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Herb of The Month - April 2007

Hawthorn

by Debs Cook

I first thought about covering the hawthorn back in May when the trees in my local hedgerows were covered with pretty white blossoms but, as the blossom isn't the only useful part, I truly couldn't decide where to include the hawthorn in the grand scheme of things as far as the Herb of the Month is concerned.  Known in some parts as the May flower or May blossom due to the time of year it comes into flower, the hawthorn is also full of rich red berries in the autumn.  In the end I decided to write about the hawthorn now, just as the berries have ripened and they can be picked for use for wine, jams, jellies, tinctures and teas.

History

Hawthorn was first mentioned medicinally in the 'Tang Ben Cao', a Chinese herbal back in 659 A.D. where it was used to cure digestive and circulatory disorders. The Greeks and the Romans have been using it to treat heart problems since the first century A.D. It has been a symbol of fertility and said to offer protection from lightning for centuries. The flowers generally bloom in May but, if the weather is still frosty, it flowers when the frosts have gone. My Nanna had a saying which I never understood until later in life, she used to chime "Ne'er cast a clout, til May is out". As a child I thought it meant don't thump somebody until the end of May! However as I grew up, I discovered the May referred to was a name for hawthorn and not the month and the clout was your clothing. Hawthorn blossom has a distinctive fragrance that most find pleasant but in medieval time's hawthorn was said to carry the 'stench of death'. This is due to the trimethylene that the flowers give off as they deteriorate, which is the same chemical smell that is given off when corpses decay. Consequently it was taboo to bring hawthorn into the house in old England because it was feared it would bring death with it. The exception to that rule was during May-Day celebrations when it was permitted to bring flowers into the house for decoration.

Folklore

Folk names for hawthorn vary around the world. In some countries the berries are known as Pixie Pears, Cuckoo's Beads and Chucky Cheese, whilst the hawthorn itself has been known as the May, Mayblossom, Hagthorn, Mayflower, Ladies Meat, Bread and Cheese and Quickthorn. The Hawthorn was considered sacred in early times and legend has it that Joseph of Aramathea came to England and planted his hawthorn staff in the soil at Glastonbury, creating what later became known as the Glastonbury Thorn. In times gone by, May blossom signified new life and the word nuts in the traditional song 'Here we go gathering nuts in May' is actually a corruption of the words 'knots', the knots referred to were the pieces of hawthorn wood gathered for ceremonial use. The maypole was originally constructed from hawthorn. In parts of Europe, branches were cut from the hawthorn on May or Beltane eve and were used to decorate the doors of houses and the blossoms made into garlands for the maypole on May Day. There's plenty of folklore about the hawthorn, hung over the doorway. In the middle ages it was said to prevent evil spirits entering the home. It has connections with faeries and the underworld in Celtic folklore. Hawthorn was often referred to as the faerie bush and it was considered bad luck to cut it for fear of offending the faeries that inhabited it.

Description

Hawthorn is a thorny deciduous shrub or tree that grows up to fifteen metres high. There are more than 200 species of hawthorn that grow around the world. The two most common in the UK are Crataegus monogyna and the Midland hawthorn C. laevigata, although the Midland hawthorn isn't found often in the south west and the south of England in the wild. In May its flowers bloom, hence its name of May tree to some. The flowers grow in small clusters that are white, red, pink or combinations of those colours. These flowers turn in to small red berries in the autumn, which are also known as haws.

