Hawthorn: A Season of Leaf & Flower

Thursday, May 14, 2020 3:38 PM | Wise Woman (Administrator)

Hawthorn and the Celebration of the May A Series... The Season of Leaf & Flower
by EagleSong Gardener

Years ago, as a budding herbalist, I knew I wanted to understand plants and nature and people. How and what connected them. I was not that interested in disease, although, as a budding adventurer, I was interested in learning to navigate the calamities of an adventurous life. Herbs were the perfect allies for this exploration. It took a while to see the limitations of the reductionist mindset so entrenched in western thought but alas, with plants as allies even that is becoming a distance memory of a journey through a strange land…

Plants kept saying Expansion is where its at, EagleSong! Expand…breathe in…breathe out! Expand your mind, your lungs, your ligaments and tendons. Expand your heart…even if that means breaking it wide open. Stretch girl! Stretch into a woman, stretch into an elder, perhaps, even a crone…keep on growing through it!

The verdant explosion of green is so filled with rapture during May, one can only step back and watch with glee…or perhaps, terror. If you’re a gardener, you know you’ll never keep up with the exuberant unfurling of the green! And, as a gardener, the best way I can truly enjoy this season is to imagine myself atop a vibrant green wave, riding her out to Zenith when once again the curve flattens into summer! Now, the cacophony of bird song and brilliance greet each morning and a long-time ally bursts forth in full bloom. Hawthorn, is there draping herself with dainty rose-like blossoms that appear to drip from her short, stout limbs. I set out to bring home another year's store of a tasty, nourishing herbal ally.

Hawthorn trees are commonly found in country hedges, at forest’s edge, in cities, gardens and parks circling earth in the temperate north. These sturdy, small trees carry the strong memory of country use in their veins. This multi-functional, aesthetically pleasing tree has been used through the ages for cultivating every day health all around the northern latitude of earth. The word Haw is an old European term for hedge. In England alone, there are over 350,000 miles of hedgerow boasting Hawthorn as the predominant tree. On May Day the entire countryside is festooned with white-flowered ribbons of hedges stitching the countryside together. A veritable highway of life filled with birds, butterflies, small and large animals and a seemingly endless variety of plants.

Maude Grieve’s earlier description of one botanical binomial for Crataegus spp. C. oxycantha, “from the Greek kratos, meaning hardness (of the wood), oxus (sharp) and akantha (a thorn)”, tells one much about the tree. A very dense wood used in wheel and chair manufacture in earlier times. Bearing long, sharp thorns “whitethorn” is a favored country name for the haw. Mayflower, another common name, due to its bloom season has traveled well through the ages. C. monogyna, the hard, one-seeded species, is yet another familiar species name to western herbalists.

Where I live in N. America, many species of Crataegus are found. The introduced hedgerow plants C. oxycantha and C. monogyna come from northern Europe, and the native C. douglasii are commonly found growing in the country hedge side by side. Hawthorn trees revel in the ritual of the season, enacted by the birds and the bees, easily cross-pollinating with one another bringing untold variation to its progeny. Because of this variation and with the many introduced hawthorns in my harvest hoop, hawthorns bloom over an 8 week window each spring here in the Snoqualmie Valley. Given each species’ flowers are harvestable for about 3-4 days, I recognize how diversity ensures a plant’s stability & resilience in an ecosystem.

Hybrid forms of Crataegus are found in urban gardens, parks and along city streets. Hawthorn is tough and grows easily once planted, although, after years of trying, I can say, “hawthorns are hard to start by cuttings or seed”. Grafting works well and you get the tree you expect from a graft. With a compact habit, year round interest and many varieties to choose from, hawthorn is a suitable tree for small gardens and street side plantings even in urban areas.

Gathering flowers and leaves for a delicious, nutritious herbal infusion for your cupboard is one gift of the Mayflower. Used for heart health throughout life, hawthorn leaf & flowers’ mild, pleasing flavor is delivered in a golden hue that inspires one to head for the prospect of lengthening days and the generative quality of summer with gusto. A strong heart is filled with courage, trust and joy. The qualities anyone might need to begin a journey into new territory. As the Pilgrim’s trusted the ship, the Mayflower, to bring them safely to their new world; with time and embodied practice, you can learn to trust the cellular wisdom of this tree to carry you into this ever-changing world anew each day.

For those with a scientific bent, Crataegus is not just a genus widely spread throughout the northern hemisphere, it is also a well-studied tree with scientific papers from around the world exploring its benefits, constituents, and the dynamic nature of its travel around the planet. Western herbalists appear a bit myopic when it comes to the genus. Their consideration is smartly focused on Crataegus monogyna and C. oxycantha as the two genera used for medicine.

