The Hawthorn: Mythological, Magical, or Medical
"Every shepherd tells his tale under the hawthorn in the dale."
John Milton (1608-1674)
I have been told there were three sacred trees in Ireland and in Wales: the Oak, the Ash, and the Hawthorn, but the hawthorn was favored more than all others. Now I know this for fact because one of the things that was told to me at every opportunity was that I was decended from the Welsh and the Irish, but that was in response to my fiery Irish temper that jumped right out of my control occasionally. To this day, there are those who make hawthorn wreaths and leave them out as gifts for the fairies or the angels in favor of good luck and prosperity. Nobody ever bothered to tell me that part until I was pretty well grown, or I would have been making little tiny hawthorn wreaths for the luck it would bring me. I have heard of other superstitions concerning the hawthorn tree, and one of them is that if fishermen carry with them a thorn from the tree, they will always have a good catch. The most interesting of all the legends is that it was from the hawthorn tree that the Crown of Thorns was made. Whatever we believe about the hawthorn tree, the fact is, it has been around much longer than we have.
It originally grew in Europe, Asia, Africa and much of the Mediterranean area. Ancient Chinese used the hawthorn berry to make a fermented beverage; archeologists have found traces of the hawthorn berry in pottery jars dating around 7000 B.C. It is believed that these beverages were medically or religiously significant even then. In the United States the New York Medical Journal first published a report in 1896 concerning the use of hawthorn berries as a treatment for heart disease, according to the report, the doctor who successfully treated heart disease did so with a very condensed form of the juice from the hawthorn berry.
The specific hawthorn tree that I know (Crataegus cucculenta) is also known as the fleshy hawthorn, but in the mountains of southeast Kentucky where I grew up it was known as the thornapple tree. I can only remember one area of the mountains where it grew; it was a small tree and it grew along the outer edges of the larger oaks and locusts of the area. Of course, my great Aunt Bett knew it was there, as did those ancestors before her, but my first thought upon seeing it closely was "Watch out for the thorns!" For such a small tree, its thorns were legendary!
The fleshy hawthorne, or thornapple, is hardy in zones 3 to 6. It only grows to a height of about 15 feet, and the same can be said for its spread. In the spring is has light pink or white petaled flowers and in the fall it produces a small reddish fruit. It has very long thorns that certainly are not flexible. I was never allowed to get very close to the hawthorne tree, I could only pick the fruit from the very outermost edges. The fruit can be eaten either raw or cooked. My family made thornberry jelly from it because it was very sweet and rarely was much extra sweetener needed.
The fruit and flowers of many hawthornes are well known in herbal medicine as a heart tonic. They are used in the treatment of weak heart condition and high blood pressure. Contemporary medical studies show the same results: if you eat hawthorne fruits you will also be strengthening your heart. The young leaves of our native hawthorn can be eaten raw, usually mixed with other salad greens. If you are not sure if your hawthorn is of the kind whose leaves are good in salads, a good test is to take a sniff of the leaf. If it has a noticeably bitter almond odor, chances are it is mildly toxic and should not be eaten. Also, the hardwood of the hawthorn tree is sometimes used to make handles for tools.
All of those particular pluses on the side of the hawthorne have been common knowledge among ancients and among more contemporary herbalists for a long time. Here are some other facts that the medical profession is looking at closely today. It is believed that antioxidants are responsible for the beneficial effects of hawthorne berries. The berry is often added to supplements designed to promote heart health, reduce blood pressure and correct unhealthy cholesterol levels. A wonder herb?? Well, maybe, if given the opportunity.
It is believed that natural anti-inflammatories, such as those found in hawthorne berries and other herbs, fruits and veggies reduce cancer risks and the risk of heart disease. These natural compounds can also lower blood pressure and reduce blood cholesteol levels, two major risk factors for heart disease. Hawthorne berry extract is known to protect the liver from damage usually associated with cardiac events in lab animals. But the exact reasons for the beneficial effects of hawthorn berries extract on the liver are unknown. The same berry extract has also been shown to reduce calcification in arteries, commonly known as hardening of the arteries. Understanding the hawthorn berry extract seems to be the problem that is slowing down any conclusions, thus leaving hawthorn as an herbal remedy instead of a medically viable remedy.
Most health care professionals have known the medicinal benefits of the hawthorn berry for more than a hundred years. They know that the nutrient composition of the hawthorn berry is made up of bioflavonoids, choline, lecithin, Vitamin B complex, and Vitamin C. But that research is funded by pharmaceutical companies and those companies cannot patent the words "seems to, unsure, or unknown." It must be a proven fact before such a patent can be granted. Since much of the study of the hawthorne berry is shrouded in lore, doubt, and some unknowns, it might be another hundred years before the truth is fully known, or before its components can be separated and identified.
Until then, I will continue to eat the thornberry jelly my grandmother and my Aunt Bett taught me to make, and hope that soon doors will be opened and we have a clearer picture of just what the hawthorn berry can provide for us along with its delicious taste.
Here is a recipe that I remember from many years ago:
Pick hawthorns when they are turning red.
Remove stems and wash well.
Add chopped up tart apples to increase tartness of jelly, because hawthorn berries alone are rather bland.
In a kettle, cover with cold water and cook until berries and apples are very soft.
Mash well and strain through a jelly bag or a fine sieve.
Measure the sugar and add 1 to 1 and 1/2 cup for each cup of juice.
Boil hard again until mixture tests for jelly.
Pour into hot sterilized jelly jars and seal.
Great with biscuits or homemade bread.
Resources used in this article came from:
and from the writings of my Aunt Bett and other older relatives.
Some information on contemporary medicinal uses was provided by Dr. S. Urbach, University of Louisville School of Medicine.
All photos are from Plant Files with special thanks to lilwren, poppysue, and willmetge for the use of their photos.