Growing

Hawthorn can be grown from seed although it can take up to two years for the seed to germinate. It can also be grown from either softwood or hardwood cuttings. Once established your cutting will quickly grow into a tree or shrub, depending how you prune, and it will grow profusely for the first 15 years of its life. Hawthorn is not fussy about soil conditions and will grow almost anywhere. It's good for use as a hedge and, used at the roadside, it won't mind the fumes from cars. Hawthorn will tolerate growing conditions from wind-swept, exposed sites to damp, shady sites and will also tolerate dry conditions. Crataegus laevigata 'Paul's Scarlet' is an exception to the above and prefers to grow in heavy soil with light shade. Maintaining hawthorn is easy: it requires nothing more than an occasional prune to remove crossing shoots and helping to keep the shrub/tree in shape. Pruning is best done in the later part of winter or early spring. The main pests and diseases that affect hawthorn are fire blight, aphids, gall midges, honey fungus, rust and powdery mildew. Treatment of all the above is easily done with organic sprays and pruning.

General Use

The wood of the hawthorn allegedly makes one of the hottest fires known to man and is considered to be better than oak for burning in ovens. Charcoal made from hawthorn is said to melt pig-iron without the aid of a blast furnace. In times gone by the roots were used for making boxes and combs; having a fine grain the hawthorn stains and polishes beautifully making it decorative. Hawthorn wood was also used for making printing blocks and the left-over trimmings were gathered into bundles and used as kindling to light fires. Hawthorn is also one of the more common hedging plants in the UK.

Medicinal Use

Hawthorns main constituents include saponins, flavonoids, ascorbic acid and tannins.  The active constituents in hawthorn are noted for their antioxidant and astringent properties.  Celebrated medicinally as a tonic for the heart since the 1st century AD, hawthorn is also useful as a diuretic and for treating hypertension, insomnia and nervous conditions, and makes a useful decoction to help soothe a sore throat.  It can help lower blood pressure and has been shown to increase blood flow and improve the heart's metabolism.  Recent studies have shown that hawthorn berries are excellent for both prevention and treatment of coronary heart disease when used on a regular basis.
The berries, leaves, and flowers of the hawthorn plant are used medicinally, although the leaves and flowers are believed to contain more of the active compounds than the berries.  Hawthorns diuretic properties make it useful for treating dropsy and kidney trouble.  Dropsy was the old term for the swelling of soft tissues due to the build up of excess water, which is now more commonly known as edema.  Culpeper stated that the seeds of the hawthorn, when dried and beaten to a powder and mixed with wine, were good for treating gallstones and dropsy.  He also recommended the use of distilled hawthorn water for drawing out thorns and splinters. 

Note: if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, do not take hawthorn.

Culinary Use

The young leaves and berries of the Hawthorn used to be known as 'bread and cheese', the young leaves actually have a rather nutty taste, and can be harvested and added to salads in early spring.  Later than this and the leaves become bitter tasting and are not as tasty at all.  Leaves and flowers were used to make herbal tea long before china tea came to this country and are still used in herbal brews today.  The berries have a fresh but mealy taste and make a useful addition to hedgerow jams, as in the recipe below.  They're also used to make wine and liqueurs.

Recipe - Hawthorn Jelly

The amount of hawthorn jelly you make from this recipe will depend on how 'juicy' the fruit is. When finished it makes a lovely red jelly perfect for serving with game.

Ingredients

create catalog 2Żlb Ripe Hawthorn Berries.
create catalog 2 Pints Water
create catalog Granulated Sugar (see method for quantity required).

Juice of a lemon.
Method

create catalog

Wash the hawthorn berries well and remove and stalks left on the berries discarding any damaged berries.

create catalog

Put the berries in a pan with the water and simmer for about an hour until the berries are soft and have absorbed most of the water.

create catalog

Pour the liquid into container through a muslin cloth or suitable fine strainer and leave the juice to drip out slowly over night. Don't be tempted to squeeze the bag because this forces impurities into your jelly and makes it go cloudy.

create catalog

Measure the juice into a pan and add 1lb of sugar to each pint of hawthorn juice.

create catalog

Place the pan containing the juice and sugar mixture back on the cooker, add the lemon juice and heat gently until the sugar has dissolved.

create catalog

Once dissolved, boil the jelly rapidly until it begins to set.

create catalog

Once ready pour the jelly into clean, sterilised jars that have been warmed, seal and label.




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