Crataegus: A Generative Genus

Tuesday, May 19, 2020 4:15 PM | Wise Woman (Administrator)
Crataegus: A Generative Genus
by EagleSong Gardener

Hawthorns have been a focus in my herb crafting for close to 3 decades. Three threads weave through my life that made an apprenticeship with the generative genus, Crataegus, inevitable. First, my descent from a maternal lineage of farm folk in the Welsh and English hedge medicine tradition. Second, a life-long interest in cultures of the world, and third the experience of several life shaking/shattering events that happened simultaneously and brought me to hawthorn as an apprentice.

As an herbalist more frequently touched by plants and a need arising from life itself than a desire to investigate disease, hawthorn first showed up in a broken 50-60 year old hedge in the Snoqualmie Valley. While visiting a friend farming on leased land, I met what became a grounding force in my life, the broken hedge.

Every spring the flowers & leaves beckoned and each fall the fruits or drupes, botanically speaking, enticed me to come harvest. At that time, I was “wild-crafting” that for me was the act of going to get plants with which to make things. I have progressed through different expressions of a hunter-gatherer of plants through time. I then enjoyed a phase of foraging, I particularly enjoy the feel of the word foraging as I sense more of an engagement with the plants I’m foraging. What fun going on a food foraging foray! This feeling sometimes comes over me even when visiting the grocery store.

Now, my relationship with the haw hedge has taken on a new feel. After meeting up with so many hawthorns in my travels, when I approach the broken hedge I stop and acknowledge her and all of her relations around the world. I am utterly in awe of this genus as represented by this one broken hedge and the unique individual trees I’ve come to know over these many years. Now, I come to tend her and be tended. Care for her and be cared for. I can now share her with others who want to experience her nature and receive her gifts; when for the longest time I did not have the confidence to allow anyone near me or the hedge.

As we learned in Part 2 of this series, 2718 species of Crataegus have shown up for taxonomists to tackle. I am fine with one genus and many relations, I’m not as keen to differentiate the tiny details as some. Most agree with this perspective as Crataegus can be such a confusing genus. Stephen Foster says, “The plant group embodies the concept of endless variation, with numerous hybrids and other variants, that in the late nineteenth century led to the naming of upwards of 1,000 species of hawthorn for North America alone!(1)

Let’s take a look at some of her kin to get perspective. It’s the endless variation I became interested in. Through my exploration of the Crataegus species, I’ve back tracked through the western perspective and moved into a whole view of hawthorn’s place in the world, a more global and wholistic perspective.Themes such as variation, diversity, global, cultural, and more kept showing up. I felt like Alice falling down the rabbit hole into a whole new world! The warning against falling asleep under a hawthorn tree is, in my experience, just like folks say… “Beware, falling asleep under a hawthorn tree! The Queen of the May will take you as her own!” Although, this is what happened to me, I trust your experience will be wholly your own.

Turns out the use of hawthorn for heart disease came fairly recently. Before the late 1890’s hawthorn was generally used for diarrhea and stomach ailments in the west. There is very little said of Crataegus in early western herbals. Seems a physician named “Greene” in Ireland discovered hawthorn was useful in the treatment of heart disease in the western “history” of these things. The Lloyd brothers, imminent American herbalists in the 1890’s did not take Dr. Greene’s findings seriously at first, but eventually after trial and error in their practice, came around to hawthorn’s use as remedial in heart disease. Then, with the Lloyd’s vindication hawthorn took her place in western herbalism as a heart remedy. Another version of this story states it was a hedge witch or wise woman that turned Greene onto the use of hawthorn as a heart remedy! Either way the view of hawthorn as a heart trophorestorative (2) is a young perspective and a western one. And, because it works, other cultures are making a place for the heart restorative medicine of hawthorn in their traditions.

In China, hawthorn was listed in the Tang-Ben-Cao, a Chinese herbal attributed to Su-Jing and others dating to 659 AD and considered the world’s first official pharmacopoeia.

Crataegus is and has been used for nourishing the spleen and easing digestive stagnation for a long time. The spleen is recognized as the place essential nourishment is sorted from gross substance which moves on for further assimilation by digestive microbes in the alimentary canal. From a Chinese and more holographic perspective, the “spleen” is as much an organ as a function. The recognition that each cell in a body performs the functions of organs in a body quickens the concept that organs are not separate entities but part of a whole complex organism. Embracing this level of wholeness challenges a mechanical view of the body.

