How does it feel?
The qualities of hawthorn can best be introduced by making a strong tea with the leaves and flowers. This gives off a mild aromatic almost earthy aroma. When tasted the aromatic quality is almost vanilla-like, very low key, with gentle bitterness coming through quite quickly, followed by astringency, and finally a gentle sweet aftertaste. Eating the fruit in late summer, quite commonly done in rural areas, will provide a similar taste profile with a little extra mucilaginous quality.
The overall hawthorn sensory profile is of a plant with several complementary properties, supportive rather than potent.
What can I use it for?
Many of the traditional uses of hawthorn should only now be applied by trained health care practitioners who can navigate the complexities of heart problems and their conventional treatment. However in relatively mild heart and circulation conditions, particularly where stress is a key factor, hawthorn can be a very helpful home remedy.
Along with good breathing exercises consider using it for palpitations (this is not usually a problem of the heart, rather the effect of tension clamping the muscles of the rib cage and diaphragm and creating a sounding chamber in the chest), for hyperventilation and other local symptoms of stress. If your blood pressure is moderately high regular hawthorn tea can be a safe and effective companion to most blood pressure medicines.
Into the heart of Hawthorn
Probably best described as a heart tonic, hawthorn was used as an overall restorative and strengthening remedy, not only to alleviate symptoms, but also to aid recovery and prevent progression of illness.
The flowers and berries have similar actions, but the berries are thought to be more useful in the lowering of blood pressure and the flowers at improving circulation to the peripheries. It is particularly beneficial for reductions of function due to old age, as opposed to the onset of any particular pathology.
Hawthorn can also help to relieve anxiety and resulting palpitations or raised blood pressure.
Humans have venerated the hawthorn from ancient times, and the use of the plant as a medicine is almost as extensive. In Europe, ‘mayflower’ was long regarded as a sacred and magical tree. It was at the centre of numerous folk beliefs and rituals celebrating renewal of life in springtime, fertility, and matters of the heart.
Traditional folk use of hawthorn notably included fever management, to steady fluctuating body temperatures. In 1640, the English herbalist and author Parkinson noted that the remedy was applied for dropsy (an old term for fluid accumulation caused by heart failure). Over the ensuing centuries the therapeutic potential of hawthorn emerged more strongly, and herbalists found that its greatest benefit truly was for “matters of the heart”.
Early American herbalists found it helpful in cases of inflammation in the cardiovascular system (endocarditis, myocarditis, and pericarditis), irregular heart beat, and more severe heart malfunctions. It was considered gentle enough for elderly patients with difficult breathing linked to ‘weak heart’.
In Asian traditions, the fruits of local species were applied for astringent effects and for general digestive complaints, including dyspepsia (indigestion) and diarrhoea; it was sometimes charred for use as intestinal charcoal. Similar digestive applications were found among Native American tribes for the flowering shoots and flowers of their local species, particularly in the north and northwest. Native Americans also had gynaecological and obstetric uses for the plant.
All over the world, hawthorn fruits have been widely eaten as foods.
Astringents contain tannins that act to precipitate proteins and draw tissues together, tightening and toning them to reduce secretions and discharge. Astringents also tend to stop bleeding and can act on tissues with which there is no direct contact. Examples include Raspberry leaf (Rubus ideaus), Lady’s Mantle leaf (Alchemilla vulgaris), Agrimony leaf (Agrimonia eupatoria), Shepherd’s Purse leaf (Capsella bursa-pastoris), Witch Hazel leaf (Hamamelis virginiana) and Yarrow leaf (Achillea millefolium).
What practitioners say
Cardiovascular system: Among trained Western herbal practitioners, hawthorn is a strong favourite for the management of heart and coronary symptoms, as well as issues presenting in the circulatory system.
As it is a tonic, hawthorn has a reputation for use in both hypertension and hypotension as it normalises cardiovascular function. Other symptoms that may indicate the use of hawthorn are mild angina (chest pain), intermittent episodes of tachycardia (fast heartbeat), benign arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat).
Hawthorn may also be indicated to assist with peripheral circulation such as in the case of chilblains, atherosclerosis, and Raynaud syndrome.
