Hawthorn, Cratageus spp. Baca
Cratageus spp., hawthorn, is a revered botanical performer in the “symphony of herbs”. It is unnecessary to have a favourite herb when there are countless to respect and admire. However, if one is to quietly reflect on treasured herbs, hawthorn has an attractive, year-round resonance. In fact, it can be likened to a classical composition, which when listened to uplifts one’s whole being. It is distinctly captivating.
The notably medicinal and nutritional flowers, leaves, and berries (haws) of Cratageus are sung of widely in our wild, herbal apothecary. As its tender leaves unfurl in the spring, it is an opportune time to gather them for a lemon-like green tea, or even as a salad green. At the blossoming stage, the flower clusters are collected for soothing nervine teas, and tinctures. Autumn heralds harvesting of the plentiful berries; ideal for tinctures, infused honeys, and tonic syrups. Some herbalists and aficionados also collect hawthorn twigs, thorns and bark, adding them to their repertoire. Seasonally bountiful, nature repeats the Cratageus rhythm year to year, providing a cornucopia of health.
This herb, steeped in Celtic folklore, has a myriad of healing capabilities, but it is best known in Western herbal tradition as a cumulative, 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…” Naturalised in New Zealand’s landscapes, it can be observed through the four seasons, offering its properties in an accessible and abundant manner. This positions it on the “human benefit scale” where we can acknowledge it as a “friend of life” for health balance.
Hawthorn is fascinating medicinally, because it is one of the few Western herbal adaptogens; it helps to bring the whole body into balance - irrespective of whether it is over or under functioning - whilst being medicinally safe. As a heart tonic it can lower high blood pressure over time, and will benefit other conditions that affect the heart or circulatory system. It helps to dilate coronary arteries, improving circulation, and bringing relief from angina. Hawthorn also increases the heart’s ability to pump blood, by supporting the contraction of the heart muscle, and its significant antioxidants help to protect capillaries. Many consider hawthorn to be transformational for our emotional or spiritual heart, and not just our physical.
Interestingly, whilst hawthorn is used primarily as a heart tonic, it has been used quite differently by other cultures, and in other ages. Culpeper, writing in the 17th Century, tells us it is “singularly good against the stone and… for the dropsy”. This implies it was mainly used as a urinary tonic, possibly because being a member of the rose family, it has astringency. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, where it is known as shān zhā, it has been used predominantly for digestion; helping the body assimilate fats, as an aid to liver function.
For Ayurvedic practitioners the berries are considered sour and heating. In the Yoga of Herbs the authors write, ‘Hawthorn berries are a good example of the stimulatory power of sour herbs for both circulation and digestion. They have a special action on the heart, strengthening the heart muscle and promoting longevity. They are particularly good for Vata heart conditions, such as nervous palpitations, or the heart problems of old age (the age of Vata) like cholesterol and arteriosclerosis.’ Many herbalists combine preparations of hawthorn flower, leaf, and berry, to get the holistic benefits of all herb parts.
Autumn harvesting of hawthorn berries:
Take your secateurs and basket for ease of harvesting the fruit on a crisply dry, sun-kissed autumn day. Give thanks for colourful, medicinal hawthorn! Returning to your kitchen, cut the red and shiny berries off the small stalks. The stalks may be used in a decoction, but the berries will dry better if separated from their clusters. Arrange the berries in a single layer on a cane tray to dry, give the tray a shuffle on alternate days to turn the berries, and to ensure they dry evenly. You could also leave the berries in their clusters and hang them over a line. Either way, they need to be somewhere warm and dry. Completely dried berries need to be stored in an airtight glass jar away from light – nourishment for winter.
Ways to include the fresh or dried berries in your diet:
Hawthorn Berry Decoction:
Simmer (do not boil) three tablespoons (30gms) of dried berries in 500mls of water for 20-30 minutes. Adjust your measures in accordance with how much decoction you wish to prepare at one time. Surplus can be bottled and refrigerated for a few days. Gently reheat, without boiling, as needed. A decoction yields significant nutrient value from the berries, including bioflavonoids. It is a warming digestive (sour and bitter tastes) on a winter’s morning, bringing a general feeling of “opening”.
