For many of us in the grassroots herbal community, our hearts have been with jim mcdonald and his family these past few weeks.
In May, while jim was traveling in Scotland, he had a massive heart attack which led to some severe complications. For the past three weeks, jim has been in the coronary ICU in Edinburgh, Scotland.
His recovery has been a continually evolving rollercoaster of events. As I write this, we are hopeful that his latest surgery was entirely successful and that he will be waking up soon.
jim is a brilliant herbal teacher and a charming and funny friend to many. The news of this sudden tragedy has been hard on many of us who cherish jim and all he’s given to the herbal community. Yet through our grief and fear, we have held on to hope. More than that, many people sprang into action by spreading the word about and supporting a fundraising campaign to help jim and his family. You can visit the fundraiser here. Thank you for your donations and shares!
I am writing this month’s article from the heart of Edinburgh, Scotland. I came over here a couple weeks ago to give my support to jim’s family. We are all staying in a flat in the heart of the city, surrounded by stone buildings and cobblestone streets. I’ve been hanging out with the kids helping them to explore this city. Sometimes we go to a museum, sometimes we happen upon entertaining street performers while out on a stroll and sometimes we go to castles and gardens.
One day we were by the seaside at some castle ruins when I came across an entire hedge of hawthorn. It was in full bloom and its distinctive scent filled the air along with the thrum of many bees hard at work.
For many herbalists, hawthorn is the first herb they think of for the heart – and with good reason! Standing there at the hawthorn hedge, I was reminded that in my book, Alchemy of Herbs, I quoted jim in my hawthorn chapter.
“Its thorns are like nails; inches long and strong; tensile. And yet, a gentler, more nourishing medicine plant is unlikely to be found.”
For today’s article I am sharing excerpts from Alchemy of Herbs about the many healing gifts of hawthorn. I’m also including one of my favorite all-time recipes: Hawthorn Cordial.
Hawthorn from Alchemy of Herbs: Transform Everyday Ingredients into Foods and Remedies that Heal by Rosalee de la Forêt (Hay House, 2017)
With heart disease being the number one cause of death in the United States, it’s surprising to me that more people don’t know about hawthorn. Before I start sounding like a snake-oil salesman, I should note that people get heart disease for numerous reasons, and hawthorn is no silver-bullet cure to be taken while ignoring major foundations of wellness such as a healthy diet and an active lifestyle.
European culture has long been fascinated with hawthorn, and many myths and bits of folklore surround this thorny tree. Besides being used for medicine, the hard wood of the tree was made into tools and the thick, thorny nature of the tree made it a popular choice as a natural hedge or fence. Various species of hawthorn are native to North America, where it was used by many First Nations to treat a variety of ailments, including wounds and digestive problems. People in China also have a well-developed relationship with hawthorn, often using it for stagnant digestion.
In the spring, hawthorn trees produce a plethora of lovely white to pink flowers. Following pollination, the tree begins to form many bunches of berries that ripen in late summer. These red berries are dry and mealy and can range from bitter to sweet, depending on species.
Types of Hawthorn
Hawthorn is a tree in the rose family that grows all over the Northern Hemisphere. There are more than 280 species, and herbalists use them all similarly. The species most studied in science have been Crataegus monogyna, C. oxyacantha, and C. laevigata.
Medicinal Properties and Energetics of Hawthorn
Herbalist David Hoffmann says, “A tonic in the true sense, Crataegus [hawthorn] can be considered a specific remedy for most cardiovascular disease.”1 The current Western medicine paradigm for treating chronic disease relies heavily on suppressing symptoms rather than addressing the factors causing the problem. For instance, if you have seasonal allergies you might be given something to block your body’s attempt to create histamine, but you often aren’t given anything to modulate your immune system and prevent the allergy symptoms in the first place. This paradigm can be seen in the range of pharmaceuticals that Western medicine uses to address the symptoms of heart disease. While this Band-Aid attempt can save lives in the short term, it doesn’t address why the person has heart disease in the first place.
