Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Hawthorn- Faery Guardian of the Heart

I'm participating in the Tree Year.  I'll be following a hawthorn tree in my fields this year.

Species:  Hawthorn, Whitethorn, Thorn, Haw Whiteblossom  (Crataegus oxycantha and other spp.)

Parts used: Fruits, leaf, flower
Energetic: cool, dry to neutral
Taste: sweet, sour, astringent
Actions: cardiotonic, nervine, astringent, nutritive, tonic, stimulant, relaxant, antioxidant

Botanical/Ecological description:
Hawthorn, in the rose family, is a small tree or shrub, that tends to grow in hedges, on the edges of roads or open fields.  It is rarely more than 12-15 ft tall, and the bark is rough and grey.  It has thorns anywhere from ½ inc to 2 inches long, which are dark colored.  In May it blooms with a profusion of white 5 petaled flowers that have a particular, rank or foetid smell.  Some people describe it as the smell of sex, and others, the smell of death.  Either way, they certainly aren’t sweet smelling!  Flowers ripen into small red drupes about ¼ in in diameter, with one large hard seed.  
It is often planted as a landscape tree in yards and along roadsides.  There are many species of hawthorns, on various continents.  Most of which are highly hybrized and interbreed freely.  It is often difficult to get it down to species.  There are some herbalists who have said only the official crataegus oxycantha is valuable medicine, and others who say that all species are somewhat medicinal.  I think the brighter, deeper colored red the fruits, the more antioxidant flavanoids are present, which will be medicinally active.  I can’t speak with authority on all species of hawthorns and medicinal value, as I have not tried very many!  But since they interbreed so readily, it seems unlikely to find the “official” hawthorn in a pure form, and I just do not think that it would lessen the medicinal value that much.  Many of the properties of the hawthorn are universal to rose family plants to some degree or another.

Symbolic/spiritual description:  The hawthorn is deeply associated with the Fae, Faery, the Good People.  It is said in Celtic lands where knowledge of the Fae is common, that to cut down an hawthorn tree will anger the Fae and cause bad luck.  Hawthorn blooms around May day and as such is associated with fertility and sex/lust, but on the flipside its rank smelling flowers and thorns and association with spirit worlds make Hawthorn a tree of “death” and transformation, and also of protection and caution.  Folklore of hawthorn is rich and deep.  In Western herbalism hawthorn is closely associated with the heart, energetically and physically, and many people use hawthorn to protect and soothe their emotional heart.  The beautiful fierce thorns coupled with soft delicate flowers speak to us of being tender and showing our inner beauty, our flower so to speak, but with strong defenses to guard the way.  You can’t really push past a hawthorn without getting caught up by the thorny branches.  But I do not find the hawthorn, with all its fierce thorns to be rough or unforgiving.  She teaches us awareness of where to place ourselves to avoid being hurt, of how to move carefully, and of the rewards of sweetness, transformation, and connection with powerful spiritual forces of the land and the Fae.  
If you are lucky enough to live near a hawthorn tree, be aware that the Fae may be near. Often times they will trick you, hide things or borrow things, in order to get your attention.  Try leaving small offerings for the Fae ones in or near your hawthorn tree.  They like sweets, shiny things, coins, honey, milk, cream or butter and tobacco.  I have found the Fae will generally return “lost’ or “borrowed” items when I ask and leave an offering, and will often help out in other ways in my life when appropriately gifted and asked.  But never break a promise to the Fae, or cut down your hawthorn!  The Fae ones are guardians of the land and the plants, I always leave an offering for them when harvesting plants.

