Ontario Hawthorn Berries – Now that spring is in full swing, I’m blown away by the incredible variety of plant life that grows around us. I remember being surrounded by a sea of green when I was young, wandering in fields and forests. Except for the occasional wildflower, everything looked more or less the same to me. It took years of consistent work before we were able to distinguish between the many different plants growing in our area. Now I can empathize with my students who are having a hard time distinguishing plants that look as different as dogs and squirrels to me, and it’s great to help others learn to make sense of it all.
Another thing that amazes me is the diversity of healing properties of each plant species. Sadly, this is not reflected in most herbal literature. We live in a society where the dominant world view is very analytical, reductive and materialistic. The wealth of information traditionally available on medicinal plant species has become thin and superficial. Although herbal books are popular these days, there are very few good ones. Most of them are not written by herbalists. They are written by academics who ignore our rich herbal heritage and focus on the growing body of largely meaningless animal and test-tube studies. Even the few clinical studies that have been done on herbs are often poorly designed and do not accurately reflect real-world use of real herbs. As a result, most information on herbs is monotonous, focusing on superficial symptoms: black cohosh (
Ontario Hawthorn Berries
) 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.
The History, Mythology, And Offerings Of Hawthorn
A typical example of a versatile herb whose therapeutic benefits have been downplayed in the popular and scientific literature is hawthorn (
) Hawthorns form a complex genus of between two and three hundred species that grow primarily in temperate and subtropical regions of the Northern Hemisphere. About 40 native and one European species are naturalized here in Ontario alone, and perhaps 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 different 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 a botanist specializing in Crataegus can make a positive identification of any particular species.
One thing that herbal books seem to agree on is that there are two species of hawthorn used medicinally, both of which originated in Europe. They are woodland hawthorn (
), the latter is an alien species that rarely naturalizes in Ontario. Unfortunately, this information is misleading. In reality, all species of hawthorn can be used medicinally and they all have similar properties. You won’t find any 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 local species over the years and have found the range of characteristics to be fairly consistent from species to species. The only difference I noticed was small differences in the strength of their actions on the nervous system.
Three different parts of hawthorn are used medicinally: flowers, leaves, and fruit. The flowers are believed to be slightly stronger than the leaves, but harvesting the flowers alone is not practical. So it is best to harvest the flowers and leaves at the same time in the early to mid-flowering period before the flowers are fertilized and begin to turn brown. This can be anywhere from early May to mid-June, depending on the harvesting location and species. Most hawthorn species flower for a very short time, usually one to two weeks. If we want to harvest leaves and flowers we must be prepared otherwise we may lose them. If that happens, it’s usually possible to harvest different species that flower a little later.
Leaves and flower clusters arise from a single bud. We harvest the new shoots with their young leaves and flower clusters when the flowers begin to open. It is important not to harvest more than a few shoots from any branch or it will stress the tree too much. When harvested this way, we end up with a larger amount of leaf compared to the flower, which is better. Leaves and flowers are removed from the young stem, which is discarded. They can be dried to make a tea or made into a tincture, preferably within a couple of hours of harvesting them. Fresh leaf and flower tincture is preferred, but tea is still very effective.
Hawthorn berries are also used medicinally. Although most herb books refer to them as fruits, the fruit is not a berry. This is a pome, which makes it more like a miniature apple. The best time to harvest the fruits is when they turn completely green to red (or orange for some species). This is usually sometime between late July and mid-August, depending on the species we are harvesting. If we harvest these after a while their potency drops a bit, but they are very wormy. The berries can 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 or they will mold. The best way to dry them is with a sheet of cardboard or fine plastic mesh with air circulating up and down. They should be only one layer deep and dried in a warm, well-ventilated area out of direct sunlight.
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Hawthorns are small trees or shrubs. They are very common in most areas of Ontario. They grow in open spaces and transitional areas, especially along the edges of forests. 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 produce an unpleasant fragrance in May or June. It is typical of plants pollinated by flies and bees. The fruits are green when unripe in June and July, but eventually turn red or orange (depending on the species) in August. However, what makes hawthorn easier to identify is their long, sharp spines. It is important to be very careful when harvesting or walking near hawthorn trees. Thorns can prick you and penetrate the soles of running shoes and hiking boots if stepped on properly.
Hawthorn trees are very important to wildlife. Not only do their fruits provide an important food source for many species of birds and small mammals, but the trees provide protection from predators. Many birds use hawthorn trees as nesting sites or rest among their branches when they need a break. I once saw a one-year-old red-tailed hawk, which didn’t have much experience with hawthorns, trying to get a gray squirrel into a space near the base of a hawthorn tree. The hawk realized his 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 jumping back and forth from the hawk’s head. After teasing the hawk for about 10 minutes the bird finally got frustrated and flew away.
Hawthorn is known for its actions on the cardiovascular system. It strengthens the heart and blood vessels and protects against the harmful effects of toxins. It improves blood circulation throughout the body including the brain. Hawthorn also helps to normalize blood pressure. Collectively, these properties make hawthorn an excellent herb for any condition of the heart, including blood vessels and weak heart, heart rhythm irregularities, varicose veins, hemorrhoids, arteriosclerosis, poor peripheral circulation, high and low blood pressure. To reduce blood fat and cholesterol levels. This herb helps improve concentration and memory and is helpful in treating various forms of dementia.
) Hawthorn also works well when combined with a small amount of warming herb. Some that work especially well with this herb include cayenne (
Identifying Hawthorn And Blackthorn
Hawthorn is also an important herb for the nervous system. It has a general tonic action on the system and is calming and relaxing.