Common name: Hawthorn
Other names: Hawthorne, haw, may, mayblossum, mayflower
Latin name: Crataegus oxycantha
Affinities: Cardiovascular system, nervous system, immune system, digestive system
Actions: Cardiac tonic, heart tonic, hypotensive, nervine, immunomodulator, nootropic
Specific indications: Heart failure and weakness, anxiety, constipation, fatigue, attention deficit
Diseases: Hypertension(1), arteriosclerosis(3), angina pectoris(3), angina(3), insomnia(3), anxiety(1), ADHD(3)
Parts used: Flowers, leaves, fruits
Energetics: Cooling, moistening
Characteristics: Hawthorn is a small spiny tree with white flowers and is native to Europe (Winston and 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).
Centuries later, hawthorns use for heart disorders seems to have started around the end of the 19th century as Dr. Jennings of Chicago wrote an article in the New York Medical Journal in October 1896 containing the following statement: ‘To this date I have successfully treated with crataegus one hundred and eighteen patients who were suffering with various forms of heart disease……my deductions are that crataegus oxyacantha is superior to any other of the well known and tried remedies at present in use in the treatment of heart disease, because it seems to cure while the other remedies are only palliative at best.’ (Ellingwood, 1919). The Eclectic physicians, Finley Ellingwood and Harvey Felter, both wrote of hawthorn, describing its reported role as a heart or cardiac tonic herb (Ellingwood, 1919; Felter, 1922).
Current applications: Hawthorn berry is a classic cardiac tonic and useful as a more general nervine relaxant. What is less well known is its ability to boost cognitive function as described by Matthew Wood in his Complete Earthwise Herbal Volume 1 (Wood, 2011). I have also noticed some nootropic properties of this herb in confirmation of his and David Winstons findings. It also helps the bowel move along with its moistening effect.
David Hoffman remarks in his book, Holistic Herbal, with respect to hawthorn berries, that 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). Further, well-controlled studies are required to validate the traditional use of hawthorn berry.
Safety: High. Use cautiously if taking beta blockers and on anti-hypertensives, as it may potentiate action. It may be dangerous to your health to discontinue anti-hypertensive drugs in place of hawthorn, as they probably are stronger and are better tested. Be wary about feeling light-headed and dizzy, which may mean hawthorn has decreased the blood pressure too low.
Dosage: 30-90 drops of tincture can be used 2-3 times daily. Moderate-high doses are thought to be better with this herb, especially, for hypertension. Lower doses can be used for other purposes.
Form: It is the hawthorn berries that are traditionally used. A fresh tincture is preferable.
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.
Ellingwood, Finley. The American Materia Medica, Therapeutics and Pharmacognosy, 1919.
Felter, Harvey. The Eclectic Materia Medica, Pharmacology and Therapeutics, 1922.
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.
Wood, Matthew. The Earthwise Herbal, Volume I: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants. North Atlantic Books, 2011.
Zhang, Zesheng, et al. “Characterization of antioxidants present in hawthorn fruits.” The Journal of nutritional biochemistry
12.3 (2001): 144-152.