Written by Elliott Brinkley, Clinical Herbalist & Owner of Dancing Willow Herbs
Hawthorn has always had a special place in my heart... somewhat literally, because it helps improve circulation in the heart, but also because it has been a beacon in my experience working with herbs. It helps me mark the years as it always ushers in autumn, and welcomes in the warmth of spring. I sip on the decocted berries all throughout the colder months, and make iced spritzers with the leaves and flowers during the summer. Time and time again, it helps me reconnect with my heart, my purpose and the world around me.
Yes, there are so medicinal attributes that Hawthorn can offer our physical body. And I always feel there is so much more at work, with this magical tree.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, Hawthorn is considered to be a shen tonic. Our shen is where our essence resides. Hawthorn helps us connect with and settle into our spirit, our purpose, and what lights us up. It is for this reason that I think Hawthorn has been such a powerful herb for me. It has guided me on my path and helped me settle into who I really am. For this reason, I feel honored to introduce you to one of my dearest botanical allies through this monograph. I have laid out the medicinal properties, history and lore, and the energetic support that Hawthorn has to offer in this monograph.
Hawthorn ~ Crataegus spp.
Parts used: Flowers, Leaves, Berries
Native to: Europe, Asia, North America, North Africa
Naturalized: Europe, Asia, North America, North Africa
Energetics: Sweet, Sour, Astringent
Herbal Actions: Cardiotonic, Anti-inflammatory, Hypotensive, Nervine, Tonic
There are many different species that can be difficult to differentiate because hawthorn hybridizes very easily. Luckily almost all species can be used interchangeably for medicinal purposes.
Hawthorn can range from 3 to 49 feet tall and are commonly used in England and Ireland as hedgerows. They have thorned branches and white flowers that can be grouped in 5-30 flowers depending on the species. The tree flowers in the spring, and bears fruit in the fall. The berries are bright red and are known as “fairy apples” because they resemble tiny round apples. The leaves are toothed, can be elliptic or oval shaped, some are deeply lobed. The leaves can be eaten as a green in salad, or sautés. The flowers can be used to infuse wine, or made into medicine. The berries need to be slowly cooked down when eaten, or can be made freshly into medicine.
Hawthorn is a guardian tree that grounds us into our essence, the seat of our authenticity- the heart. Hawthorn teaches us not only to open our heart, but to really root into it so that we may fully embrace the magic of this world and ourselves. Working with hawthorn is a lesson in genuinely trusting the heart, and putting to rest resistance or previous hurt that continues to reside there. Through this we are able to embody our true nature and share our gifts with the world- staying anchored in the heart amongst tumultuous seas.
Hawthorn dissolves veils, teaches us of the in-between spaces and of kindling magic sparks from the heart. This tree is a gateway beyond the mists. With flowers, white like the milky way and berries red as moon blood, Hawthorn teaches us how to stay grounded in the ether and enchanted in the mundane. Ripe with the potential to fill our heart with immense love for the Earth, the unseen guardians that inhabit it, and the tender or hidden parts of ourselves. Hawthorn stands ready to defend that which is good, loving and in justice intent.
Hawthorn has long been known as a portal to the fairy realm. A dancer amongst polarity, hawthorn represents the gateway between worlds. She embodies the in between, as she blooms on Beltane (middle point between spring and summer) and fruits on Samhain (middle point between fall and winter). She brings forth her medicine during these times which are not one or the other, they are the in between. Hawthorn knows how to support us when we are in times of transition, teaching us how to remain centered in our hearts when we are walking among uncertainty.
Hawthorn is asking you to peel back any veils clouding the loving center of your heart. To bring forth the truth that you are here to share, the purpose and love that lies in your bones. May we be open to the magic Hawthorn is ready to share with us, as we learn more about it's medicine.
History and Lore
There is much symbolism and story that immerses the hawthorn.
One of my favorite tales is that a Welsh goddess scattered a trail of hawthorn petals that became the milky way. After hearing this story, I now look at the milky way and imagine the sweet white flowers being cast into the stars, so poetic!
Hawthorn is long associated with the “otherworld”. Hawthorn, ash and oak are considered the triad of fairy trees that represent the three realms- the underworld, middleworld, and upperworld, as well as the maiden, mother, crone- in Celtic tradition. Many stories illustrate individuals somehow finding themselves in the fairy realm while engaging with a hawthorn in some way.
Hawthorn also represents the two moments or experiences that bring us closest to the otherworld- sex(birth) and death. The flowers bloom around Beltane, or May Day- the cross-quarter holy day and middle point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. Beltane is associated with the fertile energy of spring, the sensuality of new beginnings. Hawthorn has been used in Beltane rituals and is typically the preferred wood used to make the famous May Pole, which is danced around as people hold strips of cloth. Wine is made from hawthorn blossoms, and drunk during Beltane celebration. And as they are a symbol of fertility, happiness, and hope, brides and bridesmaids frequently wore hawthorn blossoms on their wedding day.
While the fruits are usually ready to be harvested around Samhain, or Halloween as we know it- another cross-quarter holy day between the fall equinox and the winter solstice. Samhain is regarded as a moment for releasing the old, and celebrating the death of our garden. Additionally, hawthorn flowers contain a pheromonal chemical called triethylamine. This contributes to the bloom’s smell, in creating an intoxicating fragrance that later smells like decaying matter as the flower fades- another indication of hawthorn’s relationship to sex and death. The polarity of hawthorn was even illustrated in Harry Potter, where hawthorn wood was made to make wands. They say in the movie, “…as full of paradoxes as the tree that gave it birth, whose leaves and blossoms heal, and yet whose cut branches smell of death.”