Decoctions in larger volumes are also the basis of scrumptious hawthorn berry syrup. Laced with manuka honey, this syrup is fabulous when added to rooibos tea for an antioxidant boost. Hawthorn jelly is another health giving preparation that begins as a decoction.
Hawthorn Apple Cider Vinegar:
A delicious herbal vinegar can be made by filling a jar with freshly harvested hawthorn berries (either alone or combined with rosehips), and covering in organic apple cider vinegar. Leave to infuse for a month before straining, rebottling (remember to use a plastic or lined lid instead of metal to avoid a reaction), and labelling. Upbeat and fruity! Try a teaspoon in a glass of water.
Hawthorn Berry Tincture:
A tincture can be made in a similar way to the vinegar, by covering fresh berries in vodka. Alternatively, combining the berries with autumn rosehips and ginger root slices, in a mixture of port and brandy, can yield a “yum-cious”, yet medicinal, shot. Macerate for 2-3 weeks before straining, rebottling, and labelling. Hawthorn berries macerated in organic red wine is yet another autumnal delight to be savoured through winter.
Hawthorn Berry Powder:
Hawthorn berries can be powdered and used in numerous dietary enhancing ways. These include adding some powder to smoothies, soups, cookies, and breakfast oats. The berries do have a hard stone in the middle, which needs removing, so it can be easier to obtain powdered berries from a reputable herbal supplier. If you want to make your own powder, you can mash whole fresh berries with your hands using a little water, and then pushing them through a sieve to remove the stones. Spread the resulting pulp out to dry on baking paper. When completely dry, powder in a high power blender, or grinder.
Elderberry, Sambucus nigra baca
Offering sumptuous richness of berry in autumn is the elder tree. Together with hawthorn, this herbal pair perform admirably in the glorious season of vibrant colour. They are an unforgettable autumn ensemble from the “symphony of herbs”.
The well-respected nature writer, Richard Mabey, wrote on the subject of Sambucus nigra in Flora Britannica: “It is hard to understand how this mangey, short-lived, opportunistic and foul smelling shrub was once regarded as one of the most magically powerful of plants.” Debatable! The elder may not be a classic beauty, but looking closely, one can sense many aspects of this herb to cherish. She shelters and protects her human children, is treasured by wildlife, and has a key role to play in plant ecosystems. She is truly a “mother” to us all, and should be treated with respect, if not veneration, by everyone whose life has been touched by her generosity. Similarly to hawthorn, the elder has Celtic history, and as her name suggests, there is wisdom and strength to be offered.
In his highly recommended book, “The Lost Language of Plants”, Stephen Harrod Buhner describes elder as a “keystone” plant; one that helps to establish a community of plants by enhancing the health of an ecosystem, and making it more hospitable. “Keystone species, once established, call to them not only soil bacteria and mycelia, but the plants they have formed close interdependencies with over millennia. As the plants arrive, the keystone’s chemistries literally inform and shape their community structure and behaviours. The capacity of keystone species to ‘teach’ their plant communities how to act was widely recognised in indigenous and folk taxonomies. Elder trees, for example, are keystone species in many ecosystems. Among indigenous and folk peoples it is said that the elder tree ‘teaches the plants what to do and how to grow,’ and that without its presence the local plant community will become confused.”
This highlights one of the integral facets of the elder, that of protection. Not only does she protect and shelter newly establishing species of plants, but through the beautiful berries she produces each autumn, she protects our immune systems during winter. These berries are also rich in antioxidants (anthocyanins), which are known to protect our cardiovascular system, skin and brain. Elderberries are possibly some of the best preventative medicine we have for this time of year. Unlike many other herbs that are specific to the immune system, the elderberries seamlessly bridge the gap between food and medicine, making them essential to include in our daily diets. Being mildly diaphoretic - especially when take as a hot tea - they can help to sweat out colds and flu. In addition, they have a particular affinity for our respiratory system, working proactively against viruses, and actively with mucus and inflammation. Quite the immune tonic!
Autumn harvesting of elderberries:
Sambucus nigra baca are an important food source for birds, so do not be disappointed if they race you to harvest! Unlike us, our feathered friends are able to eat the raw berries. (Note: Gastrointestinal upsets will occur if we ingest them raw.)