Uses/Applications:  As stated above hawthorn is most famous for its use as a heart tonic, both the physical and emotional heart.   As a general rule of thumb hawthorn is considered a food herb, deeply nourishing, and considered safe. Its fruits are rich in bioflavanoids, vitamins and minerals that nourish the blood and the heart, and protect it from free radicals and oxidative damage, thus has been used traditionally as a tonic for weak hearts, hearts with congenital defects, and folks concerned about cardiovascular health in general.  Modern scientific study of hawthorn indicates it is useful in working with high blood pressure and cholesterol.  I have often used hawthorn in formulas for people working with these conditions, but it is vitally important to realize that these conditions are grossly misrepresented by the modern media and western medical science.  Cholesterol is just a NUMBER, and is not an accurate reading of cardiovascular  health or risk for heart attack.  Cholesterol is a vital nutrient, it builds hormones, immune system components, cell wells, and is involved in Vit D synthesis in the body.  We need cholesterol!  Cardiovascular disease is a real problem, but it is not always reflected by the single number of cholesterol that doctors like to use as scare tactic to get their patients on statin drugs.  Roots of cardiovascular diseases and high blood pressure are very closely tied with diet and nutrition, especially insulin resistance/syndrome X.  Much to the surprise of many eating a diet rich in animal fats and “cholesterol’ doesn’t impact your blood levels of cholesterol that significantly.  Cholesterol is produced by the liver on demand when your body is under stress or needs to produce sex hormones.  Breast feeding mothers can have cholesterol readings of over 300!  This is not  problematic.  The problems really start when someone is eating a very high carbohydrate, refined food, high sugar diet.  These diets promote insulin resistance- which increases inflammation, which is highly damaging to the cardiovascular system, increase blood pressure, increase triglycerides and increase risk for stroke and heart attack. 
That said, hawthorn is a beautiful ally to protect the heart in these sorts of conditions, but it is not a cure all.  They must be addressed with dietary and nutritional changes and modifying metabolic dysregulation with herbs and exersize.  I feel generally safe recommending and using hawthorn with people on other cardiovascular medications (excluding Coumadin or other blood thinners), as it is a food herb, but it is prudent and important for these folks to monitor their cardio health regularly.  Hawthorn may decrease the need for medications, and thus they should be monitored and adjusted as needed.   

Most people know of using the hawthorn fruit, but hawthorn leaf and flower is just as potent, and in some cases more potent than the fruits themselves.  Leaf and flower also lend themselves readily to tea/infusion, whereas fruits need to be cooked a long time to extract the medicinal benefits.  Many people also like to include hawthorn thorns in their medicine preparations to increase the protective benefits energetically.  This is easy to do when tincturing hawthorn.  I personally like to make a combined medicine with fruit, leaf and flower all in the same bottle.  You may tincture leaf and flower in the spring, and tincture fruit in the fall, and combine the two tinctures, or use dried and combine them in the same tincture jar.  Hawthorn leaf, flower and fruit elixir is devine!

It is important to remember that hawthorn, of the rose family, besides being rich in bioflavanoids and other nourishing nutrients, is very tonic and astringent.  It is generally appropriate for folks who lack tone in the cardiovascular system, or appear soft. (Not talking about fat here.)   It may often show up as a weak heart, either energetically or physically.  They may be pale, easily winded, or have poor circulation to the external parts of the body, because their tissues are flaccid and weak.  Astringent tonics can help to tighten, tone and strengthen the tissues to improve circulation. 

Hawthorn is a remarkable ally for what the Chinese call “disturbed shen.”  Shen is the word used for spirit, the spirit that resides in the heart, and makes up our mental/emotional/spiritual state of mind.  We understand this in the west as well, as we speak of heartbreak and heart sickness.  Physically our emotions may come from our minds, but we feel things deeply with our hearts.  It can result in a strong physical sensation in our heart area as well, an ache, palpitations, emptiness, or pressure.  When our spirit or shen is disturbed the signs are anxiety, restlessness, nightmares, dreaminess/fantasy, insomnia, heartsickness or heartache, fear, panic, trauma, or susto.  Hawthorn is a wonderful remedy in these cases.   Often in cases of childhood (or adult) asthma there is a realm of disturbed shen or heartsickness.  Hawthorn is extremely useful both to strengthen the physical action of the heart in asthmatics to improve oxygenation of the blood, and breath strength, and to soothe and calm the shen.  An asthma attack is clearly associated with disturbed shen or can result in such.  There is panic, fear, poor sleep, pressure, and often a disembodiment or tendency to get lost in ‘other worlds” or appear to be “taken by the Faerie.” And so, along with other botanicals, we use hawthorn in chronic cases of asthma.

