Hawthorn ( Crataegus laevigata)
Trees were worshipped in Ireland long ago and many of us continue to honour them as part of our daily lives. Many were and still are believed to have magical properties. A prime example of this is our beautiful and familiar Hawthorn found all over the country, which even today is both feared and respected. The respect and care for these wise and generous beings reminds us of a time when people lived closer to the land and are also a direct link to our ancient ancestral beliefs.
The Hawthorn is sometimes known as Whitethorn, or The Fairy Tree or simply “The May” due to its flowering time. There does appear to be differing opinions on whether it was disrespectful to refer to the little people or the fair folk of this island of Ireland as fairies, or their tree as a fairy tree. However my Grandmother spoke often of “fairies” as did her friends and she used to mention writing a book about her experiences with them, and my Mother said she did start it but we have never come across it, therefore I was brought up calling them fairies and little circles of white mushrooms as “fairy rings”. I feel it is what is in our hearts that is important as we approach the mysteries of the world and its beings we cannot directly see.
It was not only in Ireland that the Hawthorn was revered. The Greeks and Romans saw the hawthorn as symbolic of hope and marriage. The Roman goddess Cardea, mistress of Janus, keeper of the doors (or hinges to be more accurate),had a bough of Hawthorn as her symbol.Hawthorn is long associated as a doorway to the other world so this connection make sense to me. In central Europe however, it was regarded as a symbol of witchcraft with witches performing their rituals underneath and it was generally considered unlucky.
In Ireland it forms an important part of our hedgerows.However it is the solitary hawthorn which instils fear or respect and even if its position is inconvenient it will generally be left alone. The warnings have been passed down through the generations. Other world beings are said to either live in or nearby the tree and it has often been recorded how passers-by would hear music or see a bright light coming from the vicinity of the hawthorn.
Tales of misfortune befalling those who damage the hawthorn in any way are legion. There are accounts whereby the tree started to bleed when branches were cut away, which was a warning of things to come. This may be a legacy from a time when certain hawthorn were considered sacred. (2)
A story gathered by The National Folklore collection in UCD gives us some insights into the beliefs centred around this little sacred tree
Across the lake, opposite the lake hill grows a hawthorn bush. In spring and summer it is just an ordinary hawthorn bush but in the autumn when other trees are preparing for the year’s rest and their leaves are turning brown and withering and in winter when the other bushes are bare and leafless, then this hawthorn is certainly remarkable, but its leaves are still as green and plentiful as they were in the month of June.
All the year round it preserves its leaves green and fresh and the local people say it marks the burial place of fairy gold. On this account it is guarded by the fairies and so must not be touched anymore than trees or bushes growing in a fort.
Several stories are told locally of the people who interfered with this tree and were punished for it. Those who did so unwittingly got such slight warnings as sore hands or legs caused by scratches from the tree and these got all right again. But others who injured the tree through bravado were more seriously punished – by broken limbs caused by falling on the way home, some of which resulted in permanent injuries (1)
The Penalty for felling the Sacred Tree
In the Crith Gablach, an eighth century Brehon legal poem it is stated:
A danger from which there is no escape
Is the penalty for felling
The noble sacred trees
you shall not cut sacred tree
Perhaps the most famous hawthorn is the one located at Latoon in County Clare. In 1999 the motorway from Limerick to Galway was delayed and eventually rerouted to avoid damaging the fairy tree there. It is not clear whether the local authorities did so out of respect for the solitary tree or the international media attention that was drawn to it by the folklorist Eddie Lenihan, author of Meeting the Other Crowd- the Fairy Stories of Hidden Ireland. He claimed the tree was a meeting point for the fairies of Munster when they did battle with the fairies of Connacht.
He argued that Other World forces would take revenge and the road would be a source of accidents if the tree were to be removed. In 2002 the tree was vandalised by an unknown person who slashed away its branches. The assailant failed to kill the tree and true to form the branches grew back. As the culprit was never identified it is not known whether any misfortune befell him
“Earlier in this century, a construction firm ordered the felling of a fairy thorn on a building site in Downpatrick, Ulster. The foreman had to do the deed himself, as all of his workers refused. When he dug up the root, hundreds of white mice – supposed to be the faeries themselves – ran out, and while the foreman was carting away the soil in a barrow, a nearby horse shied, crushing him against a wall and resulting in the loss of one of his legs.
“Even as recently as 1982,workers in the De Lorean car plant in Northern Ireland claimed that one of the reasons the business had so many problems was because a faery thorn bush had been disturbed during the construction of the plant. The management took this so seriously that they actually had a similar bush brought in and planted with all due ceremony!”
“Hawthorn (Crataegus species) has been used to treat heart disease as far back as the 1st century.( I suspect a lot further back than that ) By the early 1800s, American doctors were using it to treat circulatory disorders and respiratory illnesses. Traditionally, the berries were used to treat heart problems ranging from irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, chest pain, hardening of the arteries, and heart failure. Today, the leaves and flowers are used medicinally
Due to the enormous increase in the incidence of coronary heart disease in the last century, Hawthorns longstanding reputation as a heart tonic gained it much attention in the research community. Research has validated this herbs historical uses and shown it to be especially useful in treating congestive heart failure, helping in preventing heart attack, normalising blood pressure, regulating heartbeat, and protecting the heart from oxidative stress.
Hawthorn berry jam and using the thorns as sewing needles are some traditional and ancient uses (2) .
Dr M explains its mechanism of action in a nice video available at (4)
He explains that Hawthorn increases the hearts ability to convert food into energy. This means that the heart makes more energy and thus heart muscle gets stronger the way it was when we were younger. This is how it may help to prevent heart failure.
Crataegus also causes the blood vessels to dilate thus increasing blood supply to the heart muscle through the coronary arteries. Oxygen supply is also increased and so the risk of heart attack is reduced.
The vasodilation effect is also the mechanism by which it reduces blood pressure. (3)
Hawthorn is a safe herb to use. It may act in synergy with digitalis glycosides and beta blockers so if you are taking digoxin or a betablocker you need to speak to your doctor or pharmacist about using Hawthorn, a modified dosage may be acceptable but check this out first. Hawthorn is best taken daily over a long period of time as in years. A cup of Hawthorn tea every day should be part of everybody’s daily diet.
A little bit of science
Whilst its important to consider herbs under an holistic gaze and to avoid a reductionist perspective as we understand that each herb is greater than the some of its parts. It is also sometimes really intriguing to look at some of the key active constituents behind the magic of our plant allies.
In the case of Hawthorn it is OPCs ( Oligomeric procyanidins) , Flavonoids that include quercetin glycosides ( hyperoside, rutin) and amines,catechols are some of the active ingredients. (5)
The OPCs are found mainly in the flowers and leaves , OPCS are generally antioxidant, anti inflammatory , anti cancer , cardio tonic and have antimicrobial properties. Other sources of OPCs are green tea, grape seed pine bark and ginko.
The hyperoside acts as a cardioprotective anti oxidant and anti inflammatory agent.
Rutin strengthens the capillaries and is a veno- tonic so beneficial in varicose veins.(6)It is the berries that are rich in flavonoids though they are present in the leaves and flowers also.
It makes sense that making a hawthorn medicine would be most active if it includes the flowers, leaves and berries.
Some other interesting resources