Mythical, Heart - Healthy Hawthorn

Hawthorn’s use as a heart remedy and spiritual protector stretches back nearly to the beginning of recorded history.

  •  hawthorn trees' branches
    Frothy masses of flowers cover hawthorn trees' branches in spring.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/dadalia
  • Hawthorn trees can grow to 30 feet tall and 35 feet wide
    Hawthorn trees can grow to 30 feet tall and 35 feet wide, though many species are shorter with a smaller spread. The masses of spring blossoms are followed by clusters of small, generally red fruits that pack a tremendous punch of vitamin C — and make a lovely winter statement in a garden.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/Howgill
  • Hawthorn berries
    Hawthorn berries cling to the tree well into winter, unless opportunistic birds — or foraging humans — strip them from the branches.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/agneskantaruk
  • Hawthorn berries ripen
    Hawthorn berries ripen in the fall and may be red, as shown, to blue-black.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/Yakov

  •  hawthorn trees' branches
  • Hawthorn trees can grow to 30 feet tall and 35 feet wide
  • Hawthorn berries
  • Hawthorn berries ripen

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).



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