Healing the Heart With Hawthorn
Healing the Heart With Hawthorn

Hawthorn has served as both a food and medicine for thousands of years. It’s one of the longest-used medicinal plants in European herbalism. Up until the 19th century, it was widely associated with fairies and magic.

Today hawthorn ranks among the three most often used “heart herbs” in the West (along with garlic and cayenne pepper) and is prescribed by doctors and herbalists alike. It’s used to treat all manner of cardiovascular problems: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, arrhythmia, angina, enlarged heart, hardening of the arteries—you name it.

People take hawthorn both for prevention and advanced heart disease. A 2010 meta-analysis of hawthorn research and clinical practice concluded that the herb holds “significant potential as a useful remedy in the treatment of cardiovascular disease.”

Hard and Sharp

Ranging in size from shrub to tree, hawthorn is a handsome plant year round. It’s a rustic cousin of the rose, and every spring it erupts in clusters of small blossoms (pink, red, or white depending on the variety).

In the fall, hawthorn produces small, hard, apple-like berries called “haws” (a name that comes from an old Saxon word meaning “hedge”). When its shiny leaves have fallen, the tree reveals thorns the size of sewing needles. The botanical name, crataegus, comes from Greek words meaning hard and sharp.

A full-grown hawthorn tree is small, but trees often enjoy a ripe old age (some are over 700 years old). In Germany and Britain, hawthorn hedges were used for centuries to mark property boundaries.

One old name for hawthorn is “bread and cheese tree” because the berries, blossoms, and leaves are all safe to eat and have provided sustenance in times of famine. Even in times of plenty, the berries are used to make jam, syrup, or wine.

Hawthorn illustration from “From Wild Fruits of the Countryside,” by F. Edward Hulme, 1902 (Public domain)

Plant Parts

The hawthorn berry is the part most often used for food. But when it comes to a heart medicine, studies overwhelming favor the leaf and flower. That doesn’t mean the berry has no cardiovascular benefit. Research points to the plant’s rich antioxidant content for its healing ability, and each plant part has a different mix of favorable compounds.

When selecting a supplement, the recommended standardization of compounds to look for is at least 1.8 percent vitexin and 10 percent procyanidins. These standardization recommendations give the consumer something comparable to products found effective in research and clinical practice. 

To get a feel for how hawthorn works, consider something called ACE (angiotensin-converting enzyme). This enzyme constricts blood vessels, thereby raising blood pressure. Similar to ACE-inhibitor drugs, hawthorn extract works to regulate ACE activity, relaxing the blood vessels so pressure drops and circulation improves.

Further research has shown that hawthorn may also regulate the heartbeat, increase blood flow to the heart, and serve as a mild sedative.

Chinese Hawthorn

The funny thing about herbal history is that you often find different cultures using the same plants in very different ways.

While heart issues are the main indication for hawthorn in the West, in traditional Chinese medicine, it’s mostly used for digestive problems, such as diarrhea and bloating, especially after an overindulgent, greasy meal. The fruit is also available as a candy, jelly, or powder for a sweet-and-sour tea to sip after dinner.

Given the success of hawthorn as a heart medicine in the West (and the rise in heart disease around the world), Chinese doctors are now using it this way too.

Study of a Hawthorn branch, oil on canvas by Betzy Marie Petrea Libert. (Public domain)

Safety Concerns

Hawthorn is a very safe herb, and European doctors often combine hawthorn with conventional drug treatment. Even so, patients taking heart medicine are advised to talk to their doctor before adding hawthorn.

Hawthorn extracts are available in a variety of forms: powder, tincture, capsules, and more. Dosages range from 160 milligrams a day up to 900 milligrams a day. Consult a qualified health practitioner for an appropriate dosage for your condition.

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