The association with death has not only made Hawthorn a traditional remedy for grief, but also for death rituals. Hawthorn was traditionally used in funeral pyres with the idea that it assists in guiding the spirit to the otherworld.
Hawthorn is also known as the wishing tree, because of its close proximity to the fairies and otherworld. To make their wishes, individuals tie strips of cloth on hawthorns- the color of the cloth is typically symbolic for the specific wish and this tradition is most alive during the times of Beltane or Samhain because the “veils are thin”.
A symbol for protection, the sprigs of hawthorn were used in Roman times as a charm to protect children while they slept. It is said that hawthorn also protects places and can be found at holy wells and crossroads. It protects the edges of a property and is planted to guard the land.
The belief in the power of hawthorn’s magic is still very strong in Irish and Scottish culture. The hawthorn is celebrated, respected and feared for it is believed that if you disrespect this tree, it is disrespect to the fairies and otherworld. Because of this, major highway projects have been re-routed to avoid hawthorn trees. When you drive around the fields of Ireland, hawthorns will stand alone in fields, as others trees were cut down- but never the hawthorn.
Hawthorn has been used by the ancient greeks, and has a long history of use in Arabic medicine. It wasn’t as popular in European medicine until 1895, when an Irish physician named Greene, successfully treated heart patients with hawthorn.
Hawthorn is comprehensive heart medicine, working from various angles to strengthen the muscle at our center. The antioxidant properties and the flavonoid rutin, increase the passage of blood in the capillaries, removing congestion associated with heat. In this way, hawthorn can be an excellent ally for cold months and those with poor circulation in the hands and feet. I have even made a salve with hawthorn berries paired with other warming herbs to place topically on my toes before going outside in the winter months- it has seemed to make a big difference. Hawthorn prevents and reverses blood vessel damage, and can be a good tonic for those who have had chilblains (burst blood vessels in the toes caused by dramatic changes in temperature and poor circulation).
With this action on the capillaries, hawthorn lowers unhealthy cholesterol and high blood pressure. It improves the deposition of lipids in the walls of capillaries, in order for blood to pass through them more quickly. Hawthorn has a modulating and normalizing effect on blood pressure and cholesterol (lowering levels of bad cholesterol, and increasing levels of good cholesterol). It works as a gentle and slow ACE inhibitor.
By opening up circulation in the heart, hawthorn actually strengthens the heart muscle. In addition to lowering high blood pressure, it can lessen atherosclerosis, cardiac arrhythmias, and angina (chest pain). It is most researched in its ability to prevent, treat and potentially reverse congestive heart failure. Hawthorn is specifically indicated for cases where the blood pools in the heart and it becomes weak, by helping with circulation and strengthening the myocardium. Hawthorn may prevent heart attack and assist in our body’s ability to heal after a heart attack. It is beneficial for degeneration in the structure of the heart, particularly when it is age related. Hawthorn has an overall tonifying effect on the large vessels and heart muscle as a whole. Herbalist Maria Groves says that
hawthorn is safe enough to incorporate into daily food or medicine for anyone with heart problems or a family history of heart disease (154). So long as you keep in mind pharmaceutical contraindications (listed below).
In addition to physical heart support, hawthorn is known for being medicine for the emotional heart. It calms the nervous system, and is often used alongside rose to heal, open and protect the heart. Particularly beneficial for grief or a broken heart, hawthorn can help when someone feels extremely vulnerable, or anxious in reaction to loss.
The leaves, flowers and fruits are phytochemically similar, but they differ in the ratio of specific flavinoids. For the most wholistic hawthorn medicine, look to an extract that combines the leaves, flowers and fruits- this is what we offer at Dancing Willow Herbs. Hawthorn is a tonic herb, meaning its medicinal qualities shine when taken regularly over long periods of time.
*We always advise people to consult their doctor before taking any new herbs or supplements.
Hawthorn works synergistically with Digoxin and blood pressure medications, increasing their activity. Some doctors intentionally prescribe them together so they can use a lower drug dose, and fewer side effects. This needs to be done with a qualified practitioner in order to reach a safe balancing point and not lower blood pressure too significantly. Do not take hawthorn if you are on these medications and have not consulted your doctor.
Otherwise, hawthorn is an incredibly safe tonic herb that can be taken by children and adults daily for long periods of time.
At Dancing Willow Herbs, we make a tincture with Hawthorn berries, leaves and flowers. You can purchase that here!
We also have our Heart Tonic, which features Hawthorn paired with other herbs that help support the circulatory system overall such as Garlic, Motherwort and Ginkgo among others. You can purchase Heart Tonic here!
Hawthorn is also in one of my favorite teas, Water Tea. This is a blend of calming herbs that taste delicious, fruity and help you soften into your intuition/heart. Purchase Water Tea here!
If you would like to learn more about Autumn seasonal herbs like Hawthorn, please join us for an upcoming class: Autumnal Herbal Medicine at the shop on October 5th at 6:30 PM. Sign up here!