After 10 years of study and travel to 5 countries visiting hawthorns in their chosen and introduced habitats, the gregarious Crataegus spp. assure me that 2718 species listed in theplantlist.org is a realistic estimate of genera. Although, a bit cumbersome to analyze this was an expansive realization of what I had been looking for all along. The medicine of plants, while simple, is also more complex than it first appears.

Understandably, people focus on the species closest to them. Much like the vast array of constituents in hawthorn, the vast populations of this tree on earth are mind expanding. When I fell under Hawthorn’s spell, one of the difficulties I was grappling with was a world view too small to cope with the rapidly changing pace of today’s world. After working under hawthorn as an apprentice for close to 20 years, I have become more flexible & resilient whilst feeling grounded in my person. Once again, I enjoy the love of learning with which I was born…this is a common story I hear from many people regularly using hawthorn.

Phenols, Bioflavonoids, Anti-Inflammatories…Global and Citizen Science!
Have you ever approached a blooming hawthorn and recognized that oddly peculiar scent? The leaves and flowers of hawthorn are rich in phenols which is why you can smell her from afar when blooming. Hooray, forest bathing is extending to rambles in the hedge! Alas, the scent of hawthorn is not agreeable to some and is relished by others. A circle of apprentices comes to mind at RavenCroft years ago, all sitting around a pile of almost dried hawthorn flower and leaf plucking the florets off at the proverbial second picking. The women were enveloped in the voluptuous scent, giddy, laughing, singing and some down right hot, you know sexy, all the while their hands working together in an ancient rite of women’s work, harvesting & processing herbs. Is this Mayflower at work?

Hawthorn’s numerous anti-oxidants are bountiful and easily extracted using the simple recipes below. A fascinating study investigating flavonoid profiles and antioxidant activity in the flowers and leaves of hawthorn species from different regions of Iran might interest you. Fifty-four samples were studied and, not surprisingly, there were many differing and similar fields of information found between species. Quercitin was one of the bioflavonoids in measurable concentration. A bioflavonoid known for its anti-oxidant activity, reducing inflammation and free radical damage in the body.

Imagine a scientific review differentiating several species of Crataegus growing in one country. Mexico and Asia are also rich in published studies on the Crataegus genus. The Hawthorn Project is coming into view as a citizen science project in the formative stages. Initiated as an exploration into the many Crataegus spp. found across North America, I welcome input regarding hawthorns growing in your area.

This tree has captured the imagination of people around the world through time and through every layer of society. And yet, the county where I harvest most of the hawthorn used in my practice has deemed Crataegus a noxious weed! Health so close and yet, for some, still so far away. Ardently doing our best to manage and enjoy local hawthorns, people here in Western Washington have taken to “dressing” the trees they harvest with ribbons, bells and notes stating, “this tree is tended & harvested for food and medicine”. What joy finding trees dressed with praise once again living in the commons.

For tree health and growth, leaf and flower harvest is done by pruning branches 2’-4’ long using the 5 D’s of standard pruning as your guide…that is, by removing Dead, Diseased, Deformed/crossing, Dangerous and Desirable growth, you will engage the energy of the tree to encourage generative growth while still meeting your needs as a forager gathering food & medicine for daily life. Letting air & sunlight reach the inner branches improves tree health and fruit production. As a tree that can be cut entirely down at the base, coppicing, and still have the power to return to a vigorous life, it is almost impossible to harm a hawthorn by pruning. And, it is certainly possible to increase health and vigor and the aesthetic structure of the tree by learning to prune with the tree ’s needs in in mind. This genus is co-evolved with human intervention and actually thrives on it.


EagleSong Gardener

Herbalist/Gardener, Grandmother/EarthKeeper, Pilgrim/Adventurer, Story Catcher/Yarn Spinner ... Is excited by the dynamic nature of life in a garden. Gardening since childhood, EagleSong has tended/managed high visibility kitchen gardens and farms, commercial gardens, herb gardens & nurseries and has trained in Healing & Therapeutic garden design. Today, she enjoys teaching health from the ground up at the generative pace of her home place, RavenCroft Garden. A cottage garden connecting people, plants and the earth for close to 30 years. As a creatrix of the Pacific Women’s Herbal Conference, EagleSong delights in crafting a place where women gather to connect, learn and transform themselves and the world in a forest at the edge of the Salish Sea.

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