It is often combined with other herbs such as motherwort (Leonorus cardiaca) for tachycardia and arrythmias, or linden flowers (Tilia spp) for anxiety related symptoms or hypertension.
Nervous system: Herbalists may prescribe Hawthorn in cases of anxiety and sleeplessness, especially if symptoms present with palpitations or other heart symptoms and sensations.
Hawthorn is also helpful in supporting the emotional heart much like its cousin, rose (Rosa spp). Like rose, Hawthorn can be an aid in the processing of grief and loss.
In a meta-analysis of ten well-conducted clinical trials including 855 patients with chronic heart failure (New York Heart Association classes I to III – in which there is slight limitation of physical activity) standardised preparations of hawthorn leaf and flowers show good clinical evidence of benefit, including increased heart capacity and tolerance to exercise (1). Other reviews for a particular standardised preparation support these conclusions (2, 3). Studies of its mechanism of action suggest that hawthorn helps improve the ability of the heart muscle to contract combined with an increase in coronary blood flow; the most important constituents for this activity appear to be flavonoids (4). Oligomeric procyanidins (OPCs) are also likely to contribute benefit (5,6). Some types of hawthorn extracts steady variable heart rate. There is also a significant hypotensive (blood pressure lowering) effect (7).
A Chinese hawthorn Crataegus pinnatifida has been used in Asia for the treatment of high cholesterol and various cardiovascular diseases. There is evidence that this species can be helpful in the case of ‘metabolic syndrome’ in which overweight, high blood sugar, high blood pressure or high blood lipid levels occur simultaneously, raising the risk for diabetes mellitus and cardiovascular diseases (8).
Hawthorn is a gentle tonic herb that is considered very safe when used as recommended. The fruit has been eaten as a food for centuries and was sometimes referred to as the ‘bread-and-butter-plant’. However, some traditional uses for this remedy make it unsuitable for self-medication, as heart conditions require expert diagnosis, monitoring, and treatment. Thus, the main risk associated with its use is that it might be taken in place of proper medical diagnosis and treatment of conditions that are potentially life-threatening.
There is also a theoretical possibility of interactions with conventional medicines for the heart, (although there is specific evidence that it does not interact with digoxin) and hawthorn should not be taken if there is already prescriptions for heart problems without expert supervision (9).
In one systematic review of safety in clinical trials involving over 5,000 patients with heart problems, adverse events were reported infrequently and were mostly mild, such as dizziness, digestive upsets, headache, and palpitation.
There is no evidence that hawthorn has harmful effects in human pregnancy, although such evidence is limited. There is no evidence of harmful effects in animal studies. Hawthorn is probably compatible with breastfeeding. Nevertheless, any use of this remedy during pregnancy and lactation should be undertaken only with expert advice.
Did you know?
In one story, Joseph of Arimathea, a metal merchant and the apocryphal uncle of Jesus who donated him his tomb, after the resurrection travelled back to Glastonbury in England, then an ancient metal trading hub and surrounded by the sea. He was said to have marked the site of the first Christian church by plunging his hawthorn staff into the ground, whereupon it burst into life and survived as a tree into Victorian times. Cuttings of this tree are found throughout England as the ‘Glastonbury thorn’.
Leaves, flowers, and fruit of various species of hawthorn are used interchangeably. They are deciduous, shrubby trees with thorny shoots. The leaves are characteristically 3-lobed, and as with all plants of the rose family have appendages (stipules) found at the base of leaves. Small white or pink flowers with 5 petals are borne in clusters. These give way to the characteristic red spherical berries that contain a single seed each. The plant flowers in May and bears fruit in September.
Flowers smell faint, often slightly fishy due to the trimethylamine content.
Alternate botanical names:
- Crataegus laevigata (aka C. oxyacantha)
- C. monogyna and other species.