In fact, many commonly prescribed medications actually deplete the body of nutrients necessary for heart health. Statins, commonly prescribed to lower cholesterol, deplete the body of CQ10, an important enzyme for a healthy heart. Diuretics, commonly prescribed for high blood pressure, deplete the body of potassium. Potassium deficiency leads to an irregular heartbeat. Hawthorn, in nourishing and strengthening the heart, does something that no other pharmaceutical can lay claim to.
How does hawthorn work? Like most herbs, hawthorn works in numerous and complex ways, many of which we don’t understand yet. However, one important factor is hawthorn’s high flavonoid content. Heart disease is often related to inflammation, and regularly eating herbs and foods high in flavonoids has been shown to decrease the inflammation and oxidative stress.
For Optimizing Cholesterol
From the 1950s to fairly recently we mistakenly believed that high levels of cholesterol were caused by eating foods that were themselves high in cholesterol. An updated perspective on high cholesterol levels is its relationship to systemic inflammation, which hawthorn, with its high flavonoid content, helps to reduce.
Research scientists have been studying hawthorn in relationship to various symptoms of heart disease for decades. In one study researchers gave people who were diagnosed with diabetes and coronary heart disease 1,200 mg of hawthorn leaf and flower every day for six months. After that time, those taking the hawthorn showed a greater trend toward lower LDL cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol) and decreased neutrophil elastase (an enzyme that, when elevated, is related to heart disease) than those taking a placebo.2 The dose used in this study was relatively low compared with herbalist standards, and it would be interesting to see the effects of the larger doses more commonly used by herbalists.
For High Blood Pressure
For herbalists, one of the most common indications for hawthorn is high blood pressure. Some herbalists use hawthorn singly, others combine it with other herbs, and it is commonly suggested alongside a healthy diet and regular exercise. After centuries of use, it remains a favorite for decreasing hypertension.
Clinical trials have supported this traditional use. In a double-blind, placebo-controlled study done in Iran, 92 men and women with mild hypertension were given an extract of a local species of hawthorn for four months. Blood pressure was measured every month, and the results showed a significant decrease in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure after three months.3 Another study gave hawthorn to patients diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and showed that the herb reduced diastolic blood pressure.4
For Heart Health
Herbalist Charles Kane says, “As a heart medicine there is no other herb with such a positive, yet gentle influence than Hawthorn.”5 Besides helping to reduce particular heart problems such as high blood pressure and hyperlipidemia, hawthorn has been shown to improve general heart function in people with mild to moderate heart disease.
One study looked at 1,011 people diagnosed with stage 2 heart disease who were taking a high dose of a patented hawthorn product. After 24 weeks, a significant improvement in symptoms was observed, including decreased ankle edema, improved cardiac performance, and reduced blood pressure.6
Another trial used the same hawthorn product but studied patients for two years. After that time, those taking the hawthorn had significant improvements in the three main symptoms of heart disease—including fatigue, pain with increased exertion, and palpitations—as compared with the control group. The researchers concluded that hawthorn had a clear benefit for patients with mild to moderate heart failure.7
How to Use Hawthorn
Western herbalists tend to use the berries more frequently; however, the flower and leaf have gotten more attention in research studies in recent years.
The berries can be eaten like food and enjoyed in a variety of ways, including infused into alcohol or vinegar or made into honeys, jams, or even ketchup. I recommend regularly enjoying hawthorn in large quantities; taking it daily keeps hearts nourished and strong!
The leaves and flowers make a delicious, slightly tannic tea that is reminiscent of black tea.
Hawthorn berries are a foodlike herb that can be consumed in larger amounts, as you would a food. For best results with the berries, leaves, or flowers, use it daily and long-term.
