This weekend I went for a beautiful sunny walk to harvest one of my all-time favourite berries: hawthorn. Where I live, hawthorn trees lines most roads, farms, parks, and wild spaces. The trees are full of plump, bright red, and oh so abundant berries every autumn. While there are many species of hawthorn, the species most commonly found here in Southwestern Canada are Crataegus monogyna and Crataegus laevigata. Both of these species were brought to North America by Europe settlers. Hawthorn is a member of the rose family, Rosaceae, the same botanical family as roses, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, apples, pears, plums, peaches, almonds, cherries and apricots….and thousands of other plants.
Around here, the hawthorn reaches it’s pinnacle of glory twice a year, when some say the veils are thinnest. Around Beltane (May 1st), it bursts with creamy flowers reaching for the sky; and then again nearing Samhain (Oct 31st) the berries are ripe and full of vitality. These two times of the year, 6 months apart, hold the balance between life and death as they sit across from each other on the wheel of the year. Beltane, the holiday that the Sun in Taurus governs; a time where nature is full of sensuality, life, food, fertility. A time when the faeries and plant spirits are said to be most active, inviting their human friends to engage with the spirit of life (get your hands in the earth!), birth and communion with nature. Where I live this is also the time where fields are full of baby lambs, goats, horses, and bunnies. Samhain, the season that the Sun in Scorpio governs; celebrating all that returns to the earth, to feed the cycle of death, rest, then regeneration. It’s also the season where we harvest vegetables, and hunters harvest meat for their freezers. It’s also when the veil thins and the spirits of the land ask us humans to celebrate and honour our beloved dead and ancestors. Both the creamy white May flowers and deep red autumn berries are used for medicine and magic.
Hawthorn berries nourish the heart slowly, gently and powerfully. Like food for the heart and blood, it’s improves the quality of our cardiovascular system over several seasons of consistent use. In todays fast-paced world we’re accustomed to powerful medicine being equated with quick, dramatic results with a punch. This is not hawthorn. This herb is described in old herbal texts as a “tonic” – a vague descriptor. However, I think herbalists of the past used that term to describe plants that strengthen the body in way that’s hard to explain in modern terms because, well frankly, studying herbs just isn’t funded by labs the same way drugs are. So herbalists tend to rely on experience: treating client after client over decades, swapping stories with other herbalists spread about in different communities and geographies, and then recording this information in books (and now blogs!) to pass on to the next generation. Herbalism is traditionally an oral tradition, and a tradition of apprenticeship. Hawthorn has a long history of use dating back thousands of years and a solid record of safety. It’s a mild coronary vasodilator, increasing the blood supply to the heart muscles and lessening the potential for spasms, angina, and shortness of breath. It’s been used for hypertension, arrhythmias, and to strengthen connective tissue impaired from chronic inflammation. As a heart strengthener, it helps to maintain healthy arteries, veins, and of course the heart itself. By strengthening the cardiovascular system, one builds resiliency in the face of injury, disease, and normal wear and tear of aging.
Herbs undoubtedly have an impact on our mind and spirit as much as our body. Hawthorn is a loving plant friend useful for emotional heartache or heartbreak, or even a spiritual, existential heartbreak from chronic feelings of being lost in the world or spiritually disconnected. I think about this herb in any case where someone feels isolated, lonely, and craves connection whether that be with other people, or a greater-power-that-be, or both. I think about this herb for people who might be in a relationship, but feel unable to connect with their significant other or even family members. They long to connect, but can’t, and don’t know why. It may be due to a trauma, violation, or heartbreak from the near or distant past that is bleeding into their current life. Hawthorn, like it’s near cousin Rose, has thorns. Sometimes people who need this medicine come across as “prickly” or thorny, they give off an impression that you can’t come in too close. Yet, as I get to know them as their practitioner, I see that the prickly exterior is there to protect a very tender-hearted, sometimes lonely, person who may have experienced a tragedy that has made them reluctant to let people in – though that’s what they desperately want. Alternately, I use this herb combined with Rose and perhaps apple blossom for people who feel so open, lack boundaries, and need some heart protection because they repeatedly get hurt, over and over. This may result in relationships of any kind being difficult for fear of being heart broken. Hawthorn coupled with Rose tincture can be great medicine for restoring a resilient, robust heart, and for reminding us to have healthy boundaries that protect us. This in turn builds confidence to warm up to the idea of opening to the relationships in our life, or taking healthy risks to make new ones.
Hawthorne is best consumed regularly over a long period of time. I’d recommend a minimum of three months, ideally longer. Or even better, make it a part of your daily ritual.
METHODS OF USE
Tincture – I make a fresh flower and leaf tincture in the spring. Then I make a fresh hawthorn berry tincture in the autumn. Then I combine the two tinctures to make one hawthorn tincture. Take 30 drops of this tincture twice daily. Go here to learn how to make tinctures.
Below is my recipe for hawthorn syrup. If the idea of measuring herbs and liquid out using a scale and measuring cup intimates you dear reader, you have full permission to just wing it. You can simply simmer your berries, strain, add sweetener, and call it a day. I’m a fan of experimentation in the kitchen. For those of you who like recipes, here you go:
A stock pot
strainer / sieve
honey or other sweetener
The first step is to make a decoction (sort of like a strong tea) of fresh or dried hawthorn berries. To prepare a decoction, measure out your hawthorn berries using a electronic or manual kitchen scale. You don’t need anything fancy. Write down this number. Now multiply that number by 20. This final number gives you the total volume of water to simmer (decoct) your berries in. For example, if my hawthorne berries weighed 25grams, I multiply that number by 20 which gives me 500. That means I’ll simmer my 25grams of hawthorne berries in 500ML of water. Easy right?
2. Now, place your berries in a pot, bring to a boil and simmer at a low temp for one hour. Now strain the berries from the liquid, and put just the liquid back on the stove and simmer, at the lowest temp, until the volume reduces down to half, or in my case, 250ML. This might take all day to reduce.
3. Now add your sweetener into the hot liquid to dissolve; I like honey or maple syrup. Lots of people use sugar. Many books and recipes will suggest you use the same volume or half the final volume of sweetener as liquid (a 1:1 ratio). That would mean in my example I’d use anywhere from 125ml-250ml of honey. I’d err on the side of a 1:1 ratio as I like to taste the actual herb. You can taste the syrup with each addition of honey, so it’s not too sweet. If you want the thick syrupy consistency, then prepare a 1:2 ratio of herbal liquid to honey. So, if my volume of concentrated decoction is 250ml, I’d add 500ml of honey.
Now bottle, and refrigerate. Because it’s perishable, it’s best to consume within a few weeks. Though if you prepared a 1:2 ratio it’ll likely be very stable and last a long time. To make it shelf stable, add some alcohol, like brandy to the finished product. If my total is 500ML of syrup, I’d add 300ML of brandy. Bottle. label with the ingredients and date and now enjoy!
For a daily tonic, consume 2-3 oz’s daily.
I’d love to hear from you, leave your comments below.
References consulted in preparing this article:
Tilgnor, Sharol Herbal Medicine from the Heart of the Earth
Moore, Michael Medicinal Herbs of the Mountain West