With May comes may-flowers! The delightful hawthorns, in full flower now up and down Britain, are arguably one of the 'must-have' multi purpose plants for temperate zone permaculture plots.
These plants have been used for centuries to enclose land; where they are an effective barrier against human and animal. The magnificent multitude of spring flowers are a signature of May throughout Britain and the thorny boughs are part of many old Mayday rituals.
The young leaves, flower buds and berries are all edible, and the plants are increasingly valuable herbal medicines. In diverse places such as Devon, the Isle of Man, and the Highlands of Scotland, hawthorn has traditionally been used in folk medicine as a primary heart tonic, as well as being used for centuries to correctly balance high and low blood pressure.
There are around 250 Crataegus species, of which many can be grown here in Britain. Some of the hawthorn species native to China, will produce much larger and tastier fruits than our native plants, and can be grown here without too much ado. In the wild on these isles, Crataegus monogyna and Cratageus leavigata are almost identical looking and offer us very similar medicinal benefits, so we can use either one interchangeably as medicine or food.
The generic name Crataegus stems from the Greek-Kratos meaning strength. The species name monogyna reveals that this species contains one (mono) seed (gyna), whereas C.leavigata typically has two seeds.
Hawthorns are members of the rose family, as their patterns reveal. They have oval-shaped leaves (albeit in hawthorn's case often deeply-lobed), with serrated margins. The flowers produce five green sepals behind the five white petals, surrounding the numerous stamens at the centre. You will likely find a pink tinge to ripe stamens, and some specimens show pink petals. The flowers are usually in full bloom during May, though some cultivars used in hedging flower earlier.
Hawthorn fruits ripen through September, their red skin hiding the creamy yellow flesh. The texture when ripe is akin to the texture of avocado. I've found the duller red 'haws' to be tastier than the scarlet ones, producing apple tones. At the base of the fruit you should see a five pointed star, similar to rowan (Sorbus aucaparia) and other members of the apple tribe.
Hawthorn's branches are liberally decorated with sharp thorns, approximately 2.5cm long. They can give you a nasty sore from a puncture wound, although not as bad as blackthorn (Prunus spinosa). Be extra vigilant when foraging in and around these plants.
C.monogyna is found throughout Europe, and far into the Middle-East. In Britain, we can find it mostly anywhere up to altitudes of 600m, and classically as a principle component of a hedge (from which it derives its common name - the word haw being a corruption of the old English word for hedge - haeg).
Hawthorns will also be found in woodlands (especially at the edges), and on waysides and roadsides. Occasionally you will see it in little groves. Hawthorns are also happy on their own in a great number of places. Various Crataegus species will be seen as amenity plantings in towns and cities.
Parts used: Young leaves, flowering tops and berries.
Leaves and flowers: April and May.
Hawthorn, like other trees, can give off a new growth spurt around the end of July, sometimes referred to as the lammas flush. This is another opportunity to harvest new leaves, although in far smaller quantities.
Berries: Late September-October (dependent on species and location).
Flavonoid glycosides (1-2%, including rutin & quercetin); condensed tannins (oligomeric procyanidins 1-3%) saponins; coumarin; cyanogenic glycosides;
Cardio-tonic, hypotensive, vaso-dilatory, relaxant.
Pharmacology and uses
These plants are some of Britain's super medicinal foods. Literally everywhere, the hawthorn health benefits are numerous, and can easily be introduced into your diet. Traditionally, this plant was used to treat arteriosclerosis, hypertension, and cardiac failure. All of these are prevalent killers in western societies, especially Britain. Medical science now knows of hawthorn's ability to help cure and prevent a range of cardio-vascular ailments.
The flavonoid molecules are known to expand blood vessels and strengthen capillaries. Hawthorn not only helps blood vessels dilate and therefore assists the peripheral circulation significantly, but also has a specific action on the coronary circulation itself. Hawthorn improves the nutrition, energy reserves, and energy release of the heart muscle. These plants are therefore possibly ideal for people with high blood pressure and cardiac arrhythmias.
The leaves, emerging flower buds, and flowers, are a more than useful addition to salads during the early spring. Always harvest the fresh, palatable new leaves, rather than the older and tougher leaves. Young leaves are lovely when accompanied by a dressing, and mixed with grated roots such as beetroot, carrot, and ginger.
By eating hawthorn berries it's known that we stimulate the increased performance of an anti-oxidant called superoxide dismutase. This enzyme promotes the scavenging of harmful 'free radical' molecules.
You could dry the fruits, maybe chop and use in a breakfast muesli sprinkle mix. Fresh, they can be preserved as a ketchup, or as jams or jelly, processed into fruit leathers, and added to chutneys and relishes.
Hawthorn has no contra-indications for use, although it can reportedly interact with beta-blockers and other hypotensive drugs. Reportedly, hawthorn may increase the effectiveness of them, as well as potentially beneficially interacting with foxglove cardiac glycosides! Patients already on heart medication should seek professional advice before using.
Follow my daily foraging adventures on twitter @ipsophyto or better still, join my foraging group and come on one of my all year round foraging walks in Southern Britain...www.meetup.com/town-country-foraging-walks-courses.
Top image © Copyright Nigel Brown
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