The therapeutic amount for hawthorn is as follows:
As tea: up to 30 grams of berries, and up to 30 grams of leaves and flowers, per day
As tincture (fresh berries): 1:1, 40–60% alcohol, 5 mL, 3 to 5 times per day
As tincture (dried leaf and flowers): 1:5, 30% alcohol, 5 mL, 3 times per day
- People taking heart medications such as digitalis and beta blockers should consult with an experienced practitioner before taking hawthorn.
- Large dosages of the leaf and flower may cause stomach upset in some individuals. If this happens, decrease the amount.
- Hawthorn should not be used with people who have diastolic congestive heart failure.8
Hawthorn Cordial Recipe
This hawthorn cordial recipe combines the nourishing qualities of hawthorn with delicious spices that help digestion. Enjoy in small amounts after an evening meal. (I find that it helps me wind down from the day.)
I recently brought this to a potluck and served 1 to 3 teaspoons of the cordial in approximately 1 cup of sparkling water for a low-alcohol cocktail. It was a hit, and several people asked to buy a bottle from me (I gave them the recipe instead).
What you’ll need…
- 1 cup dried hawthorn berries (80 grams)
- 1 apple, chopped, seeds removed
- 1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
- 3 cardamom pods, crushed
- 1 vanilla bean, cut in half lengthwise
- 1 cinnamon stick
- zest of 1 lemon
- 2 tablespoons dried hibiscus
- 1/3 cup unsweetened 100% pomegranate juice
- 1/2 cup honey, or to taste
- 2 cups brandy
Place all of the herbs, spices, and fruit in a 1-quart jar.
Add the pomegranate juice and honey, then fill the jar the rest of the way with brandy (approximately 2 cups).
Infuse this for 4 weeks, shaking often.
Strain. This can be stored in a dark, cool location and is best consumed within 1 year.
Yield: approximately 1 1/2 cups
Hawthorn Cordial recipe from Alchemy of Herbs: Transform Everyday Ingredients into Foods and Remedies That Heal by Rosalee de la Forêt (Hay House, 2017)
Now we’d love to hear from you!
What are your favorite ways to use hawthorn?
Do you prefer to use the berries, leaves or flowers (or all of them?).
Let us know in the comments below.
- Hoffmann, David. Medical Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine (Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 2003). ↩
- Dalli, E., et al. “Crataegus Laevigata Decreases Neutrophil Elastase and Has Hypolipidemic Effect: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial.” Phytomedicine 18, no. 8–9 (2011): 769–75. doi:10.1016/j.phymed.2010.11.011. ↩
- Asgary, S., et al. “Antihypertensive Effect of Iranian Crataegus Curvisepala Lind.: A Randomized, Double-Blind Study.” Drugs under Experimental and Clinical Research 30, no. 5–6 (2003): 221–25. ↩
- Walker, Ann F., et al. “Hypotensive Effects of Hawthorn for Patients with Diabetes Taking Prescription Drugs: A Randomised Controlled Trial.” British Journal of General Practice 56, no. 527 (2006): 437–43. ↩
- Kane, Charles W. Herbal Medicine: Trends and Traditions (Tucson, AZ: Lincoln Town Press, 2009). ↩
- Tauchert, Michael, Amnon Gildor, and Jens Lipinski. “(High-Dose Crataegus Extract WS 1442 in the Treatment of NYHA Stage II Heart Failure).” Herz 24, no. 6 (1999): 465–74. ↩
- Habs, M. “Prospective, Comparative Cohort Studies and Their Contribution to the Benefit Assessments of Therapeutic Options: Heart Failure Treatment with and without Hawthorn Special Extract WS 1442.” Forschende komplementrmedizinund klassische Naturheilkunde (Research in Complementary and Classical Natural Medicine) 11, no. suppl. 1 (2004): 36–39. doi:10.1159/000080574. ↩
- Kuhn, Merrily A., and David Winston. Winston & Kuhn’s Herbal Therapy & Supplements: A Scientific & Traditional Approach. 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2008). ↩