Collect your elderberries when they are ripe and a deep purplish black, remembering to ask the “Elder Mother’s” permission first! When you get home, strip them gently from the stems. Discard any that are still green or red, and those which are shriveled.
Ways to include elderberries in your diet:
Sambucus nigra baca syrup:
A variety of different elderberry syrups can be prepared with different healing properties emphasised in each. The basic method for all the syrups is the same:
- Place 2 cups of elderberries in a pan with 2 cups of fresh water and whichever additional herbs you are using (see below for variations). Simmer gently for about 30 minutes with the lid off until the water has reduced to about half its original amount, and the berries have released all their juice. Set aside, and allow to cool completely.
- Strain through a jelly bag into a measuring jug.
- Add approximately the same quantity of local raw honey to the elderberry juice and stir until dissolved. You can use less honey, but the mixture will not have lasting quality.
- Bottle in sterilised preserving bottles, and label. The delicious syrup does not usually linger due to popularity, but stored in the fridge, these syrups should last 3 months.
During the first stage you can add different herbs according to your preference. Examples include:
- A handful of fresh thyme and hyssop to make syrup that is particularly effective for winter ailments that affect the respiratory system.
- Spray free orange peel and cloves to make a Vitamin C rich, anti-microbial blend that will also ease digestion.
- Cardamom and ginger are warming and stimulating to sluggish winter circulation.
- A generous dozen of romantic rosebuds! (Added when the syrup is turned off the heat.) Allow these to infuse in the syrup whilst it cools and add considerably less of raw floral honey so as not to overpower the rosebuds. This makes a divinely comforting blend for winter days, which also encourages a cheerful heart.
Syrups can be taken directly off the spoon, added to hot or cold drinks, drizzled on porridge, added to smoothies, or any other way that takes your fancy.
Sugar or honey?
Most traditional syrup recipes use sugar instead of honey, and heat the elderberry juice a second time after adding it to make a thicker syrup. The advantages of this are that it will last longer - potentially the whole year until the next harvest! Raw honey is expensive in large quantities. The downsides, of course, are that sugar does not contain the medicinal benefits of raw honey, which is antibacterial and rich in antioxidants and enzymes. In fact, sugar depletes the immune system, and many people in today’s sweet-crazed society already have imbalances caused from an excess. Nevertheless, for preparing large quantities with long shelf life, it is really the only option, and the positives have to outweigh the negatives. Natural coconut sugar is a consideration due to its nutritional content. A small batch of syrup made from elderberry with raw honey, however, is sure to transport you to a heavenly realm of taste due to its rich, earthy sweetness.
This can be made by simply filling a sterilised jar with fresh elderberries and covering with vodka, lidding, and allowing it to sit for a month stirring occasionally. Strain, re-bottle and label. This has the advantage of being easily added to blends of other herbs, and long lasting quality.
Elderberry and Apple Autumn Crumble:
Add precious elderberries into a favourite crumble recipe to enliven your immune system, and lend a tasty tang to other fruit. For example, apples and elderberries with dates, cardamom, cinnamon and ginger. Memorable!
Dried or frozen:
Elderberries can also be dried or frozen to make preparations throughout winter. Nourishing herbal stock for winter soup, which includes elderberries (and/or hawthorn berries), is immune boosting.
…'Tis the season to be harvesting! Bear in mind, autumn is the final celebration of the abundance and generosity from the land before we begin to withdraw into winter. Be harmonised by an autumn berry ensemble of hawthorn and elderberry from the “symphony of herbs”!
Fisher C., Painter G., (2009) Materia Medica
Hoffman D. (2003) Medical Herbalism
Harrod Buhner S., (2002) The Lost Language of Plants
Frawley Dr D., Lad Dr V., (1986) The Yoga of Herbs
Tilgner, Dr S., (2009) Herbal Medicine from the Heart of the Earth
Wordsworth Classics Publishers, (2007) Culpeper’s Complete Herbal
Mabey R. (1996) Flora Britannica
By Sara Mertens MNZAMH
Dip. Clinical Herb. Med., Cert. Human Nutrition