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.
Hawthorn berries just harvested
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.
MAKING HAWTHORNE MEDICINE
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.
A stock pot
honey or other sweetener such as maple syrup or sugar
The first step is to make a decoction (basically a strong tea) of fresh or dried hawthorn berries. To prepare a decoction, you have the option of using the folk method or the weight to volume method.
The folk method for preparing a hawthorn berry decoction is as follows: Place fresh or dried berries into a large stock pot and cover with cold water, using just enough water to cover berries by two inches. Bring to a boil. Once water boils turn down the heat for a slow simmer for 1-2 hours with the lid on. Strain liquid and move onto step two.
The weight to volume method of decoction: weigh hawthorn berries using a electronic or manual kitchen scale. You don’t need anything fancy. Write down this number. Now multiply that number by 10. This final number gives you the total volume of water to simmer (decoct) your berries in. For example, if my hawthorne berries weighed 50grams, I multiply that number by 10 which gives me 500. This means I’ll simmer my 25grams of hawthorn berries in 500ML of water. Place berries in a large pot, cover with the appropriate amount of cold water. Bring to boil, then turn it down and simmer for 1-2 hours with lid on. Strain.
2. Once you’ve strained your berries, put the liquid back on the stove and reduce the amount by half volume with lid removed. I like to reduce using the lowest possible temperature on the stove that gives a nice gentle simmer. Your decoction should start to look nice and deep red in colour.
3. Once your decoction has reduced to half volume, add your sweetener into the hot liquid to dissolve; I like to use either honey or maple syrup. Lots of people use sugar. In my case the reduced volume finishes at 250ml. The ratio of sweetener to decoction I like is a 1:1 ratio. Some people prefer more sweetener; it’s really a matter of personal preference. I added 250ml honey to 250ml decoction. If you want a thicker consistency and you don’t mind making it a bit sweetener add an extra 125ml sweetener, or, some folks even like a 1:2 ratio which means 250ml decoction to 500ml sweetener.
Now bottle, and refrigerate. It’s perishable it’s best to consume within four 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 20% alcohol to your finished product. Brandy tends to be a complementary flavour for hawthorn and honey. Twenty percent brandy to 500ml syrup is 100ml. Add the brandy to the syrup, mix and bottle. Be sure to label complete with all the ingredients and the date. 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