- Crataegus pinnatifida is the main remedy used in China
- Bread and cheese
- Red Haw (Eng)
- Weißdorn (Ger)
- Hagendorn (Ger)
- Aubépine (Fr)
- Epine blanche (Fr)
- Blancospino (Ital)
- Espino blanco (Sp)
Hawthorn is a gentle tonic herb that is considered very safe when used as recommended. The fruit has been eaten as a food for centuries and was sometimes referred to as the ‘bread-and-butter-plant’. However, some traditional uses for this remedy make it unsuitable for self-medication, as heart conditions require expert diagnosis, monitoring, and treatment. Thus, the main risk associated with its use is that it might be taken in place of proper medical diagnosis and treatment of conditions that are potentially life threatening.
1.5–3.5g of dried flower, leaf or berry per day, as infusion or decoction.
- Oligomeric procyanidins or OPCs up to 4% mainly procyanidin B-2
- Flavonoids (1–2%) including quercetin glycosides (hyperoside, rutin) and flavone-C-glycosides (vitexin)
- Terpenoids sesquiterpenes and triterpenes
The flowers contain the highest levels of flavonoids and the leaves contain the highest levels of OPCs.
- Rasa (taste) Sweet, sour, astringent.
- Virya (action) Heating.
- Vipaka (post-digestive effect) Sweet.
- Guna (quality) Berries: Sharp, heavy, oily. Flowers/leaves: Sharp, light, dry.
- Dosha effect: Berries reduces vata and balances kapha and pitta; Flowers/leaves: balances vata, kapha and pitta
- Dhatu (tissue) Rasa/plasma, rakta/ blood, mamsa/muscle.
- Srotas (channels) Rakta/circulatory, anna/digestive, majja/nervous, mutra/ urinary.
Brave Heart Tea
This Brave Heart tea is a therapeutic recipe for nourishing your heart, both the physical and emotional.
- Hawthorn berry 4g
- Hawthorn leaf and flower 2g
- Limeflower 2g
- Cinnamon bark 2g
- Motherwort 1g
- Saffron 5 strands
- Rose flower 1g
- Pomegranate juice a glug (or 1 tbsp) per cup
This will serve 2 cups of a very heartloving tea.
- Put all of the ingredients in a pot (except for the pomegranate juice).
- Add 500ml (18fl oz) freshly boiled filtered water. Leave to steep for 10–15 minutes, then strain.
- Add a glug of pomegranate juice to each cup.
This recipe is from Cleanse, Nurture, Restore by Sebastian Pole
- Pittler MH, Guo R, Ernst E. (2008) Hawthorn extract for treating chronic heart failure. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2008;(1):CD005312.
- Holubarsch CJF, Colucci WS, Eha J. (2018) Benefit-Risk Assessment of Crataegus Extract WS 1442: An Evidence-Based Review. Am J Cardiovasc Drugs. 18(1): 25–36
- Zorniak M, Szydlo B, Krzeminski TF. (2017) Crataegus special extract WS 1442: up-to-date review of experimental and clinical experiences. J Physiol Pharmacol. 68(4): 521–526
- Rigelsky JM, Sweet BV. (2002) Hawthorn: pharmacology and therapeutic uses. Am J Health Syst Pharm. 59(5): 417–422
- Jurikova T, Sochor J, Rop O, et al. (2012) Polyphenolic profile and biological activity of Chinese hawthorn (Crataegus pinnatifida BUNGE) fruits. Molecules. 17(12): 14490–14509
- Rechciński T, Kurpesa M. (2005) [Oligomeric procyanidins from hawthorn extract as supplementary therapy in patients with left ventricle systolic dysfunction – Article in Polish]. Przegl Lek. 62(4): 243–244
- Walker AF, Marakis G, Simpson E, et al. (2006) Hypotensive effects of hawthorn for patients with diabetes taking prescription drugs: a randomised controlled trial. Br J Gen Pract. 56(527): 437–443
- Dehghani S, Mehri S, Hosseinzadeh H. (2019) The effects of Crataegus pinnatifida (Chinese hawthorn) on metabolic syndrome: A review. Iran J Basic Med Sci. 22(5): 460–468
- Tankanow R, Tamer HR, Streetman DS, et al. (2003) Interaction study between digoxin and a preparation of hawthorn (Crataegus oxyacantha). J Clin Pharmacol. 43(6): 637–642