About 200 species of Crataegus are scattered throughout North Africa, Central Asia, Europe, and North America, and many folk traditions reference the hawthorn tree. Whether you believe the hawthorn tree is unlucky, a sign of good things to come, or a source for witches’ brooms depends on the part of the world from which you hail.
Ancient Superstitions About Hawthorn
Celtic mythology claims that if you linger alone too long under a hawthorn tree, you might be carried off to the land of the fairies. Later, in England, it was considered unlucky to bring a blooming bough into the house for decoration, as illness or death was sure to befall someone within. Many Christians still believe that the crown of thorns placed on Jesus’ head was made of hawthorn, and Joseph of Arimathea is alleged to have planted the Holy Thorn Tree of Glastonbury in Britain while traveling with the Holy Grail after Jesus’ death. In ancient Greece and Rome, though, the hawthorn tree was beloved as a sign of luck, fertility, and love. Because it bloomed in May, the time of courtship, hawthorn was often featured in marriage and birth ceremonies.
Regardless of mythology, all hawthorns are bedecked in delicate, white to pinkish petals in spring. The Holy Thorn Tree of Glastonbury blooms twice, securing its reputation as miraculous — a quality retained through the long succession of cuttings taken from the original to maintain the tree. The first bloom occurs in spring, and the second flush comes around Christmastime. It has long been a tradition to send a blooming branch from the Holy Thorn Tree to the queen at Christmas. Apparently, she doesn’t subscribe to the British superstition that bringing hawthorn indoors is bad luck; perhaps the Holy Thorn Tree of Glastonbury is a special case. Even if you aren’t superstitious, take care before bringing hawthorn inside your home: Despite belonging to the rose family and having masses of beautiful flowers, hawthorn blossoms smell like rotting meat. In fact, scientists have determined that the blossoms release trimethylamine, one of the first compounds produced when animal flesh decays. The scent lures pollinators, and it’s likely the origin of the British belief that hawthorn brings bad luck.
From a utilitarian point of view, hawthorn wood has long been prized for burning especially hot. It has clean growth rings and is remarkably hard when dried, making it a favored choice for carving. Hawthorn found use in household furniture and wooden kitchenware because of its sturdiness and association with spiritual protection. In Old English writings, the tree was simply called “thorn” — as in oak, ash, and thorn, the three primary magical wood types of the British Isles. It wasn’t until North America was settled by European immigrants that “haw” was added to the tree’s name. “Haw,” meaning “hedgerow,” was a nod to the great usefulness of this tree as a windbreak and natural fence.
Beyond the many and conflicting traditions surrounding hawthorn’s prophetic and utilitarian properties, the tree has a long history of use for food and medicine, and continues to be used and studied today.
Hawthorn as Food and Medicine
Although British peasants believed bringing hawthorn inside the house was bad luck, it was so commonplace to eat the leaves that it earned the epithet “bread and cheese.” The taste is mild and a bit nutty. The leaves are best eaten young, in spring. For most of hawthorn’s written history, this was the main use for the leaves. The red to blue-black berries ripen in fall and contain large seeds. The flesh is thin and can be nibbled off, but it’s a bit bitter. Combined with sugar and perhaps another fruit, hawthorn berries make a delicious and conveniently self-setting jelly because they’re high in pectin (see Hawthorn, Aronia, and Elderberry Jelly Recipe).
Folk remedies were often inspired by “sympathy” between a plant’s appearance and the ailments it was thought to treat. Hawthorn carries imposing thorns, but past that barrier are the delicate, vulnerable flowers — overall, a striking metaphor for the heart. Traditionally, the berries have been used to treat matters of the heart both emotional and physical, including angina, arrhythmia, arteriosclerosis, blood clots, and irregular blood pressure. Emotionally, hawthorn is known as a protector and is given to those who feel bullied, alone, disheartened, or outraged. With the advent of technology and processes for examining phytochemicals, the leaves and flowers have also been under study for therapeutic uses.
Clinical studies have demonstrated the efficacy of hawthorn folk remedies for treating congestive heart failure brought on by ischemia, or inadequate blood supply to the heart; hypertension; adrenal imbalances; anxiety, in combination with other herbs; and acne. The berries are also a promising remedy for high cholesterol, and are known to be effective at stabilizing arrhythmias; increasing the efficiency of the heart muscle in contraction; protecting the heart muscle against free-radical damage; and as a treatment for angina, tachycardia, and atherosclerosis.
Many of these benefits are attributed to the high levels of flavonoids found in the tree, particularly oligomeric proanthocyanidin complexes (OPCs), compounds that scientists believe are a defense against insect predation, and which are found in highest concentration in red- and purple-skinned fruits. OPCs, like vitamins C and E, are powerful antioxidants, acting on both fat-soluble and water-soluble oxidants. These compounds also regulate collagen and elastin in blood vessel walls, which may explain hawthorn’s long history as a folk remedy for heart and circulation complaints. The flowers contain the highest levels of flavonoids, and the leaves contain the highest levels of OPCs. OPC levels in the leaves rise even more in spring while the tree is flowering.
Growing Hawthorn at Home
If you’d like to grow hawthorn, the plants are relatively easy to get started, but beware of their proclivity to fungal disease. They prefer full sun and well-drained soil, and aren’t picky about soil pH. They don’t need much pruning — incidentally, it’s said that damaging a hawthorn or cutting it without permission may draw fairy anger, so use caution if you decide to trim your plants!
A hawthorn in your landscape will reward you through all four seasons. Masses of spring flowers give way to three-lobed leaves in summer, and then to reddish-purple berries in fall. The seeds germinate best if passed through the stomach of a bird, and to secure that favor, the hawthorn tree puts on quite a show and feeds the birds all winter long. Our mockingbirds love hawthorn berries, and when snow is on the ground, we’re visited by bright-red flocks of cardinals, and later by fat robins. The protection of the thorns makes a hawthorn hedge a valuable hiding place for insect pollinators, birds, and animals.
If you decide to plant a hawthorn, or perhaps have one you already love, don’t forget to keep the fairies happy. Folk custom dictates that you tie ribbons and rags in the branches or leave gifts at the foot of the tree for the wee folk. It’s fun to do, and the practice may just protect you from being whisked away by the fairy queen!
Delicious Hawthorn Recipes
• Calming Kids’ Tea Recipe
• Hawthorn, Aronia and Elderberry Jelly Recipe
Bio: Dawn Combs is an ethnobotanist, author, speaker, and educator who homesteads with her family in central Ohio.