Hawthorn Herbal Ally for the Heart and MindMichael Vertolli, RH May 1, 2008
Now that spring is in full swing, I am blown away by the incredible diversity of plant life that grows all around us. I remember when I was a child wandering around in the fields and woods, it seemed as if I was surrounded by a sea of green. Except for the occasional wildflower, everything looked more or less the same to me. It took years of working at it persistently before I was able to distinguish between the many different plants that grow in our area. I can empathize with my students who have difficulty telling apart plants that look as different as dogs and squirrels to me now, and it’s great to be able to help others to learn to make some sense of it all.
Another thing that amazes me is the diversity of healing properties of each plant species. Sadly, this is not at all reflected in most of the herbal literature. We live in a society where the dominant world view is very analytical, reductionistic and materialistic. The richness of information that was traditionally available on medicinal plant species has become thin and superficial. Although herb books are popular these days, there are very few good ones. Most of them aren’t written by herbalists. They are written by academics who for the most part ignore our rich herbal heritage and focus on the growing body of animal and test-tube studies that are mostly meaningless. Even the few clinical studies that have been done on herbs are usually poorly designed and don’t accurately reflect the use of real herbs in the real world. As a result, most of the information on herbs has become unidimensional, focusing on superficial symptoms: black cohosh (Actaea racemosa) is for menopause, purple coneflower (Echinacea spp.) is for the immune system, St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum) is for depression, valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is for insomnia, etc. The truth is, I’ve never met an herb that didn’t have dozens of medicinal properties and hundreds of potential therapeutic uses.
A typical example of a multifaceted herb whose therapeutic benefits have been minimized in the popular and scientific literature is hawthorn (Crataegus spp.). The hawthorns make up a complex genus of between two and three hundred species that primarily grow in the temperate and subtropical regions of the northern hemisphere. In Ontario alone there are 40 native and one European species that has naturalized here, and possibly dozens of hybrids. As with most plant genera, the classification or taxonomy of hawthorn species is currently being revised on the basis of recent DNA data, so the exact number of distinct hawthorn species is still being debated. The situation is even more complicated with the Crataegus genus because it is very complex and many of these species’ can readily hybridize with each other. Usually only botanists that specialize in Crataegus can make a positive identification of any given species.
One thing that herb books seem to agree on is that there are two species of hawthorn that are used medicinally, both of which are from Europe. They are woodland hawthorn (C. laevigata) and one-seeded hawthorn (C. monogyna), the latter being the one alien species that has naturalized sporadically in Ontario. Unfortunately, this information is misleading. In reality, most if not all species of hawthorn can be used medicinally and they all have very similar properties. You won’t find any of the native Ontario species mentioned in herb books, but all of them are useful. The two species that I most often use in my clinic are eastern hawthorn (C. macrosperma) and late hawthorn (C. calpodendron). However, I have used several native species over the years and have found the range of properties to be pretty consistent from species to species. The only variation that I have noticed is minor differences in the strength of their actions on the nervous system.
There are three different parts of hawthorn that are used medicinally: the flowers, leaves and fruit. The flowers are believed to be slightly stronger than the leaves, but harvesting the flowers alone is not practical. The flowers and leaves are therefore best harvested at the same time from the beginning to middle of its flowering period before the flowers are fertilized and start turning brown. This can be anywhere from early May to mid June depending on the location and species being harvested. Most hawthorn species flower for a very short time, typically one to two weeks. If we want harvest the leaves and flowers we have to be prepared otherwise we might miss them. If that happens, it is usually possible to harvest a different species that flowers a bit later.
The leaves and flower clusters emerge from the same buds. When the flowers begin to open we harvest the new shoots with their young leaves and flower cluster. It is important not to harvest more than a few shoots from any branch or it can be too stressful for the tree. When harvested this way, we will end up with a higher proportion of leaf compared to flower, which is fine. The leaves and flowers are removed from the young stalk, which is discarded. They can be dried to make tea or made into a tincture, preferably within a couple hours of harvesting them. The tincture of the fresh leaf and flower is preferred, but the tea is still very effective.
The fruits of hawthorn are also used medicinally. Although most herb books refer to them as berries, the fruit is not a berry. It is a pome, which makes it more like a miniature apple. The best time to harvest the fruits is when they have almost completely turned from green to red (or orange for some species). This is usually some time between late July and mid August depending on which species we are harvesting. If we harvest them a bit later than this their potency will only drop a bit, but they will also become very wormy. The fruits can also be dried for later use as a tea or used fresh to make a tincture. Once more, I prefer the tincture but the tea is also effective. Because of their high moisture content, the berries must be dried rapidly or they will get mouldy. The best way to dry them is on a sheet of cardboard or a fine plastic mesh with air circulating above and below. They should only be one layer deep and dried in a warm, well-ventilated area out of direct sunlight.
