Crataegus species, a.k.a. Mayhaw and Thornapple.
Hawthorn loves the heart. It lowers high blood pressure and raises low blood pressure. Hawthorn, like other tonics, focuses on stabilizing the existing system to achieve a healthy balance. Happily, this tree grows all over Eurasia and the Americas and has hundreds of species adapted to their native climate. This makes hawthorn easy to use and easy to grow.
Medicinal Properties of Hawthorn
Hawthorn is the ultimate heart tonic. It’s full of complex flavonoids that work together to support the circulatory system. As an adaptogen, it is best to allow hawthorn several weeks to several months to adjust a damaged system. Hawthorn works well with other tonic herbs and strengthens their effect on the body.
Hawthorn also has bitter alkaloids especially in the leaves and flowers that stabilize the digestive system as well as the heart. The presence of catechins in hawthorn gives this plant an astringent effect that can be detected even in a weak cup of hawthorn tea.
Conditions Best Helped by Hawthorn
As a cardiovascular tonic, hawthorn is invaluable for a variety of conditions. It’s added to a variety of herbal formulas to help the body process other herbs through the circulatory system. Patients with concerns about dangers to their heart and circulatory system can benefit from daily doses of hawthorn in a variety of forms.
Hawthorn has a positive inotropic effect on the heart similar to cardiac glycosides while it reduces arrhythmia. This translates into a safe herb to use to prevent palpitations due to stress.
Hypertension is a common malady in modern life. High blood pressure or low blood pressure are dangerous symptoms that often lead to life threatening conditions. Hawthorn is a smart addition to a change in lifestyle to reduce such danger. Hawthorn has the ability as a tonic to lower high blood pressure or raise low blood pressure as the body requires.
Since hawthorn works so well on the circulatory system, it should be no surprise that it also tones capillaries in other parts of the body. Bloodshot eyes, glaucoma, varicose veins and hemorrhoids are all soothed by including hawthorn in the treatment plan.
Hawthorn is still under the researcher’s microscope. It’s currently being studied for its success in treating leukemia. The rutins in hawthorn have been shown to eliminate leukemia cells in laboratory tests. It is also being studied for its effect on controlling lupus.
For more information on the conditions best helped by Hawthorn, see the topics in Conditions, including:
- Congestive Heart Failure
- Heart Palpitations
- Poor Circulation
List of Hawthorn’s Medicinal Actions
Cardiotonic, diuretic, antioxidant, bitter, astringent and nutritive.
Hawthorn is fairly simple to process. 100 proof alcohol is ideal as a base. Most tinctures on the market are made from dried plant but fresh can be used just as easily. If fresh berries are used in the tincture, the end product will be thick and have an oily texture. Hawthorn has both tannins and alkaloids, so when processing hawthorn as a tincture 5-10 percent glycerine should be added to to the alcohol mixture to prevent the alkaloids from precipitating. Process the leaf and flower separately from the berry and mix when the batches are done since the leaf and flower tincture will be finished long before the berry is properly extracted.
Hawthorn berry can also be cooked into jams, jellies and spreads for nutritional and medicinal use. The haws are useful in syrup and glycerite for palatable daily dosing.
Tea from hawthorn leaf or flower is best drunk as an infusion. Due to the density of the haw fruit, a stove top decoction is best for the berry. If an infusion from all three parts are desired, crush the haws first to help them break down in the tea to enjoy hawthorn’s full effect.
For more information on basic herbal preparations, see the topics in Herbal How-to.
Gardening and Gathering Hawthorn
Although there are hundreds of Crataegus species from all over the world, non-native species require much more care than native species. As with many woody members of the rose family, pruning is the best management you can offer hawthorn trees. Native trees are easy to grow organically and offer wildlife winter food in abundance.
Native hawthorn trees are hosts to many different types of insect life. The over 100 different species of larva of butterflies start out life in the branches of hawthorn trees. These caterpillars can happily sustain themselves until adulthood on hawthorn leaves when they transform into the winged forms that delight us in our gardens.
