Hawthorn – Medicine for the Heart
The hawthorn tree has many gifts. Flowers provide sweet nectar to pollinators and animals eat the nutritious berries. Large thorns protect the tree from grazing animals and offer a safe haven for small birds and other creatures to nest and hide. People value hawthorn as medicine for strengthening the heart and blood vessels. It eases pressure on the heart and can be protective in times of physical and emotional stress.
Identifying Hawthorn: Late September through early October is a perfect time to get to know hawthorn trees. Look for medium-sized trees with clusters of bright red berries growing in city landscapes, fields, sunny forest patches. Branches are armored with large thorns. Leaves are toothed and deeply lobed. In springtime, small pinkish-white bloom in thick clusters. They smell a little fishy and attract pollinators including bees and flies. European hawthorn is considered a weedy species but is a beloved plant to herbalists and wild food foragers. Native black river hawthorn has deep green leaves and blue-black berries. You will find it growing along rivers and forest edges. It has many of the same ecological and medicinal benefits of European hawthorn. It is often planted in native plant gardens and ecological restoration sites. There are over 100 species of native and cultivated hawthorns in North America, but not all of them are medicinal. Many species of hawthorn grow around the world.
Food: Hawthorn leaf buds and young leaves are called “pepper and salt” in England and are traditionally eaten in salads. The berries taste sweet but they contain a large seed that is not edible (it contains cyanic acid like cherry pits and apple seeds). You can eat the outer flesh and spit out the seed. Cyanic acid dissipates once the berries are cooked or dried. Hawthorn powder from the berries is added to flour in Northwestern Africa and is high in the trace minerals selenium, which is important for immune function, and chromium, which enhances the function of insulin—a hormone that regulates blood sugar levels. Hawthorn berries are also used to make jelly and are high in a thickening agent called pectin; so only half the generally recommended pectin is required to get a jelly consistency. Pectin content is highest in the early fall and decreases once the berries become very ripe. Crabapples, rosehips, and hawthorn make a delicious jelly.
Medicine: Hawthorn is one of the most commonly used herbal medicines for supporting cardiovascular health. It is very safe and is used both as a daily tonic for promoting general wellness and as a medicine for treating a wide range of cardiovascular disorders.
Antioxidants including proanthocyanidins and flavonoids in hawthorn leaf, flower, and berry strengthen blood vessels and help to heal damaged vessel walls. They also help arteries to become more pliable. Flavonoids are plant pigments that give berries and other fruits and vegetables their color. They help protect the body from cardiovascular disease, varicose veins, Alzheimer’s disease, cataracts, glaucoma, and the side effects of diabetes, including diabetic retinopathy, kidney damage, and vascular degeneration.
Hawthorn has a normalizing effect on the heart. If it is used regularly, it can help balance both high and low blood pressure through increasing the heart's ability to contract while gently relaxing outer blood vessels so the heart has less resistance to pump against. Hawthorn also relaxes the smooth muscles of the coronary artery walls and allows more blood to flow into the cells of the heart. This means more oxygen and nutrients are delivered to heart cells and waste products are removed. It is therefore supportive for acute conditions like angina or pain due to a lack of oxygen reaching the heart. Hawthorn is also helpful in treating or preventing atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), which contributes to angina and heart attacks.
Like other members of the rose family, hawthorn is a gentle astringent. It contains tannins that help to tighten inflamed and irritated tissue. This correlates with its traditional uses in easing diarrhea and upset stomach.
Hawthorn is a long-term remedy and should be taken for several months to several years for maximum benefit. Think of it as a superfood to the cardiovascular system. It can be taken as tea, tincture, cordial, or capsules. Homeopaths and flower essence practitioners also use hawthorn.
CAUTION: Hawthorn should not be used with cardio-active pharmaceuticals like digoxin or beta-blockers. If you are on heart medicine, consult a doctor before using hawthorn.
Harvest berries by cutting healthy-looking branches with clippers. You can take a “pruning” approach and improve the shape of the tree. Be careful to avoid the thorns! Dry branches whole in baskets, paper bags, or a dehydrator, or bundle them with rubber bands and hang them. You can pick the leaves, flowers, or berries off the branches in spring, usually May, when they are fresh and dry them. Flowers may smell slightly fishy when drying, but this will soon disappear.
Once completely dry, the leaves, flowers, or berries can be carefully removed from the branches. Store in glass jars or paper bags in a dark, dry area. Dried hawthorn will last about a year. To make tea, steep a tablespoon of berries and/or leaves and flowers in a cup of boiled water for 15–30 minutes. The berries can also be boiled for ten minutes. Drink 1–3 cups a day.
Happy Heart Tea
This is one of our favorite blended teas. It has a gentle warming and calming effect, and tastes delicious!
2 parts each: hawthorn leaf and flower, hawthorn berry, lemon balm
1 part each: rose petals, rosehips, rosemary, hibiscus, lavender
Blend all dry ingredients. Use 1 Tablespoon of tea per cup of boiled water and steep 15 minutes to several hours. Drink 1–3 cups a day.
Ecological Relationships: Hawthorn flowers provide nectar for many species of flies and bees. Hawthorn berries are a favorite food for many birds including waxwings, thrushes, and blue jays. In exchange for the plant’s generosity, the birds distribute the seeds far and wide. The seeds germinate best after passing through a bird’s digestive system since the stomach acid breaks down their seed coat.
“Haw” is German for hedge. Hawthorn is often planted in hedgerows – living fences made of mostly native small trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowers that form a long barrier between fields or along roads. Hedgerows provide important habitat for animals to nest and live, and are a source of food for insects, birds, mammals, and amphibians to live in the midst of cultivated landscapes like agricultural fields, parks, and housing developments. They also prevent soil from blowing away. Hedgerows are used in many parts of the world including Europe and the Middle East. Farmers who immigrated to the United States often planted hedgerows with hawthorn between fields, and many of these can still be seen today. Some small farmers are recognizing the benefits of hedgerows and are bringing back the tradition.
You can purchase native black hawthorn at many native plant nurseries. English hawthorn is considered a weedy species that competes with native varieties of trees. Because of this, harvesting wild hawthorn is preferable to planting trees.
Courage for the Heart
“Courage is a heart word. The root word of courage is cor—the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant ‘To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.’ Speaking from our hearts is what I think of as ordinary courage.” –Brenè Brown
Sitting quietly, you might close your eyes, put a hand on your chest, and sense your heart. Can you feel it beating? Is it relaxed and rhythmic, fast and jumpy, or something else? Can you feel your heartbeat in any other part of your body? Reflect on the medicine of Hawthorn’s flowers, leaves, and berries, which strengthen our heart and blood vessels, and also remind us of the compassionate power of our heart. Hawthorn medicine can soothe, strengthen, and bring courage when we most need help. It reminds us to tend and listen to our hearts, particularly in times of distress when we might feel afraid to take another step, or to show up as we really are, not as others would like us to be. Hawthorn reminds us we are not alone, and that we can listen to the kind wisdom of the heart.
- How can I commit to showing up and facing what I fear?
- When I feel isolated, what will nourish my heart and help me feel connected?
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