Walking at the edge of the woods in early June I ran across a breathtaking tree that I’d never noticed before. It was covered in white flowers with an intoxicating tropical scent. Plums and apples had long since stopped blooming and set fruit, and they leaves weren’t quite right in any case. Plucked off a few leaves and managed to identify a potent wild medicinal: Hawthorn.
Hawthorn is native to Europe and Asia, and has escaped cultivation and naturalized in parts of the United States. There are hundreds of different varieties of hawthorn, so it can be tricky to give specific identification characteristics. They have oval-shaped leaves that are often deeply lobed, with serrated margins. Other than the serrated margins, it can be hard to identify hawthorns based on the leaves since the leaf shape varies dramatically between cultivars.
They vary from small shrubs to small trees, growing no more than 30 feet in height. The tree below is growing in shade, under a pine canopy, and is perhaps 20 feet tall with a trunk about 4 inches in diameter.
Besides the leaves, a much better way to identify hawthorns is by their thorns. They’re in the rose family, and they grow vicious thorns that can be up to 3 inches long. The picture below shows a foot long section of trunk, completely covered by 2 to 3-inch thorns, with spines going out in all directions. Watch your eyes and hands anytime you’re out foraging hawthorn.
In the late spring, hawthorn flowers are another good identifier. They have a strong floral scent, which some describe as slightly musty, but that can vary by variety. The plant flowers prolifically, and it’s often covered by hundreds of upright flower clusters. Flowers appear later in the spring than other fruiting trees, well after plums, apples and pears have finished blooming and set fruit.
The flowers are generally white, but they are occasionally tinged with pink.
I’ve read that hawthorns are renowned not only for their edible berries but also their leaves. It’s said that they were eaten so commonly in Britain in times past that they’re called “bread and cheese” as though eating hawthorn leaves were as common as bread and cheese on the table. Other accounts call them “pepper and salt” and say that they added depth to spring salads.
There’s a cultivated hawthorn bush on my land that’s never flowered or fruited, and it has a much more bushy habit than this wild tree. When I tried the leaves I had to spit them out immediately. Bitter and completely unpalatable. This wild hawthorn’s leaves were dramatically different, pleasant, mildly sweet and with a fresh green taste. There are hundreds of cultivars of hawthorn, so I’d imagine the edibility varies by the plant.
The flowers of the hawthorn tree bloom slightly later in the spring than other fruits. While in my mind I compare them with tart crab apples, they’re actually in the rose family, and it makes more sense to think of them like fragrant rose blossoms that happen to grow on trees. The intense thorns will help drive that message home. Once you’re in that frame of mind, it’s easy to understand the acidic tartness of the hawthorn fruits, which are more like rosehips than anything else.
Hawthorn flowers grow in large clusters, each emerging vertically from a branch, and they remind me of a waiter holding a platter upon an extended arm. That platter of flowers is irresistible to native bees, and my tree was covered with hundreds of tiny native bees. I’ve yet to see a honey bee on mine, and I wonder if that’s due to a chemical called trimethylamine that’s present in the flowers. It’s said to give them a mild, fishy scent that attracts flies for pollination.
Herbal folklore takes that a few steps further and associates the scent with sex and marital rites dating back to the ancient Greeks. Some think that the mildly musky scent smells like body fluids and getting busy, and a herbal book in the 1950’s notes that the “stale, sweet scent from the trimethylamine the flowers contain, makes them suggestive of sex.” I can’t say I agree, but smell is subjective. The flowers smell like intensely floral to me, with notes of tropical plumeria and orchids.
Hawthorn trees flower around the same time as linden trees and the flowers of both trees are combined into an early summer relaxation tea. There’s a version of this tea by traditional medicinals that mixes the calming effects of linden flowers and lemon balm, with the tart flavor and heart regulating powers of hawthorn berries.
According to my Peterson Field guide for Medicinal Plants, it’s the leaves and flowers that are actually more common for medicinal use, and that’s backed up by more than a dozen clinical studies investigating the impacts of hawthorn leaf and flower on heart health. They’re “approved in Germany for treating early stages of congestive heart failure, characterized by diminished cardiac function, a sensation of pressure or anxiety in the heart area, age-related heart disorders that do not require digitalis, and mild arrhythmias.”