Hawthorn is a wildly successful plant and is considered a weed tree in many places. Birds drop seeds from digested haws in a vast circumference from the mother tree. Weeded sprouts from unwanted hawthorn seedlings and pruned branches provide readily available leaves and flowers to dry for medicine.
Hawthorn berries should be collected after first frost to sweeten the fruit. Waiting too long after first frost may result in mealy, fermented fruit.
Quick ID tips
Appearance: A deciduous tree or small shrub with alternative, thick, dark green leaves that are oval in shape. Branches have thorns at the leaf buds and rough scaly bark. The flowers range in color from pink to yellow to white. Fruits (haws) can be single or multi-seeded. Haws range in color from purple to red to yellow. Haws range in size according to species.
Taste: Haws are mealy with varying sweetness. Flowers and leaves are bitter and astringent in flavor.
Odor: Flowers smell like rotted meat which attains a floral scent when dried. Leaves have very little scent. Haws smell vaguely fruity but give off a tangy scent when crushed.
Further ID for Individual Species
The USDA offers specific identification help for over 100 hawthorn species growing in the US.
Using Hawthorn to Care for Animals
Hawthorn haws provide our four-legged friends many of the same heart-healing properties they offer us. Tincture, glycerite, or infusion of hawthorn haws added to the food dish can be of particular help to dogs who suffer a variety of heart conditions. For elderly canines, even if they haven’t been diagnosed with a heart condition, Hawthorn offers protection and gentle healing that can ease the effects of aging. If your animal is taking prescribed heart medications, use hawthorn only under the supervision of a qualified animal-medicine practitioner.
Hawthorn contains significant amounts of rutin, which is a flavonoid that vets use to treat chylothorax in animals. Animals who have suffered from heartworms, cardiac disease or tumors are in danger of getting chylothorax. This disease is difficult to treat, so it is an advantage to animals prone to these diseases to get hawthorn as a regular dietary supplement for prevention of cardiac difficulties.
Most birds love hawthorn berries. The haws may be chopped up to provide an inexpensive source of tree fresh fruit for small birds in the winter. Haws are an important winter food source for wildlife as well.
Household Formulas and Non-medicinal Uses of Hawthorn
In North America, Hawthorn was used widely for tool handles and fence posts because its wood is hard and rot-resistant. If you can find a large enough chunk, hawthorn’s tightly-grained wood makes beautiful carvings and is said to polish well.
Hawthorn wood burns hot, hot enough to melt pig iron, which makes it a good wood for the campfire when used sparingly, particularly on a cold evening.
Hawthorn leaves make an excellent non-tobacco smoking alternative. They are often included in herbal smoking blends for their heart-healing qualities. See The Practical Herbalist Recipes for an Herbal Smoking Blend recipe.
Likewise, Hawthorn makes a good addition to herbal incense blends for its scent and for the loving, protective energy it offers. Hawthorn haws are slightly sweet in scent when burned, less so are the leaves. Both are moderately smokey. The haws are hard to crack, so if you’re planning to form your incense blend into sticks or cones, use the leaves only. Or, purchase haws that have been powdered. The haws burn well in loose incense blends.
Hawthorn haws can also be cooked into jams, jellies and spreads for the breakfast table. Haws are a favorite wild-crafted food since they’re nutritious and available in winter and early spring. Any cook will tell you canning preserves in cooler weather is much better than canning in summer.
For more recipes and ideas for using Hawthorn, see the topics in Recipes.
Cautions for Hawthorn
Hawthorn is suitable is as a heart tonic, but it is not a substitute for use with prescribed heart medication. Patients who have been diagnosed with arrhythmia, angina or congestive heart failure should use hawthorn with the guidance of a qualified health practitioner.
Large amounts of hawthorn may cause a sedative effect or a rapid drop in blood pressure.
Pregnant or nursing mothers should use hawthorn with the guidance of a qualified health practitioner.
For more information see our History, Folklore, Myth and Magic page on Hawthorn.