The Black Hawthorn (Crataegus douglasii) or western thorn apple is a Pacific northwest native tree that as a child growing up in northern Idaho I stayed away from because of its thorny branches and it being host in late summer to the small, but prolific and slimy larval stage of the sawfly. Known as the pear slug, the sawfly larvae felt and moved over the foliage much like miniature slugs, all the while skeletonizing the leaves of hawthorn and pear trees. Since I spent a great deal of time in the lowland fields and orchards on my childhood turf, I was well-acquainted with the sharp thorns and “slimy slugs” as I crawled and scrambled about. However, I loved the hawthorn blossoming time coming in mid-May and the abundant bee populations that buzzed about pollinating its flower clusters. Little did I know at the time the sawfly is a small, stingless wasp that helps to pollinate its musky-smelling blossoms.
Hawthorn with its flowers, leaves and haws is one of the most important medicinal plants in our herbal apothecary. Beginning with its verdant, tender leaves unfurling in the spring when I like to gather them for a lemony-like green tea or as a salad green, and then into the blossoming stage when the flower clusters are collected for teas and tinctures and on to harvesting of the hawthorn haws or berries for tinctures, and infused honeys, shrubs and tonic syrups, the hawthorn provides a cornucopia of health. Some herbalists and aficionados also collect twigs, thorns and bark, adding them to their preparations. Hawthorn has a myriad of healing capabilities but perhaps is best known in the western herbal tradition for its use as a slow and gentle-acting heart tonic. Quoting herbalist Michael Moore, from his book “Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West” (1993), …”In recent years, the berries have been used increasingly in syrup or tea for strengthening connective tissue that has been weakened by excessive inflammation (because hawthorn contains a ) high level of flavonoids particularly in the darker-colored species…”
On the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State, there are two species of hawthorn which we use medicinally: the common hawthorn aka red hawthorn or one-seeded hawthorn (C. monogyna), a species native to Europe which often naturalizes. The other is the black hawthorn, (C. douglasii) a native North American species with which we are more acquainted and thus favor its haws for their familiar flavor even though they contain more seeds than the red, one-seeded common hawthorn. Fortunately on the Peninsula, neither host the pear slug although both have wicked thorns which sometimes make harvesting a mindful challenge.
Our closest wild hawthorn tree grows in a hedgerow that borders a nearby field. Hedgerows are dynamic communities providing food and homes to an abundance of wildlife including birds, small rodents, feral cats, snakes, insects of all manner and those drawn to feast on the animals, insects, and plants that live there such as hawks who sit in the upper branches of the hawthorn and coyotes that scout the holes and tunnels along the borders. One day I did a count of plant species in the quarter mile of hedgerow and came up with over sixty! Many of these species have medicinal qualities and can be considered forage foods as well, among them chickweed and stinging nettles, blackberry and blue elderberry.
Within that hedgerow grows a red or one-seeded common hawthorn, about twenty-five feet tall. One mid-May day when it was in full blossom, I stopped and stuck my head into the tree’s interior and was transfixed by the sound of buzzing insects, such aliveness and vitality I had never felt so viscerally before, truly taking me into a space I struggled to return from. Throughout the summer, this tree holds its branches wide for robins and spotted towhee families who dash in and out from hidden nests; it provides roosting spots for flickers, chickadees, American gold finches and even hummingbirds who warm themselves out of their stupors in the early morning sun. Later this fall or early next spring, it will play host to flocks of cedar wax-wings who along with the robins, eat the ripened red haws scattering abundant waste on the ground for mice, quail and chipmunks.
Already this year it’s provided us with tender green leaves and abundant flower clusters for medicinal teas. In a few more weeks as we stroll the adjacent lane, we’ll eat its red berries out of hand; however we’ll travel to another lowland spot where several C. douglassi already bearing richly-colored ripe pomes grow, as we prefer the black hawthorn berries for preserving as food and medicine. Spring leaves and flower clusters from either red or black species are used medicinally.
I treasure hawthorn as a lovely connection to the spring season, a tonic for the heart, an aid to strengthening connective tissues, and as an herb steeped in magic. We’ll consider the magical aspects in the next musing of Alpine Lady.
Join me now in making:
Hawthorn Berry Tonic Syrup.
Making the syrup requires patience and attention much like the picking of its fruit. Mindful harvesting and mindful medicine-making are inherent in honoring the weaving of its magical qualities, its medicinal virtues.
This recipe has been inspired by Dr. John Christopher’s original “Hawthorn Berry Heart Syrup” and Gail Faith Edwards’ s “Hawthorn Berry Syrup.” I, being a recipe tweaker and intuitional cook, have added a few variables for personal taste which will not reduce the effectiveness of their recipes.
For this recipe, I gathered two quarts of fresh black hawthorn (Crataegus douglassi) haws or berries, the apple-like pomes that mature in late summer. The common or red hawthorn fruit also makes excellent syrup although as stated previously, we’re more familiar with the flavor of the black. After harvesting, I like to leave the berries outside overnight in shallow boxes to let the spiders and other critters find new homes. Rolling the haws over a towel or blanket removes loose debris. Since these berries had recently been thoroughly drenched with rain water, I didn’t wash but if dusty it’s a prudent step.
Fresh, frozen or dried hawthorn berries
Everclear grain alcohol or similar spirit
Use a pot large enough to hold your berries with additional head space of two or more inches. Cover your harvested berries with at least an inch of filtered water, place a cover on the pot and slowly bring to a low simmer. (DO NOT BOIL!) Simmer continuously for 20 minutes. Remove and set hot mixture aside for at least 20 minutes if not longer.
Strain off the liquid infusion and return berries to pot. Mash them thoroughly and cover over with another inch of fresh, filtered water. Repeat the simmering process making sure you don’t boil the berries for the boiling process removes some medicinal qualities. Strain thoroughly, pressing with the back of a big spoon to maximize the amount of infusion recovered.
Add the two strained liquids together and carefully measure and record before putting infusion into a stainless steel pot. I’m sure this process could all be done in a crock pot and hopefully will do so with the next batch.
Now the real time-consuming part: “A watched pot never boils!” and “Patience is a virtue” are sayings that will become quite evident as you finish up which only adds to the quality and flavor of your healthy, tonic syrup.
Slowly simmer the hawthorn infusion down to approximately 1/3 (one-third) of its original volume. I started out with close to 10 cups of infusion and after about four hours, it had reduced to 3 1/4 cups. By then it was a nice rich, deep purple decoction. To this I added 1/3 of the remaining liquid as an equal amount of mild-tasting honey which amounted to approximately 1 cup of honey. I also added a pinch of Celtic salt, a lesson from my mother in how to bring out additional flavors in such recipes.
When the infusion, salt and honey have been thoroughly mixed together, I added 1/6 of the original rendered decoction as Everclear grain alcohol or approximately 4 oz or (1/2 cup). I ended up with 36 ounces of finished product which we poured into amber round medicine bottles. We keep a four-ounce bottle handy and the rest is tucked away in a deep corner of the refrigerator among the refrigerator pickles and infused oils. Usually Michael steers away from sweet syrups but this one spoke to him on first taste and has become part of his morning routine. Dosage is 1-2 teaspoons per day.
Until next journey, stay healthy! Thank you, Michael, for your patience.