect. It is even more beneficial when these plant parts are mixed together with the berries. Sometimes taken as an extract, but often as a tea. It is quite powerful in reducing nervous tension and anxiety, especially when there is an emotional upset at the root.
As a nourishing food hawthorn is optimal for long term use, the fresh flowers are eatable in salads, and the berries are prepared in numerous ways like tiny apples. Hawthorn fruit seems to focus more on cardiovascular and digestive tissues. Like a food, health benefits seem to get even better after months of daily consumption. It is quite safe and supportive to use during all stages of pregnancy. There is some literature stating that consistent use of the leaf and flower may be potentially unsafe for pregnancy, possibly due to its astringency. Traditionally however, many herbalists report that it is an excellent herb to use during gestation. As a food the berries, minus their stones, are undisputedly safe during this time. Hawthorn can be a valuable means to handle increased blood volume and the needed nutritional support that accompanies carrying a child.
There are hundreds of species of hawthorn trees found across the globe. Native varieties are found in Europe, Asia, Africa, and North America. Herbalists use the many different species interchangeably. Most of the ones we see in gardens and hedgerows come from Europe. North American species of hawthorn have a variety of colored berries including some that are a purplish- black known as Black Hawthorn, as well as some that are bright orange or red with very large, cherry-sized fruit. The European species are sometimes known by a few other names, such as thornapple, hawberry, whitethorn, May-tree, or Queen of the May. These names indicate the time when hawthorn’s ruffled white flowers come into their full expression during the month of May. There is also a notably clear representation of thorns within these names, as thorns are a prominently featured aspect to this botanical wonder. There is a great deal of magic and medicine in those thorns.
The thorns also have many practical uses for traditional peoples. They became prongs on rakes used for catching herring, lances for probing skin blisters and boils, fish hooks, playing pieces for games, and for pricing ears. The hardwood was fashioned into tool handles and weapons in the Pacific Northwest, and in Europe hawthorn wood made sturdy combs and small carvings, including runes.
The word Haw comes from the Middle- English term for hedge. In many areas the small tree was often used in hedgerows to create a secure and protective boundary around large estates. This construct of land protection, along with its great thorns, depicts hawthorn’s energetic principle of keeping healthy boundaries.
Hawthorne is often known for its red berries that ripen like jewels around the time of the fall equinox. The berries are known as a remedy for aiding digestion, building blood and strengthening the immune system. With fresh berries such things as jam, wine, and cordials are made. In Britain the ‘hedgerow berry’ is sometimes made into sorbet, or a ketchup sauce for dipping things or garnishing meats. These deep red fruits are sometimes also known as 'haws'.
Hawthorn trees are hermaphrodite, meaning both male and female reproductive parts are contained within each flower, and thus it does not need another tree around to produce fruit. There are over 300 insects that can attribute to its pollination, many of which are flies.
There is no better teacher than experience, and the knowledge that comes from building a plant relationship is well beyond that written about in text books. The list below contains observations made from hawthorn consumption by myself and fellow herbalists. Many of these observations are not ones I have found in herbal literature.
- Astringent and warming
- Stimulates vaginal secretions, making lady parts moist and juicy.
- Increases sexual vigor
- Releases emotional wounds that may have been stuffed down or neglected and are ready for acknowledgment and cleansing in a gentile and loving way.
- Helpful with leaking energy, feeling drained or exerting efforts in misguided directions.
- Invokes feelings of safety and a sense of being loved.
- Can bring about waves of heat or feeling flushed.
Hawthorn acts as a nutritive and an adaptogen, and is specific to both the circulatory and nervous systems. It can be taken daily in most cases, typically used in 3 to 6 month courses for chronic conditions, like with asthma, or those who suffer conditions relating to Congestive Heart Failure. Hawthorn is known for strengthening the integrity and elasticity of arterial walls, making them able to handle greater blood volume and pressure. The flavonoids in hawthorn are proven to reduce the hardening of arteries that lead to atherosclerosis. Part of what seems to be responsible for these therapeutic qualities is hawthorn’s rich flavonoid content. Some of these flavonoids are identified as: hyperoside (a component of quercetin), oligomeric procyanidins (antioxidant), rutin (anti-inflammatory), and ascorbic acid.