The hawthorns are small trees or shrubs. They are very common in most of Ontario. They tend to grow in open fields and transition areas, especially along the edges of woodlands. Hawthorn is one of the first trees to colonize open areas when they are allowed to return to a wild state. They have white, cream or pale pink flowers with five petals that produce an unpleasant aroma in May or June. This is typical of plants that are pollinated by flies as well as bees. The fruits are green when they are immature in June and July, but eventually turn red or orange (depending on the species) in August. However, what makes hawthorn easiest to recognize is their long sharp thorns. It is important to be very careful when harvesting or even walking near hawthorn trees. The thorns can poke you and even penetrate the soles of running shoes and hiking boots if stepped on in the right way.
Hawthorn trees are very important to wildlife. Not only do their fruit provide an important food source for many species’ of birds and small mammals, the trees also provide protection from predators. Many birds use hawthorn trees as nesting sites or rest among their branches when they need a break. I once watched a yearling red-tailed hawk that obviously didn’t have much experience with hawthorns fly into a space near the base of a hawthorn tree trying to get at a grey squirrel. The hawk realized its mistake too late. It wasn’t going anywhere in that tree. But the squirrel had a great time! It knew it was safe and kept hopping back and forth inches from the hawk’s head. It teased the hawk for about 10 minutes before the bird finally got tired of being frustrated and flew off.
Hawthorn is best known for its actions on the cardiovascular system. It strengthens the heart and blood vessels and protects them from the harmful effects of toxins. It improves circulation throughout the body including to the brain. Hawthorn also helps to normalize blood pressure. Collectively, these properties make hawthorn an excellent herb for virtually any condition of the heart, blood vessels and circulation including weak heart, irregularities of the heart beat, varicose veins, hemorrhoids, arteriosclerosis, poor peripheral circulation, high and low blood pressure, and helps to reduce blood fat and cholesterol levels. This herb also helps improve concentration and memory, and can be helpful in the treatment of the various forms of dementia.
For the treatment of cardiovascular conditions, hawthorn is very synergistic with maidenhair tree leaf (Ginkgo biloba) and motherwort herb (Leonurus cardiaca). Hawthorn also works best if combined with a small amount of a warming herb. Those that work particularly well with this herb include cayenne fruit (Capsicum anuum), garlic bulb (Allium sativum), ginger rhizome (Zingiber officinale), rosemary herb (Rosmarinus officinalis) and turmeric rhizome (Curcuma longa).
Hawthorn is also an important herb for the nervous system. It has a general tonic action on this system and is calming and relaxing. It helps reduce stress, tension, anxiety and depression. This is not only beneficial for stress-related conditions, but also enhances its effectiveness for the treatment of cardiovascular conditions as stress is one of the important factors that can contribute to the development of the latter.
For conditions of the nervous system hawthorn is synergistic with German chamomile flower (Matricaria recutita), lavender flower (Lavandula angustifolia), lemon balm herb (Melissa officinalis), motherwort herb, passionflower herb (Passiflora spp.), scullcap herb (Scutellaria lateriflora) and St. Johnswort herb.
Hawthorn helps to improve kidney function and reduce inflammation in the urinary tract. It benefits all inflammatory conditions of the urinary tract such as cystitis, nephritis and urethritis. If the condition is due to infection, hawthorn is not particularly antimicrobial. It will still benefit the condition but will work better if combined with a urinary antimicrobial such as bearberry herb (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), juniper berry (Juniperus communis), pot marigold flowers (Calendula officinalis) and thyme herb (Thymus vulgaris).
Hawthorn is a very good antioxidant. As such it helps to protect cells and tissues and reduce inflammation throughout the body.
Hawthorn is a very safe herb and is not associated with any toxicity concerns. However, it is used to treat some very serious health conditions. If you are suffering with a serious condition for which you think hawthorn may be able to help, self-treatment is not recommended. You should consult with a qualified herbalist or other practitioner who specializes in the use of herbs. The same applies to anyone who is taking pharmaceuticals. In these situations, the treatment is more complex and associated with greater risk.
Now that it’s getting warm, this is a great time of year to get out and take a walk in our wild fields and forests if you haven’t been doing that through the winter, or even if you have. The many flowering trees and herbs are always a joy to behold and I look forward to it all year. If you are taking a walk this month or early in June and get a strong waft of a somewhat putrid odor, look for small trees or shrubs nearby that are ablaze with flowers and they are probably hawthorn. They might not smell great, but they are beautiful nonetheless and great herbal friends to know.
Michael Vertolli is a Registered Herbalist practising in Vaughan (just north of Toronto). He is the Director of Living Earth School of Herbalism, which offers in-class and online general interest courses, certificate, and diploma programs. For more information: 905-303-8723, ext. 1. Visit his website: www.livingearthschool.ca Blog: michaelvertolli.blogspot.com