Hawthorn: A Medicinal Tree for the Herb Garden - Excerpt from The Herbal Apprentice: Plant Medicine and The Human Being

January 19, 2015



In Celtic traditions, the Hawthorn (Crataegus oxycantha) was the tree that grew atop the hollow hills that were the entrance to the realm of Faery -- their thorns protecting against those who would come blundering through, but their flowers and leaves and berries feeding and nourishing the heart to allow it to open to another way of being, a way described in some lines of the Feri tradition of witchcraft as "kinder but less civilized." - Sean Donahue

The hawthorn tree is the medicine for the heart.

Throughout the lands of the Celts, the hawthorn is referred to as “gentle bushes”. “Gentle” is a reference to the faeries who one avoids naming directly. The ancient Celts cautioned against disturbing a hawthorn tree. Willful destruction of the hawthorns can bring grave misfortune. This belief is still alive and well among the Celts.

Earlier in this century, a construction firm ordered the felling of a faery thorn on a building site in Downpatrick, Ulster. The foreman had to do the deed himself, as all of his workers refused. When he dug up the root, hundreds of white mice - supposed to be the faeries themselves - ran out, and while the foreman was carting away the soil in a barrow, a nearby horse shied, crushing him against a wall and resulting in the loss of one of his legs.

Even as recently as 1982, workers in the De Lorean car plant in Northern Ireland claimed that one of the reasons the business had so many problems was because a faery thorn bush had been disturbed during the construction of the plant. The management took this so seriously that they actually had a similar bush brought in and planted with all due ceremony! http://www.druidry.org/library/trees/tree-lore-hawthorn

It is not surprising that causing harm to the great plant tonic of the heart causes ruin. Ignoring yearnings and songs of the heart brings similar misery.

The Druids taught that caring for a hawthorn tree allowed one to speak with the faeries. The faeries only speak the truth. Within the realm of the faeries it is not possible to speak an untruth. To lie is to be expelled from the faeries land.

There is a saying: the heart never lies. To lie is stressful. An article from Psychology Today reported a study involving liars and non-liars. The participants in the study were divided into two groups, one group given permission to lie, and the other group offered strategies that help to avoid lying. The group that did not lie found their relationships improved, they slept better, had less mental and physical tension, fewer headaches and sore throats. Other studies have shown lying increases blood pressure and heart rate. In short, the faeries seem to be onto something: lies stress the heart.

TCM practitioners favor the hawthorn flower for an anxious heart. In France, a tea of hawthorn flowers is offered to treat insomnia. French herbalist Maurice Messegue writes, “I myself make use of the hawthorn for nervous spasms, arteriosclerosis, angina and obesity and it is one of my favourite tranquilizer herbs.” Hawthorn flowers stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing the heart to rest. A quiet heart creates a quiet mind. A quiet mind leads to thoughtful speech.

The hawthorn’s berries, leaves and flowers are a gift to a tired heart. A tired heart, whether from a long life or too much stress, struggles to push blood out of the left arterial chamber and into the aorta. A tired heart cannot fulfill its duty to the rest of the body so it tries to work harder. Like all muscles in the body, when a tired heart works harder it becomes bigger. Unlike the spiritual heart of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, when the heart muscle grows, it loses its efficiency. The extra muscle mass fills the chambers of the heart and leaves less room for blood to flow. Less blood passing through the heart means less blood is pulsating through the body. In turn, the body asks for more blood, and the heart tries harder. It continues to grow bigger and more inefficient. A vicious cycle develops that leads to all sorts of health problems including congestive heart failure.

Hawthorn is the remedy for this tired heart. It increases the force of the heart’s pumping action without causing the heart to enlarge. It also enhances the heart’s ability to relax. When the heart relaxes during the pause between heartbeats, it fills with blood. A relaxed heart has more blood to offer to the body.

When hawthorn is added to a high blood pressure formula, do not expect immediate results from it alone. Hawthorn is a long-term herb with long-term gentle effects. Mistletoe (Viscum album) is a much more efficient herb for lowering blood pressure. The addition of a small amount of mistletoe tincture to the formula designed to lower blood pressure is usually enough to bring most cases of high blood pressure down. (If mistletoe does not work, try valerian). But do not under-estimate the long-term effects of hawthorn.

I think of the story of the rabbit and the tortoise when I compare the two herbs. Mistletoe is the rabbit. It brings instantaneous results. Hawthorn  is the tortoise. The tortoise did not “wow” audiences with his speed, but he not only won the race, he also lived for another 225 years.

Lastly, hawthorn berries are high in flavonoids and offer up a sour taste. Recall that the sour taste is cooling in nature. Hawthorn berries are very specific when there is heat around the heart or congestion of blood in the heart. You can know this by looking at the tongue. The very tip of the tongue represents the heart. If the tip is bright red, try adding hawthorn to the client’s formula.  


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