Common name: Hawthorn
Other names: Hawthorne, haw, may, mayblossum, mayflower
Latin name: Crataegus oxycantha
Affinity: Cardiovascular system, nervous system
Actions: Cardiac tonic, hypotensive, nervine
Diseases: Hypertension(1), arteriosclerosis(3), angina pectoris(3), angina(3), heart failure and weakness(3), insomnia(3), anxiety(1), fatigue(1)
Parts used: Flowers, leaves, fruits
Characteristics: Hawthorn is a small spiny tree with white flowers and is native to Europe (Kuhn, 2000). It often grows as a hedge and produces blood red berries. The name ‘crataegus’ comes from Greek words meaning, ‘hard’, ‘sharp’, and ‘thorn’, also, ‘haw’ means hedge in Old English (Bland, 2013).
History: The seeds of hawthorn fruits have been discovered at Neolithic sites, suggesting they were used as food (Castleman, 2001). The ancient Greeks and Romans viewed hawthorn as a symbol of hope, marriage, and fertility. The Romans placed hawthorn leaves in the cradles of babies to ward off evil spirits. In pagan times, hawthorn was the centre of fertility rites (Bland, 2013). However, Christs crown of thorns were thought to be hawthorn and the herb started to be associated with death and bad luck. The flowers were said to hold the odour of black plague that struck in the 14th century. However, as time passed Hawthorn became seen again in a more positive light and the 17th century English herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper praised it as ‘a singular remedy for kidney stones and no less effectual for dropsy’ (Castleman, 2001). However, hawthorn was not widely used to treat heart problems until the end of the 19th century when it was used by an Irish doctor to treat congestive heart failure. An article describing the Irish physicians work appeared in a medical journal for Eclectic physicians. The Eclectics began prescribing the herb for congestive heart failure and the chest pain of angina.
Current applications: David Hoffman wrote in his book, ‘Holistic Herbal’, with respect to hawthorn berries, ‘Hawthorn is one of the best tonic remedies for the heart’ (Hoffman, 1988). According to Thomas Bartram, hawthorn may have applications in increasing the strength of the heart, myocarditis with failing compensation, arteriosclerosis, atheroma, thrombosis, rapid heart beat, paroxysomal tachycardia BHP, angina, alcoholic heart, buergers disease, hypertension, and insomnia (Bartram, 2013).
Science: Studies of the biological activity of hawthorn extracts using models have found it has both anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties (Zhang et al., 2001; Quan et al., 2006). The flavones in the hawthorn leaf have been found to reduce levels of NF-κB and TNF-α (Fu et al., 2013). There have been a few double-blind placebo controlled human studies where hawthorn extracts were found to reduce hypertension (Walker et al., 2002), or manifestations of chronic heart failure (Pittler et al., 2003). A meta-analysis suggested hawthorn may have a place in reduction of fatigue (Pittler et al., 2003). These findings confirm hawthorns traditional role in Western herbalism as a cardiac tonic.
Safety: Safe for long term use and in pregnant women and children. Use cautiously in patients taking beta blockers and on anti-hypertensives, as it may potentiate action.
Dosage: 2-4ml of tincture 2 or 3 times daily. If in doubt go for hawthorn berries over flowering tops.
Brands: In Europe, I recommend A. Vogel. In the U.S.A., Herb Pharm.
Research on models
Anti-oxidant activity: One study using in vivo and ex vivo models found hawthorn fruit extract prevented the oxidation of human low density lipoprotein, the authors concluded this may be related to the cardiovascular effects observed in humans (Zhang et al., 2001).
Anti-inflammatory activity: A study using in vivo models found hawthorn extracts exhibited anti-inflammatory activities (Quan et al., 2006).
Anti-inflammatory activity(II): Another study found hawthorn leaf flavones reduced inflammation which could be observed by the inhibition of NF-κB and TNF-α expression in in vivo models (Fu et al., 2013).
Research on humans
Hypertension: One study (n = 36, double blind randomised placebo controlled), assigned individuals into 3 groups to take a therapy once daily over 10 weeks (Walker et al., 2002). One group took 500mg of hawthorn extract, another 600mg of magnesium, and the last a combination of magnesium and hawthorn. There was a trend towards lower blood pressure in the hawthorn only group and a significant decrease in anxiety.
Chronic heart failure: A meta-analysis of double blind randomised placebo controlled studies of hawthorn extract in chronic heart failure identified data from 632 patients across 8 trials that was suitable for further analysis (Pittler et al., 2003). They found a beneficial decrease in blood pressure and fatigue.
Bartram, Thomas. Bartram’s encyclopedia of herbal medicine. Hachette UK, 2013.
Bland, Beth. “The Book of Herbs: An Illustrated AZ of the World’s Most Popular Culinary and Medicinal Plants.” (2013): 101-101.
Castleman, Michael. “The new healing herbs.” Bantam Book, New York (2001): 465-471.
Fu, Jian-hua, et al. “Hawthorn leaves flavonoids decreases inflammation related to acute myocardial ischemia/reperfusion in anesthetized dogs.” Chinese journal of integrative medicine 19 (2013): 582-588.
Hoffman, David. Holistic herbal. Element Books, 1988.
Kuhn, Merrily A., and David Winston. Herbal therapy and supplements: a scientific and traditional approach. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2000.
Pittler, Max H., Katja Schmidt, and Edzard Ernst. “Hawthorn extract for treating chronic heart failure: meta-analysis of randomized trials.” The American journal of medicine 114.8 (2003): 665-674.
Quan, Ying-chun, and Li-ping GUAN. “Anti-inflammation, analgesic effects of extract of hawthorn leaf.” LiShiZhen Medicine and Materia Medica Research 4 (2006).
Walker, Ann F., et al. “Promising hypotensive effect of hawthorn extract: A randomized double‐blind pilot study of mild, essential hypertension.” Phytotherapy Research 16.1 (2002): 48-54.
Zhang, Zesheng, et al. “Characterization of antioxidants present in hawthorn fruits.” The Journal of nutritional biochemistry 12.3 (2001): 144-152.