A small, gnarly and hardy tree of the rose family that rarely grows to more than 30 ft. Botanists argue over the size of this extensive genus. It is not easy to say with certainty how many different species there are. Conservative estimates claim about 200 - 300 species. Hawthorns are quite liberal at interbreeding, creating many cross forms which some botanists deem variations of one type or the other, while others determining them to be separate species. North America has the greatest species diversification of this genus, but different species are native throughout the northern Hemisphere, including all parts of Europe, northern Africa, Middle East, Asia and even China.
The small, fragrant, showy, white five-petaled flowers, grow clusters and cover up almost every inch of the tree during the flowering season in late April/May.
The deeply cut, 3-lobed leaves emerge before the flowers develop. The leaves are deep green in colour and about 3 inches long. In the autumn they turn yellow.
Later in the year the little flowers turn into an abundance of bright red 'haws' - hard little berries, which attract wildlife, but are not especially palatable to humans.
Hawthorns are most familiar as hedgerow trees. They are undemanding as far as soil conditions are concerned, but prefer full sun. The can also often be found in open woodlands, or on the edge of the woods - or, most distinctively, as lone trees upon an open hillside.
Although the berries are not terribly tasty, small creatures eat them. But hawthorn's true value as a wildlife habitat tree lies in its impenetrable tangle of thorns and craggy habit, which provides many little hiding holes and crannies for small critters.
This familiar little tree, so common throughout the country hardly needs a description. Unassuming and inconspicuous, its often petite and straggly appearance does not really inspire awe. Rather like an old familiar friend, it waves its windswept branches from the top of a hillside or greets us as we pass it by in the old familiar hedge. Yet, there is something quintessentially British about this tree and it is little wonder that its ancient roots are deeply entwined with the myths and folklore of our 'dreamtime'.
Etymologically, the name at first seems to indicate nothing more than a utilitarian function for which indeed it is still very commonly employed: Hawthorn is a superb and quickly growing natural defence. A dense thorny thicket of Hawthorn is impenetrable indeed and its quick growth (it is also known as Quickset, or Quickbeam) aids this purpose, as does the fact that its branches become ever more dense the more they are cut or nibbled at by cattle.
But in the mindset of the ancients a hedge was more than just a living fence; it signified the boundary between the known, safe and civilized world, and the wild woods beyond. The word 'hedge' derives from 'Haga' which is contained in the old name for Hawthorn 'Hagathorn' and shares the same root as 'hag'. The hag, in old English was not just an old, ugly woman, but is cognate with 'haegtesse', a woman of prophetic powers, and 'hagzusa' spirit beings, and 'hedge riders' - in other words, beings that live 'between' the worlds of mundane reality and the otherworld beyond, and who could easily traverse the boundaries between them. Likewise, healers, seers and soothsayers were also considered 'boundary-walkers'. Thus, Hawthorn's symbolism is that of protection, but also as a gateway to this other world of magical beings.
Thus, in folk medicine it was primarily used to protect against all manner of evil spirits and demons that were apt to give you a sudden fright. To ward them off, amulets of hawthorn were carved and hung above doors or worn for protection.
Hawthorn bears both Pagan and Christian symbolism, for it is said that the thorn of Christ was made of Hawthorn. Also, some authorities claim that the Holy Spirit has a certain peculiar affinity with thorn trees as the Bible mentions its apparition in the burning bush, which is thought to have been a thorn.
In British Christian mythology no discussion of Hawthorn could be complete without the mention of the Glastonbury Hawthorn, which is said to be derived from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea, an uncle of Jesus who brought the grail cup to Britain after the Saviour had died on the cross. His intention was to find a place where the grail could be buried and the new church could be founded. When he arrived in Glastonbury and set eyes on the Holy Isle of Apples he struck his staff into the ground at Wearyall Hill, where it at once burst into flower. Joseph of Arimathea took this as a sign and founded the first Christian Church of England in Glastonbury. Today, various descendents of that original miraculous walking stick have been transplanted as cuttings and decorate various Christian sites around the town. To this day, these special trees flower not once but twice a year. Once at the time when it is right and proper for all Hawthorn trees to burst into flower, in May, and once at Christmas, the legendary birthday of Christ.
