The Hawthorn Tree (an Sceach Gheal), a native Irish tree is brightening up the ditches and fields with its white blossoms around the country right now. It has been a part of Irish folklore for centuries and remains a special gathering place for the faeries that inhabit our countryside. If you dare to cut one of these trees down or harm it in anyway, it is thought that bad luck will follow. Irish folklore has many tales of woe from ancient times to more recent times of the unfortunate outcomes of messing with the “Faerie Tree”. In 1999, Irish folklorist and story-teller, Eddie Lenihan, warned Clare County Council that the “destruction of the fairy thorn bush at Latoon outside Newmarket-on-Fergus to facilitate the bypass plans could result in misfortune and in some cases death for those travelling the proposed new road”. His words were heeded and the sceach was saved, after the County Planners revised their plans. Whether you are a believer or a sceptic, take note that the wee folk who are intent on protecting these very special trees just might have our best interests at heart.
Hawthorn, historically used for kidney and bladder stones, as a diuretic, for digestive
complaints and love sickness is now one of the most widely used heart tonic in Europe. The
Hawthorn tree belonging to the Crataegus genus, is native of Europe, Northern America and
Northern Asia. Its botanical name, Crataegus comes from the Greek word Kratos, meaning
strength – most likely relating to its hard wood although our ancestors would liken it to
strengthening the heart.
Hawthorn extracts are typically produced from the aerial parts of the plant – the leaves, flowers and berries with most clinical data supporting its cardiac benefits based upon studies of the dried flowering parts. Hawthorn’s leaves, berries, and flowers all contain substantial amounts of procyanidins and flavonoids, the substances that are most likely responsible for the plant’s medicinal properties. These are powerful antioxidants also found in blackberries, cherries, blueberries and red grapes. Well-established research into the medicinal properties of hawthorn and its effect on the heart is very promising and may contribute to a safe and
effective treatment for cardiovascular problems down the line. With cardiovascular disease
(CVD) one of the leading causes of death in Ireland, it is no wonder that the Faeries are
adamant on protecting the hawthorn tree.
Young hawthorn leaves and blossoms are best harvested now in early Summer for making teas, tinctures and tonics. They are noted for a musky smell when cut fresh which disappears once dried. In pre-Christian times, the smell was considered an aphrodisiac, encouraging lusty courting in the fields and ditches across Ireland (which is also good for the heart). Once
Christianity took hold, the smell was downgraded to that of a rotting corpse, and that put an
end to that! Berries harvested in the Autumn and Winter are often used to make brandies,
vinegars, syrups, jams and jellies. The long season between the first leaves, then the flowers
and finally the berries ensures that we have a hearty supply of hawthorn for most of the year.
The cardiac benefits most noted in studies include improved coronary artery blood flow and
improved blood flow to the extremities (circulation). Hawthorn has also shown positive effects in related conditions such as angina, atherosclerosis, hypertension, and some arrhythmias. It is believed that phytochemicals in hawthorn may act directly on the heart muscle to increase the force of heartbeats and to relax the arteries around the heart. Hawthorn may also work indirectly by widening blood vessels resulting in lower blood pressure. In Germany, a standardised extract of hawthorn leaves and flowers has long been available on prescription for mild heart failure. Hawthorn extract is available in teas, tinctures, liquid extractions and capsules and is considered to be safe to use in doses ranging from 160mg - 900mg divided into 2 or 3 doses daily. While hawthorn is known for being excellent for the heart, it can interact with prescription medications taken for heart conditions. Medications for other heart concerns, arrhythmia, high blood pressure and male sexual dysfunction are also known to interact with hawthorn. Time for a disclaimer and to remind you that heart failure and heart disease are serious conditions that require medical supervision and intervention. If you are thinking of introducing hawthorn into your diet you should have a chat with your GP or pharmacist.
Before Western medicine became the norm, hawthorn was used as a medicine for well over
two thousand years right across the globe. In ancient Greece, hawthorn was used to treat
heart problems and chest pain. In Chinese medicine, it was used to improve the circulatory
system and aid in digestion. Europeans have long used hawthorn as a general tonic, a diuretic and astringent. In the United States, doctors have been using hawthorn for circulatory and respiratory conditions since the 18th century. Before then, it was well-regarded in Native American medicine and is still used today, as a tea or tonic for longevity among the elders.
Hawthorn continues to be widely studied and prescribed for its heart strengthening and
protecting properties. As the demand for safe, effective alternatives for treating disease grows, increased scientific research is being carried out on many plant remedies of old. The standard of studies and recording of results is in itself a science, but without this kind of research the use of natural plant-based medicine would remain with the faeries, in folklore.