Hawthorn is a superb heart and circulatory tonic, protecting and strengthening the heart muscle and its blood supply. It improves blood circulation around the body, and can be used to treat a wide range of circulatory problems.
Rosaceae Rose family
Description: Thorny shrubs or small trees with clusters of white or pink flowers in spring followed by deep red berries in the fall.
Habitat: Hedgerows, scrub, and woodland margins.
Distribution: Throughout Europe, introduced to North America and Australia. Hawthorn (C. monogyna) is the more common species in Britain. Midland hawthorn (C. laevigata) is known as smooth hawthorn in North America. They can be used interchangeably. The pink and red flowering hawthorns found in gardens and parkland are generally varieties of Midland hawthorn.
Related species: There are over 200 species worldwide, found in northern temperate regions. Several of these are planted as ornamentals in parks and gardens. Chinese haw (C. pinnatifidia) is used in Chinese medicine to calm the spirit.
Parts used: Flowering tops, leaves, and ripe berries.
Hawthorn is the hedgerow plant of the British Isles. It is the most commonly found species in hedges and spinneys, both historically and in present planting; its very name means "hedge-thorn." It bounds fields and keeps stock in, it grows steadily, is readily plashed and managed, survives poor soils and high winds, and was long a sacred, protective presence.
Hawthorn is well known today as an herbal remedy for the heart and circulation, but this is a relatively new use of the plant. Old European herbals mainly talk of hawthorn for "the stone" and for drawing out thorns and splinters, and an occasional use for treating gout and insomnia. It's perhaps surprising that it wasn't thought of for the blood, because the berries are such a deep blood-like color, and color was often taken as an indication of healing possibilities. Anne Pratt's mid-Victorian survey of British flowering plants (1857) expressed a conventional, and what could be called a pre-modern, view of hawthorn's value:
The chief use of the Hawthorn is for those green impenetrable hedges which bound our meadows and lanes, which are so hardy that they are not even killed by the sea breeze, and which when whitened by their flowers are one of the greatest beauties of the rural landscape...
The modern tale of hawthorn (there are many ancient ones too) begins with a Dr Green in County Clare, Ireland, in late Victorian times. The doctor had singular success in treating heart disease, but refused to divulge the secret of his medicine. When he died, in 1894, his daughter disclosed that he had been using a tincture of ripe hawthorn berries.
Dr JC Jennings of Chicago wrote up the story for the New York Medical Journal in 1896, and the use of hawthorn tincture for a variety of heart problems quickly caught on on both sides of the Atlantic.
Here is a case history recorded by another Dr Jennings, this time MC, and published in A Treatise on Crataegus in 1917. It is suggestive of the high esteem in which some doctors had soon come to hold hawthorn for heart treatments:
Mr B., aged 73 years. I found him gasping for breath when I entered the room, with a pulse rate of 158 and very feeble; great oedema of lower limbs and abdomen. A more desperate case could hardly be found.
The great value of hawthorn is that, although it can have profound healing effects, it achieves these in a gentle and supportive way.
I gave him fifteen drops of Crataegus in half a wineglass of water. In fifteen minutes the pulse beat was 126 and stronger, and breathing was not so labored. In twenty-five minutes pulse beat 110 and the force was still increasing, breathing much easier.
He now got ten drops in same quantity of water, and in one hour from the time I entered the house he was, for the first time in ten days, able to lie horizontally on the bed. I made an examination of the heart and found mitral regurgitation from valvular deficiency, with great enlargement.
This clinical success would have been a surprise to earlier generations of doctors and herbalists, as well as to contemporaries. Hawthorn had always had a mixed reputation in popular lore, and for it to be a demonstrably useful heart herb was unexpected.
There is something exciting about wild plants that have white spring flowers and dark berries in the fall. Both elder and hawthorn were fertility symbols of pre-Christian British peoples, and both plants were long ago absorbed by the incoming religion.
Hawthorn was appropriated as forming Christ's crown of thorns and as being the "burning bush" seen by Moses. The Glastonbury thorn was the best known of the English holy hawthorns.
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