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Herbs for Health: Hawthorn Benefits

Heal with hawthorn remedies from around the world.

| June/July 1997

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.

Traditional uses

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.

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