Like few other trees Hawthorn is also associated with the old Beltain rites of 'fetching the May' into the village to bestow fertility and plenty and to celebrate the return of the green life-force. Hawthorn was deemed particularly suitable since it flowers abundantly from the beginning of May. It seems as if the entire tree is completely covered in blossom, even though the leaves are already out at this time. The white dainty, typical 5-petaled 'rose-type' flowers exude a peculiar smell that is often described as reminiscent of rotting meat, (Hawthorn is fertilized by bugs that are attracted by the smell of carrion) a smell that was long associated with the Black Death. As a result Hawthorn, despite being much loved, was never welcome into the home.
Others, however, associate its scent with the perfume of sexuality, which would also fit its orgiastic symbolism as a tree to signify the joys of Beltain celebrations. At any rate, the smell of the flowers announces its presence long before you actually stumble upon it in the woods. Whether one likes it or not, the heady aroma cannot be missed.
In the autumn the tree is laden with hard little red berries that look like miniature red apples. Unfortunately, British native species are not terribly palatable though. The thin layer of fruit flesh is extremely dry and mealy and almost devoid of flavour. The outer cortex protects either one, or two seeds, depending on the species. In North-America, where the greatest species diversification of the genus can be found, there are several types that indeed have quite edible fruits, which yield enough juice to process into a jelly. But, the dry fruits of Crataegus monogyna or laevigata are at best ground to powder and used as a flour substitute in times of starvation.
From an ethnobotanical perspective, Hawthorn is a very interesting plant indeed, as it is a very large and widely distributed genus, that can be found throughout the northern hemisphere. What is interesting about it is the fact that people everywhere, from China to Europe and North America have used their various native species in similar ways.
Flowering tops, dried ripe fruits, leaves
The flowering tops are harvested in May. Dry quickly in the shade to avoid discolouration. The berries are collected in the autumn. Again, dry quickly and thoroughly in the shade to avoid mould formation.
saponins, glycosides, flavonoids, cardioactive glycosides, ascorbic acid, condensed tannins.
Crataegus does not contain any single active constituent that phytopharmacologists get excited about. No 'super compounds' that can be developed into new drugs. Instead it is the unique synergy of its compounds that create its marvellous effects - something that so far has defied replication in the laboratories.
Hawthorn's most valuable medicinal properties are its beneficial action on the heart - it has undisputed regulatory or tonic effect on the heart that provides an immensely useful and safe remedy for beginning cardio-vascular disease - which is still the leading cause of death, particularly in developed countries. Considering the abundance of Hawthorn it is a shame that not more people make use of it.
Hawthorn flowers, leaves, berries and seeds are all active and work well in combination. They regulate the blood-pressure by a dual action on the coronary arteries and the heart muscle itself. They dilate and relax the blood vessels, thus lowering blood pressure, yet gently stimulate the heart muscle to increase the pulse rate. This takes pressure off the heart muscle, improving the overall efficiency of its action.
Hawthorn's positive, relaxing effect on the nerves that supply the heart is very helpful for relieving symptoms of stress, tightness in the chest, and angina. It also regulates irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) and palpitations. It can be used as a supportive long-term remedy for general heart weakness that is caused by infectious diseases such as diphtheria or scarlet fever as well as to improve the overall function of an old and tired heart muscle. It can be used preventatively, especially recommended for people who are under constant pressure and stress, or remedially, for those recovering from a heart attack.
According to Chinese and Japanese studies, Hawthorn clearly shows a positive effect on the whole coronary system and also helps to reduce 'bad' cholesterol, one of the most significant contributing factors of heart disease.
Hawthorn improves the peripheral blood flow, thus aiding oxygen supply to the limbs and the head. In combination with Gingko it is particularly useful for improving memory.
Hawthorn has also been used for nervousness and as a digestive tonic to help 'move' stagnant food (Chinese medicine) and aid digestion of fatty foods. It is also considered quite a useful diuretic and urinary tonic. Especially the old herbalists seemed to value this aspect of Hawthorn's palate of healing virtues.
Hawthorn is the best overall heart tonic available in the herbal pharmacopeia and is even recognized by allopathic medicine for its healing virtues, and is included in the 'Commission E' list of medicinally useful plants. It is a singularly safe remedy that can be used over extended periods of time, as it contains no digitalis-like compounds or other cardio-active constituents that build up in the body over time.
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