This disturbed shen also is associated with heartache and heartbreak.  Hawthorn is an immense ally to anyone suffering from heartbreak, or a situation where their heart needs extra protection emotionally and spiritually.  Hawthorn is calming and nervine- not in the direct acute sense, but over time brings the heart and spirit back into alignment, improves circulation of blood, oxygen and chi, and restores balance and strength to the spirit and the heart.  Next time you are feeling heartache, add some hawthorn leaf and flower to your infusions (it does retain some of that strange rank smell, so I like to mix it with something extra sweet smelling, like linden, rose, or lavender.)  It soothes and comforts and heals the ache.  You can also sip a hawthorn berry cordial, or use small doses of the elixir or even hawthorn flower essence.

Leaves and flowers:  Should be gathered in spring in full bloom.  Always  ask permission from the Fae before harvesting hawthorn!  Work very carefully around the thorns.  Listen closely to the way the hawthorn teaches you to be present to your body and your movements as you work. I like to gather flower clusters with leaves, snipping close to the branch with a sharp fingernail or clippers.  Always leave enough flowers on the tree for the bees, and reproduction.  Leaves may additionally be harvested once the tree is past flowering, but earlier in the season is preferable to late.  They become richer in tannins later in the season, and more astringent.  These may be dried by laying flat in a single layer in a basket or box or on newsprint. 
Fruits:  Likewise fruits must be harvested in fall when ripe.  They do tend to hang on the tree into winter, but traditional lore of the harvest states that anything not harvested by Samhain (Halloween) is to be left for the Fae.  I will harvest single fruits from clusters by hand, always leaving plenty for the birds and the Fae.  Fruits are more difficult to dry, and are prone to mold and rot if not fully dried.  In our moist climate it is difficult to air dry fruit, and I generally suggest a dehydrator, or drying in the oven with the light on.  I will often split the fruits in half to facilitate complete drying.  Otherwise tincture fresh.

Preparations & Dosage:
Fresh tincture is a marvelous way to work with hawthorn. 
1:2 fresh plant tincture in 50% alcohol, tincture different parts and mix together

Dry plant tincture is also lovely. 
1:5, 50% alcohol, blend fruits, flowers and leaves together

Either way, fresh or dried, you may turn it into an elixir with the addition of honey, and using sweet brandy if desired.

2- 30 drops 3x day.  Many herbalists have noted that small doses (8-10 drops) are just as or even more effective than large doses of hawthorn. 

Infusion/decoction:  16 oz/day.  Take in small frequent doses (4 oz ).

You may make jelly with hawthorn berries, infuse them in wine or add to kombucha

A Modern Herbal- Maude Grieve
Kings American Dispensatory- Felter and Lloyd
The Physiomedical Dispensatory- William Cook
Personal Conversation  w/ Sean Donahue


Unknown said...

Thank you so much for this! I have felt very particularly drawn to the Hawthorn trees in my yard, whom don't appear to be doing very well this year. They had little to no leaves in the fall when we moved in and definitely no fruit. They've been very prolific, and I believe they number somewhere in the 20's right now, in a few small clusters. When I was looking at this place to rent, it was to these trees, the birch and the apple especially, that I made a vow to take very good care of the place, if I was allowed to move in. I think this has something to do with how we came to get approved after nearly a month of waiting to find out, and I am of so grateful. I have been dealing with a lot of bad dreams having to do with loss and a feeling of being trapped, as well as general spaciness and lack of focus in every day life. I can't wait until the Spring to be able to harvest some of their amazing medicine! I ♥ Hawthorn! ;) Thanks again Darcey!

Anonymous said...

Thank you Darcey for all this information. This reminds me of all the knowledge we usually lack in our societies.
I love the part about the Fae's: "Often times they will trick you, hide things or borrow things, in order to get your attention." - I will definitely think of that next time something gets lost or I pass a Hawthorne:

"The mother of us all, the oldest of us all, Hard, splendid as rock, Let the beauty you love, be what you do. There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the earth"~ Rumi ~