Hawthorn Berries Maryland – Now that spring is in full swing, I am amazed at the incredible variety of plants that grow around us. I remember when I wandered in the fields and forests as a child, it seemed that I was surrounded by a sea of greenery. Except for the occasional wildflower, everything looked more or less the same to me. It took years of hard work before I was able to distinguish the many different plants that grow in our area. I can empathize with my students who struggle to distinguish between plants that now look as different to me as dogs and squirrels, and it’s great that I can help others learn to make sense of it all.
I am also surprised by the variety of healing properties of each type of plant. Unfortunately, this is not reflected at all in most herbal literature. We live in a society where the dominant view of the world is very analytical, reductionist and materialistic. The wealth of information that was traditionally available about medicinal plant species has become thin and superficial. Although books about herbs are popular these days, there are very few of them. Most of them are not written with herbs. They are written by scientists who, for the most part, ignore our rich plant heritage and focus on a growing body of animal and test-tube research that is largely meaningless. Even the few clinical studies that have been conducted on herbs are usually poorly designed and do not accurately reflect real-world uses of actual herbs. As a result, most herbal information has become one-dimensional, focusing on superficial symptoms: black cohosh (
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) for insomnia, etc. The truth is, I’ve never met an herb that didn’t have dozens of healing properties and hundreds of potential therapeutic uses.
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A typical example of a multifaceted herb whose medicinal value has been minimized in the popular and scientific literature is hawthorn (
). Hawthorn is a complex genus of two to three hundred species that mainly grow in the temperate and subtropical regions of the northern hemisphere. In Ontario alone, there are 40 native and one European species that have naturalized here, and possibly dozens of hybrids. As with most plant genera, the classification or taxonomy of hawthorn species is currently being revised based on recent DNA data, so the exact number of individual hawthorn species is still debated. The situation is even more complicated with the genus Crataegus because it is very complex and many of these species can easily hybridize with each other. Usually only botanists who specialize in Crataegus can accurately identify any species.
One thing that herbal books seem to agree on is that there are two species of hawthorn used medicinally, both of which are native to Europe. They are forest hawthorn (
), the latter being the only non-native species that has become sporadically naturalized in Ontario. Unfortunately, this information is misleading. In fact, most if not all types 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 they are all useful. The two species I use most often in my clinic are Eastern Hawthorn (
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). However, I have used several native species over the years and have found the range of properties to be fairly consistent from species to species. The only variation I have noticed is slight differences in the strength of their effects on the nervous system.
There are three different parts of hawthorn that are used medicinally: the flowers, the leaves, and the fruit. The flowers are said to be slightly stronger than the leaves, but it is impractical to collect only the flowers. Therefore, it is better to collect flowers and leaves at the same time from the beginning to the middle of the flowering period, before the flowers are fertilized and start to turn brown. This can be anywhere from early May to mid-June depending on the location and the species being harvested. Most species of hawthorn bloom for a very short time, usually one to two weeks. If we want to harvest leaves and flowers, we must be prepared or we may miss them. If this happens, it is usually possible to collect another species that blooms a little later.
Leaves and flowers appear from the same buds. When the flowers begin to open, we collect new shoots with young leaves and flower clusters. It is important not to collect more than a few shoots from any branch or it can be too stressful for the tree. If we harvest this way, we will get a higher proportion of leaves compared to flowers, and that is normal. Leaves and flowers are removed from the young stem, which are thrown away. They can be dried to make a tea or made into a tincture, preferably within a few hours of picking them. A tincture of fresh leaves and flowers is preferred, but the tea is still very effective.
Hawthorn fruits are also used for medicinal purposes. Although most herb books refer to them as berries, the fruit is not a berry. It is a seed, which makes it look more like a miniature apple. The best time to pick the fruits is when they have almost completely turned from green to red (or orange for some species). This is usually between the end of July and mid-August depending on the species we are collecting. If we harvest them a little later, their potency will only decrease slightly, but they will also become very wormy. The fruit can also be dried for later use as a tea or used fresh to make a tincture. Again, I prefer the tincture, but tea is also effective. Because of the high moisture content, the berries must be dried quickly, otherwise they will mold. It is best to dry them on a sheet of cardboard or a thin plastic net with air circulation from above and below. They should be only one layer deep and dried in a warm, well-ventilated area, away from direct sunlight.
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Hawthorns are small trees or shrubs. They are very common throughout most of Ontario. They tend to grow in open fields and transitional areas, especially along forest edges. Hawthorn is one of the first trees to colonize open areas when allowed to return to a wild state. They have white, cream, or pale pink flowers with five petals that give off an unpleasant fragrance in May or June. This is typical of plants that are pollinated by flies as well as bees. The fruits are green when unripe in June and July, but eventually turn red or orange (depending on the species) in August. However, it is easiest to recognize hawthorn by its long, sharp spines. It is important to be very careful when harvesting or even walking near hawthorn trees. Spikes can stick into you and even penetrate the soles of sneakers and hiking boots if stepped on correctly.
Hawthorn trees are very important for wildlife. Their fruits are not only an important source of food for many species of birds and small mammals, but also protect them 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, obviously inexperienced with hawthorns, fly into a clearing near the base of a hawthorn tree in an attempt to retrieve a gray squirrel. The hawk realized his mistake too late. It didn’t go anywhere on that tree. But the squirrel had a great time! It knew it was safe and kept hopping back and forth within inches of the hawk’s head. He teased the hawk for about 10 minutes before the bird finally got tired of being frustrated and flew away.
Hawthorn is best known for its effects on the cardiovascular system. It strengthens the heart and blood vessels and protects them from the harmful effects of toxins. It improves blood circulation throughout the body, including the brain. Hawthorn also helps normalize blood pressure. Combined, these properties make hawthorn an excellent herb for almost any heart, blood vessel, or circulatory condition, including weak heart, heart rhythm disorders, varicose veins, hemorrhoids, arteriosclerosis, poor peripheral circulation, high and low blood pressure, and helps to lower fat and cholesterol in the blood. This herb also helps improve concentration and memory and may be useful in treating various forms of dementia.
). Hawthorn also works best when combined with a little warming herb. Those that work particularly well with this herb include cayenne (
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Hawthorn is also an important herb for the nervous system. It has a tonic effect on this system, calming and relaxing.
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