Few plant groups have perplexed botanists as thoroughly as the hawthorns (Crataegus), a genus of shrubs and small trees in the rose family native to temperate North America, Europe, and northern Asia. Unrestrained interbreeding and a lack of isolating mechanisms have produced hundreds of hybrids and other variants. During the late nineteenth century, botanists felt compelled to describe nearly every one of these as a species and named almost 1,000 species native to North America alone. Today’s botanists recognize a total of 100 to 200 variable species.
The generic name Crataegus is derived from the Greek kratos, “strength”, referring to the toughness of the wood. Plants range from 3-foot shrubs to 30-foot trees, most with dark brown scaly bark and stout or slender, straight or branched spines ranging in length from 1 to 8 inches. The leaves are usually 1 to 4 inches long, varying in shape from oval to deeply cut. In England, the nutty-tasting young leaves of one-seeded hawthorn (C. monogyna) were eaten in sandwiches. Clusters of delicate white (sometimes red, purple, or pink), usually foul-smelling, 1/2-inch, roselike flowers bloom in May and June. The fruits (haws) look like round, oblong, or pear-shaped rose hips. They may be 1/4 to 1 inch long and come in orange-yellow, scarlet, red, yellow, blue, and black. The flesh is mealy and dry like that of rose hips and contains one to several hard seeds. Some fruits are extremely astringent, but those of several species are reportedly quite tasty. The 1-inch, orange-yellow haws of the eastern Mediterranean azarole (C. azarolus) are apple-flavored and are used to make jams and liqueurs.
Many kinds of hawthorns are grown as ornamentals in parks and residential plantings. The showy fruits lengthen their season of interest, and tolerance of heavy pruning make some forms suitable as hedges. Hawthorns are generally more resistant to disease than other ornamental fruit trees.
Hawthorns have been used as medicine wherever they are native. They include the European one-seed hawthorn (C. monogyna) and English hawthorn (C. laevigata), the Balkan (C. pentagyna), Mediterranean (C. azarolus), and eastern European black hawthorn (C. nigra). In China, C. pinnatifida and C. cuneata have been used.
The Greek and Roman herbal writers mention hawthorn only in passing for its edible, though less than delicious fruit. English herbalists also paid it little attention. A few Western sources note it as a remedy for stomach ailments and diarrhea.
Native Americans including the Potawatomi, Ojibwa, Chippewa, Meskwaki, Cherokee, Omaha-Ponca, Winnebagos, and Kwakiutl used the fruit or decoctions of the root or bark to treat gastrointestinal disorders and as female and general tonics, heart stimulants, and poultices for wounds and sores.
In China, hawthorn was mentioned as a drug in the Tang-Ben-Cao, an herbal dating to a.d. 659. It was used to treat stomach disorders, heart disease, and scurvy.
Western medicine first acknowledged hawthorn’s utility in treating heart ailments in an 1896 article by J. C. Jennings, a Chicago physician. For the next fifty years, it was widely used in both Europe and the United States, but U.S. physicians have since forgotten it.
A modern phytomedicine
Today, European and Asian practitioners prescribe hawthorn for treating early congestive heart failure, angina pectoris, and heart attacks, as well as sensations of pressure or anxiety in the heart, age-related heart problems not requiring digitalis, and mild arrhythmias. Pharmacological and clinical studies have shown that it increases the blood supply to the heart muscle and strengthens its contractions, enabling the heart to pump more blood to the rest of the body. Hawthorn extracts also improve circulation to the extremities by reducing resistance in the arteries.
Germany has approved preparations of the leaf with flowers of C. monogyna or C. laevigata but not drugs made solely from the fruits or the leaves. That’s because most clinical studies of hawthorn have used preparations that include both the leaf and the flower.
Studies have confirmed that sterols, triterpenes, flavonoids, catechins, proanthocyanidins, and amines isolated from the flowers, leaves, and fruits affect the cardiovascular system. A combination of these compounds appears to be responsible for these effects.
Commercial preparations are standardized to flavonoids, oligomeric procyanidins, chlorogenic acid, and other constituents. Potency varies with the plant part used as well as the time of harvest. For example, procyanidins are three times as concentrated in the fall leaves as in leaves harvested in the spring.
Preparations and cautions
The usual dose of a standardized product is 160 mg per day (divided into two doses); under a physician’s supervision, as much as 160 mg three times daily may be prescribed in Europe. A pleasant-tasting, slightly tart, astringent tea may be made by combining a teaspoon of the powdered fruits with a cup of boiling water.
Although no adverse effects from taking hawthorn have been reported, any heart condition is a serious matter. Don’t try to diagnose or treat yourself, but see a qualified health-care provider.
Brown, D. Herbal Prescriptions for Better Health, Rocklin, California: Prima, 1996.
Foster, S. Herbal Renaissance. Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith, 1993.
-------. Herbs for Your Health. Loveland, Colorado: Interweave Press, 1996.
Hamon, N. W. “Herbal medicine: Hawthorns (Genus Crataegus)”. Canadian Pharmaceutical Journal 1988, 121:708–9, 724.
Tyler, V. Herbs of Choice: The Therapeutic Use of Phytomedicinals. Binghamton, New York: Pharmaceutical Products Press, 1994.
Weiss, R. F. Herbal Medicine. Beaconsfield, England: Beaconsfield, 1988.
“Herbs for Health” is offered bimonthly by the American Botanical Council and the Herb Research Foundation as a supplement to The Herb Companion.Editor, Steven Foster
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“Herbs for Health” is intended as an educational service, not a source of medical advice or a guide for self-medication. Please consult a qualified health-care professional for treatment of any serious health problems. For further information on any of the topics in “Herbs for Health”, write the American Botanical Council or the Herb Research Foundation.