The effects are mild, and you’re supposed to use the tea or tincture daily for prolonged periods to see results.
Knowing that the hawthorn is in the rose family, think of hawthorn berries less as berries, and more as “hawthorn hips.” They’re acidic and tart, but quite pleasant if you add enough sugar and make them into a cordial, liqueur, syrup or jelly. A syrup made from the fruit is sold as a herbal supplement for heart irregularity and high blood pressure.
In the years since I’ve been watching our hawthorn, it’s rarely set more than a handful of fruit. It flowers like crazy, and it’s covered in pollinators, but there’s never more than a dozen hawthorn berries on it in any given year. I’ve read that they need full sun to produce fruit, and that’s hard to find on our wooded land. If your tree is anything like ours and doesn’t set much fruit, the dried fruit are available online for herbal medicine making.
If you do find a hawthorn heavy with fruit, be very careful of the thorns on the trunk and branches. My Peterson Field guide for Medicinal Plants actually contains a warning in bold, saying that “Eye scratches from thorns can cause blindness.” I’m not sure that it has anything, in particular, to do with any compounds in the thorns, but rather the fact that they’re several inches long and absurdly sharp. I’d recommend picking with a long-handled fruit picker rather than getting too close to the branches.
Hawthorn Herbal Medicine
Just about every part of hawthorn can find its way into our herbal medicine chests. Regardless of how it’s prepared, hawthorn is almost always associated with heart medicine. It’s used to lower blood pressure, stabilize irregular heartbeats and strengthen the heart. Herbalists also prescribe hawthorn for emotional heart issues, like grief and heartbreak. It’s also used in combination with relaxing herbs to treat stress and anxiety because it dilates blood vessels and lowers blood pressure.
A tincture can be made out of either the leaves and flowers in the spring or the berries in the fall. Either way, the folk herbalist method would instruct you to fill a jar 2/3 of the way full with fresh herb, or 1/2 way full of dried herb. Fill the jar with a neutral spirit, such as vodka. Tighten the cap and store in a cool dark place for a few months, shaking whenever you remember.
Hawthorn tincture dosage is generally set at a dropper full three times daily. It’s not something for acute conditions, and it can take months for full effects to be realized. Ideally, hawthorn tincture is used over a long period of time to manage chronic conditions or as a preventative.
Much like rosehips, hawthorn berries make a pleasant jelly. While jelly’s not generally thought of as “medicinal,” a homemade hawthorn jelly is a good way to get reluctant patients to take their medicine. Instead of having to remember to take medicine, adding hawthorn jelly to morning toast incorporates it into your day in a unique way.
Since hawthorn berries are both acidic and tart, they’re often prepared into a syrup. This makes taking your medicine pleasant and will help even the most reluctant patient. To make a hawthorn syrup, simmer 1/2 cup to 1 cup of dried hawthorn berries in water on low for about an hour. Mash the berries, and simmer for an additional half hour, adding water as necessary. Cook until you have 1 to 2 cups of deeply red colored hawthorn infused water. Strain the mixture, and measure the output. Add 1 cup of honey and 2 ounces of brandy for every cup of hawthorn extract. Mix thoroughly, and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 months. If you want to skip the DIY step, there are also commercially prepared hawthorn syrups available.
Hawthorn Herbal Tea
Hawthorn tea can be made from either the flowers of the fruit. Hawthorn flower tea will have a light floral taste, while a tea made from the fruit tastes bright and acidic, like a rosehip tea. Dosage for hawthorn tea is similar to hawthorn tincture, and a cup 1 to 3 times a day is taken as a preventative.
Since hawthorn berry tea can be a bit intense on its own, it’s often mixed with other complementary herbs. Traditional medicals makes a number of hawthorn blends such as Hawthorn and Hibiscus, where the hibiscus compliments the flavor of the hawthorn, and Hawthorn and Linden for relaxation and blood pressure support.
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