Herb Profile: Hawthorn

Botanical Names: Crataegus monogyna, C. laevigata, C. media

Family: Rosaceae

Common Names: The May Tree, May Blossom, Quickthorn, Haegthorn, White Thorn, Bread and Cheese Tree

Identification: There are two species of Hawthorn native to Britain – the Common Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), and the Midland Hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata), though the two often hybridise (C. x media) and can then be difficult to tell apart. The Midland Hawthorn is not usually found in Scotland. All Hawthorns have the same edible & medicinal properties. C. monogyna is a thorny deciduous shrub or tree growing to 10m. Its leaves are deeply lobed, flowers growing 10-16 together in corymbs, with five petals with one style. Fruit has one seed. C. laevigata differs in having leaves which are more rounded, and tapering to the base, and flowers with 2-3 styles.

Parts Used: Leaves, Flowers, Berries

Edibility & Nutrition: The fruit is edible both raw and cooked, though not particularly flavoursome raw. In Ancient Times it was more known as a food than a medicine. It can be used for making jams, preserves and ketchups and its naturally high pectin content means it can be used to set jams and other preserves without artificial pectin or additives. Traditionally country folk would also eat the young shoots and leaves, describing them as “bread and cheese” – they have a light and nutty, but slightly dry flavour.

Growing & Harvesting: The Hawthorn is a classic hedgerow plant and can succeed on most soils. It is a hardy species which can tolerate harsh conditions including maritime exposure and air pollution. It can be grown by seed, or from cuttings. It is pollinated by midges. The young leaves can be harvested to eat as they appear in the Spring; the leaves & flowers can be harvested together from May, and the berries can be gathered in the autumn. 

Medicinal Actions: Mild Hypotensive, Antispasmodic, Astringent, Cardiac Trophorestorative, Coronary and Peripheral Vasodilator, Mild Sedative

Uses: The flowers, leaves and berries of the Hawthorn are primarily used as a cardiac tonic which has a normalising action upon the heart.

They can be used to treat: congestive heart disease, cardiac insufficiency, coronary artery disease, palpitations, hypertension & angina. Its effects are gentle and cumulative, so it is best used in small doses over a long period of time.

  It has several effects which are helpful in these conditions:

  • Dilates coronary blood vessels improving blood supply to the heart muscle

  • Dilates peripheral blood vessels, lowering blood pressure and ensuring good blood supply to peripheral tissues.

  • Increases the force of heart contractions, improving the efficiency of heart muscle

  • Decreases excitability of heart muscle

  • Antioxidant effect on blood vessels, preventing arteriosclerosis and heart disease

Hawthorn can also be used to treat the emotional side of the heart by calming anxiety and, helping with bad dreams, and for facilitating grief. Its double action as a relaxant and a circulatory tonic make it effective as part of a treatment for menopausal hot flushes & mood swings.

History & Folklore: Hawthorn is a plant steeped in tradition: it is associated with the spirit of wild places, faeries, love and fertility. Old Celtic lore stated that where Oak, Ash & Hawthorn grew together, faeries could be found. Blossoming in May, around the time of the fertility rites and the festival of Beltaine, Hawthorn, or the May Blossom, has long been known as a herb of fertility by pre-Christian peoples. Beltaine festival, and the welcoming of summer was once reckoned as the day that the Hawthorn first bloomed – this is thought also to correspond to the old saying ‘ne’er cast a clout till May is out’ – meaning that it is foolish to leave your winter clothes at home until the May Blossom has come out.

As such is the classic plant used to decorate the Maypole and other ritual sites, and tradition dictates that at the end of April (the May eve) you should bring Hawthorn blossom into your house for luck, and use it to make decorative headdresses. Conversely, some associate Hawthorn with bad luck, and consider it a symbol of death – it is the plant rumoured to have made Jesus’s crown of thorns. The curious smell of the flowers has been associated both with sex, and with the smell of putrefaction of corpses.

Preparations: Many parts of the Hawthorn lend themselves to making different preparations. The leaves & flowers can be infused into a tea, the berries can also be decocted and drunk. The leaves, flowers & berries can all be tinctured fresh or dried. The berries can also be used to make ketchups, sauces, fruit leathers, berry vinegars and many more.

Active Constituents: Flavonoids including rutin & quercetin, Oligomeric proanthocyanadins (OPCs), Triterpenoid saponins

Cautions: Hawthorn is generally a very safe herb with no reports of side effects, though there are some cautions to its use. It is probably safest to avoid Hawthorn in therapeutic doses in hypotension (low blood pressure). Hawthorn can potentiate the effects of some cardiac medications, and so it is best not to combine these unless under professional supervision.

References:

Barker, J. (2001) The Medicinal Flora of Britain and Northwestern Europe Winter Press

Bruton-Seal J & M (2008) Hedgerow Medicine, Merlin Unwin Books

Plants For A Future (2012) Available from: www.pfaf.org.uk 

Mrs Grieve’s Modern Online Herbal. Available at www.botanical.com

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