Quantum physics and quantum biology are pushing this edge as we begin to embrace a global sense of health new to the western reductionist mindset. Hawthorn is a perfect example of this perspective in that “the active constituent of hawthorn is generally recognized to be…hawthorn(3).  While it is recognized hawthorn has constituents, there is an honoring of this plant by most western herbalists, a recognition that it is the whole plant that makes beneficial changes when used, not the isolated constituents. Hawthorn being an adaptogen, an herb that is non-toxic, non-specific in its action and generally beneficial to the whole organism, is in familiar wise woman vernacular, a nourishing and tonifying plant.

In China, many species of hawthorn are used with C. pinnatifida  and C. cutenea most often cited as the species used in Chinese herbal medicine. My curiosity with global cultures makes me curious how common people use plants the world over and through time. Chinese haw are much larger than N. American haws, about the size of crab apples. At street markets and festive events, they are speared on sticks, dipped in bright red sugary syrup and eaten as treats. Hawthorn is also made into small balls or flakes and used as candy. I have done this with the marc left from making hawthorn syrup to good effect. In Asia, hawthorn is added to wines, sauces, soups and stews and a delicious tea of dried hawthorn fruit and roasted barley is regularly enjoyed for healthy digestion. There is an active commercial market for hawthorn in Asia as food and medicine.

I did not have to travel far to learn of an
other cultural use for Crataegus, the generative genus. Living in a region with a large Latino population, I stumbled upon Crataegus mexicana when I experienced several challenging life events simultaneously. It was a time for me where earth was like dancing on quicksand is the best way I can describe the feeling I had for many years. Several Mexican families helped to soften that fall and hold me through the deep work. Here I apprenticed to a level of social medicine lost to my culture and how it keeps a people alive not just a person.

Blanca Hernandez, a sister-gardener, working as a housekeeper in the hotel where I worked as the head gardener, invited me to her home every year for her family’s New Year’s Eve fiesta. There, I apprenticed to a people with a deep sense of hospitality and mother as the central figure in the family, community and country. Blanca taught me how to make Ponche’, the mid-winter fruit punch with Tejecote, C. mexicana, as the central ingredient. A punch enjoyed by peoples all through Mexico, Central America and S. America. Starting with the feast day of Guadalupe December 12 and ending on Epiphany Jan 6th, Ponche’ is enjoyed by Latinos everywhere. After that it is put away until the next year’s festive winter season of devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe.

I adapted Ponche’ using northern fruits and local Crataegus from the valley where I live to bring an immune defense beverage into my winter health practice. Now, a winter standby cooked in a big kettle on the wood stove, NW Ponche’ fortifies a healthy passage through the dark, wet northwest winter in devotion to trees and a life embracing wholeness.

Crataegus mexicana, is another hawthorn the size of a small apple. There are many studies available from Mexico investigating the potential uses of this hawthorn for health and commerce. For me, Ponche’ will always be tied to the social medicine of community that I learned from Blanca and other families in my town. People who brought me into their world and held me when I most needed to be held in a circle of human beings. Fiesta is a place where people of all ages are included in the celebration of life, mourning of death and remaining connected through times of feast and famine. These are a gregarious people who have lived through experiences that requires a resilience most of us cannot even imagine. To find hawthorn a central herb in their lives continued pushing the edge of what I thought I knew about the generative genus Crataegus.

To give you an idea of how important Tejocote is to Mexican-Americans, it was “Once the most smuggled fruit on the Mexican border, tejocote is forbidden no more”.  Tejocote ingrained in people’s lives as a must have plant was slowly integrated into southern California orchards to prevent the illicit transport of the fruit over the Mexican border. It is now even possible to buy Tejocote fresh at tiendas in Monroe, WA in the winter months. My dream is to grow a C. mexicana at RavenCroft Garden to befriend the 3 Chinese Hawthorn and 9 other Crataegus spp. already holding vigil here.

Common social medicine is vital medicine for continuity in human community. In the era of covid hysteria, tending the spark of community will require strong hearts. Social connection is imperative to feeling and being human. Hawthorn with her variation, diversity and global nature is a potent herb for these times. A strong heart allows the fullness of the garden of delight to be more fully experienced and provides a home for courage and spirit to reside.

Hearts are fascinating and I’ve learned much about them in this adventure with hawthorn. You’re invited for Part 4: Hawthorn and the Human Heart in the Hawthorn Series here at Wise Woman Mentor.

 ~ Green blessings of the May your way ~

(1) http://www.stevenfoster.com/education/monograph/hawthorn.html
(2) The Energetics of Western Herbs Vol. 1 pg 278, revised 3rd edition Peter Holmes
(3) Gido Mase AHG Lecture AHG Syposium, Oregon Gardens, 2018
(4) https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2009-dec-09-la-fo-tejocote9-2009dec09-story.html

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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