Oligomeric procyanidins are synonymous with OPC’s (Oligomeric Proanthocyanidins). These are a set of bioflavonoid complexes that perform as free radical scavengers in the human body. Most notably in scientific research Proanthocyanidins are found in pine bark, grape seed, and grape skin. Concentrations of these flavonoids are also found in green and black teas, wine, chocolate and fruits such as bilberry, cranberry, black currant, apple, pear, and the hawthorn tree (flowers, leaves, bark, berries, seeds and thorns). Extensive research demonstrates that OPCs are anticarcinogenic, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and have vasodilatory properties. Nutritional supplements sold for their OPCs are generally extracted from grape seeds or pine bark. Pycnogenol® is the trade name for an OPC extract from the bark of the French maritime pine tree.
OPC is shown to protect against cardiovascular and other degenerative diseases and to have numerous other benefits, including: lowering LDL cholesterol levels, reducing platelet aggregation, increasing the strength and elasticity of blood vessels, helping collagen repair itself, reducing edema and inflammation, relieving functional problems associated with varicose veins, lessening the tendency toward diabetic retinopathy, and improving skin health. These are all marks of powerful antioxidant properties.
Hyperoside (a component in quercetin) has a variety of pharmacological effects including anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, anti-oxidative, and acts to prevent cell death (anti-apoptotic).
In a 2008 meta-analysis hawthorn substantially increased maximal myocardial workload tolerance, increased exercise tolerance, decreased the pressure–heart rate product (an index of cardiac oxygen consumption), and improved symptoms of fatigue and shortness of breath as compared with placebo. Herbalists often say hawthorn helps to oxygenate the blood, as this analysis describes.
A plant, however, is always greater than the sum of its parts. None of these constituents are singularly responsible for hawthorn’s heart effects. Although these constituents can be identified as integral within hawthorn they are not the totality of this complex botanical being. Nonetheless, these super nutrients support virtually every metabolic system in the body, and are the source of a stunning array of proven health benefits.
Hawthorn has traditionally been used to treat anxiety, asthma, and hypertension. It has been proven to assist with lowering HDL cholesterol and/or triglycerides that lead to hardening of the arteries (dyslipidemia). Equivocally hawthorn can raise excessively low blood pressure (hypotension), and improve conditions of angina, arrhythmias, heart failure, and indigestion. The most substantial evidence for clinical benefits of hawthorn is its use in chronic congestive heart failure (CHF). Currently there are more than 5 million people in the US diagnosed with congestive heart failure. Nationwide, our hearts are failing!
There is a metaphorical beauty in the nature of thorns. The thorns of the hawthorn tree were once used to pierce ears. A wound must be made for the beauty of this self-adornment. Hawthorn is known as a protector and healer of the spiritual heart. She can also pierce it with those mighty thorns. She can penetrate our walls and our barriers, letting true inner strength and vulnerability shine through. Hawthorn allows us to embrace our wounds and make them into something beautiful. Wounded tissues are made stronger once healed, and so we often find beauty within things that once caused us pain. In essence, this plays on the idea that it is our greatest weaknesses that lead us to our greatest strengths.
Chronic illnesses often require the establishment of healthy boundaries and a practice of self-love. Boundaries are needed so that we do not over extend ourselves in putting out more energy than we have, and self-love is needed to regard our own energy as sacred, so that we feel comfortable making these boundaries in the first place. The strengthening adaptogen and immune effects of hawthorn sweetly nourish and support those who are severely depleted, as it is with many who suffer chronic illness conditions.
In a year-long survey of Medical Herbalism Journal (a publication by Paul Bergner) readers were asked to rank the most important herbs in their practice. One out of four ranked hawthorn as placing somewhere in their top ten most important herbs category.
The deliciousness in this section is rooted in legend, as is the nature of folklore. These stories are told again and again, and it is certain that some of the messages have become lost in translation along the way. Nonetheless, these bits invite us to know hawthorn in ways that might otherwise be superficial, or devoid of the ancestral roots in human to hawthorn relations.
