February is heart health month so we thought we would feature an herb that has been used to support healthy heart function for centuries. When we talk about “heart health” few herbs come to mind more than hawthorn. Hawthorn has a long tradition of use as a wonderful cardiovascular tonic. It has a rich folklore legacy as well as many modern studies supporting its use.

         
Crataegus douglasii                                      Crataegus oxycantha

Hawthorn is a lovely looking shrub/small tree that can be found in the wild in the Kootenay area with both Black Hawthorn (Crataegus douglasii) and Common Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) growing in the Creston Valley Region. In fact there is a beautiful example of Black Hawthorn (Crataegus douglasii) growing at the entrance to the CV Wildlife Center boardwalk to their interpretive center. You can also find a cultivated form of this plant at most garden centers, with the blossoms ranging from creamy white to dark pink. It grows very well in most gardens, adding a colourful flowering small tree to attract birds and bees to your garden.

So a bit of lovely folklore before we get to the modern uses –  for the Greeks hawthorn was a symbol of hope and the flowering branches decorated weddings. In England it provided branches for the maypole. The ship the Mayflower was named after the tree to symbolize the hope of the pilgrims in their voyage to America. Haw is an old English word for “hedge,” so the tree’s name means “thorny hedge.” Its Latin name, Crataegus, means “hardness” referring to the quality of the wood.  During the First World War, the young leaves were used as a substitute for tea and tobacco, and the seeds were ground in place of coffee. In the Second World War the berries were gathered along with rosehips to make into jams & syrups to supply vitamin C to the British population.

Hawthorn was traditionally used in Europe for kidney and bladder stones and as a diuretic. Its current use for circulatory and cardiac problems stems from an Irish physician who started using it successfully on his patients for such conditions toward the end of the 19th century. It is used today to treat angina and coronary artery disease. Hawthorn normalizes the heart and circulation, lowering or raising blood pressure according to need. It is found in most herbal preparations for heart weakness, irregular heartbeat, hardening of the arteries, artery spasms, and angina. In studies the hearts of those patients taking hawthorn required less oxygen when under stress as compared to standard treatments. And in another study it normalized heart action and efficiency and seemed to strengthen contractions in almost all the patients with primary heart disease and even some with more severe secondary heart disease.

Originally only the berries were used, but higher concentrations of active flavonoids have been discovered in the flowers and leaves when hawthorn is in full bloom. One study found spring shoots to be the most active. The flavonoids dilate coronary and external arteries while procyanidines, which are most prevalent in the leaves around August, apparently slow the heart beat and are antibiotic.

Hawthorn is also a great culinary herb, having a wonderful tart flavour (and being a great source of Vitamin C). We have two favourite websites that feature some great recipes using the berries of this plant.

https://tastethewildblog.co.uk/tag/hawthorn/

http://www.natureswork.co.uk/hawthorn/

I addition to these sites we thought we would share a simple recipe for making a hawthorn elixir that you can take every day to support a healthy heart.

 

Hawthorn Berry Elixir

1 cup ripe hawthorn berries (fresh or dried)

1 cup brandy or apple cider vinegar

1 cup honey

Combine all the ingredients in a clean glass jar with a tight fitting lid. If the liquid doesn’t cover the hawthorn berries add a little more of the brandy and honey to ensure that the berries are fully covered. Allow to sit on a windowsill for a month, shaking jar daily. Strain of the berries and discard. Put the liquid in a dark jar, label and store in a dark, cool place. If using alcohol this elixir will last for several years, if using apple cider vinegar then store elixir in the fridge and use within 6 – 8 months. Take 1 to 2 tsp per day for heart health.