Alas it was reported in Britain that bringing hawthorn blossoms into the house was said to be followed by illness and death. In part this is due to the idea that the picked blossoms never bear fruit, and also in part due to the sent the flowers put out. The chemical trimethylamine in hawthorn blossoms is one of the first chemicals formed in decaying animal tissue. The smell accounted for a Medieval saying that hawthorn blossoms smelled like the Black Death (Great Plague). Although modern herbalists today express the odor of the flowers to resemble the fragrance a woman’s yoni, as it is quasi fish like, and often associated with sexuality.
The tree however, was associated with life as much as it was with death. Hawthorn is reputed to live between worlds in many cultures. Known as a gateway to the faery realm, hawthorn is a central element in much of Celtic mythology that is treated with living truth even to this day.
In Celtic lore, hawthorn is the thorn of the phrase “By Oak, Ash, and Thorn.” A remedy that is well known to heal broken hearts. Blossoms are to this day used in May Day celebrations as a symbol of fertility and life.
Ancient Greeks and Romans used hawthorn in marriage and birth ceremonies. It was associated with a symbol of the home. Branches are said to have been carried in wedding processions by the ancient Greeks, as an emblem of hope. The tree held associations with the goddesses Flora (Roman Goddess of flowers and fertility) and Hymen (Greek Goddess of marriage).
In Christian tradition, hawthorn is associated with the crown of thorns worn by Jesus and the wood from which the staff of Joseph of Arimathea was made. In Arabic culture, Hawthorn has been long associated with death and was used in funeral pyres. Possibly this was because fire fed by hawthorn burns extremely hot. In Serbia, it was reputed to be a good wood to carve stakes used for impaling vampires.
In Faery Lore~
Throughout the Irish countryside lone hawthorn shrubs are found growing amid open fields. These shrubs are known as fairy trees, rumored to be the home of fairies. It is believed, even today, that if anyone tries to cut down or damage a fairy tree, they will likely die, or become seriously ill. There is Irish legend of a hospital that was needed where the only available plot of land for the building contained two fairy trees. None of the locals wanted to risk cutting these down. When a man was found willing to risk the deed, no one was surprised when he suffered a stroke the very next day. There are many published reports about the fate that will befall those who have disrespected faeries by cutting down Thorn Trees. These can be found in writings on Celtic Mythology and Folklore.
The most popular Faery Tree story today is one of the DeLorean car factory. The factory came to Belfast in Northern Ireland with the promise of bringing jobs and boosting local economy. The car manufacturing was brought by an established greedy business tycoon who had the backing of taxpayer investments. Despite ambitious plans to create a car empire, just 9,000 DeLoreans were produced before the plant went bankrupt, taking with it 2,500 jobs and millions of pounds of public cash. There had been a lone Hawthorn tree in the field which had been removed to build this factory.
The sculpture pictured here is an Irish artist's depiction of a DeLorean car and uprising spirit of the Hawthorn tree.
Hawthorn tea is my personal favorite of all my formulated herbal tea blends. I call it SimpliciTEA. Simply, one herb, blended for a perfectly for tea. The hawthorn leaf and flower are harvested in the Spring and they are dried and stored until the berries ripen and are gathered in the Fall. The berries are also dried and then ground into powder. Finally I am able to mix all the parts together to create SimpliciTEA. < click to order- One simple herb, blended for a full hawthorn experience!
- -American family physician data (AAFP)- http://www.aafp.org/afp/2010/0215/p465.html
- -Alternative Medicine Review - Volume 8, Number 4: 2003
- -The Woodland Trust, United Kingdom- http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/
- -Medical Herbalism: Materia Medica and Pharmacy, by: Paul Bergner
- -Medicinal Plant of the Pacific West, by: Michael Moore
- -Herbal Medicine from the Heart of the Earth, by: Sharol Tilgner
- -Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, by: Pojar and Mackinnon
- -Celtic Tree Mysteries, by: Steve Blamires
- -The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore, by Patricia Monaghan