Hawthorn has white flowers and red berries, and can often be found in gardens featuring local plants. The white flowers are popular among honey bees and wild bees. In winter, birds feed on the red berries and use the thorny bushes as shelters for their nests. Hawthorn is also well-known for its positive effects on the heart. This medicinal plant is used to treat heart complaints (cardiac insufficiency), strengthen the cardiovascular system and help regulate blood pressure. Read on to find out more about the hawthorn’s health benefits and applications.
Hawthorn’s natural habitats
Hawthorn belongs to the rose family (Rosaceae), which is part of the genus Crataegus. Two species are native to Switzerland: common hawthorn or quickthorn (Crataegus monogyna) and midland hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata or Crataegus oxyacantha). Given that the different varieties of hawthorn can cross-breed, lay people can find it difficult to identify individual species.
Hawthorn is widespread in Central Europe and here in Switzerland. It prefers loamy, calcareous soil and sunny to semi-shady locations. It can often be found on the edge of deciduous forests and in thickets, shrubberies and hedgerows. In gardens, hawthorn is typically planted to form natural hedges. Various butterfly caterpillars feed on hawthorn leaves. In May and June, the flowers serve as important bee pastures and in winter the red berries provide food for local bird species. Hawthorn shrubs are also favoured breeding sites for songbirds because the thick branches and thorns protect their nests from unwanted visitors.
What does hawthorn look like?
Hawthorn is a shrub or small tree. It typically grows up to five metres high, but can occasionally be as high as ten metres. The leaves are around six centimetres long and have toothed edges. The stem features many branches and is covered with thorns. In May and June the shrubs produce white flowers with five petals, which are arranged in corymbs. The dark red berries begin ripening in September. Birds eat the berries and excrete the seeds, thereby helping the plant to spread.
Historical facts about hawthorn
There are many different regional names for hawthorn. Crataegus monogyna is also known as maythorn and mayblossom, as its flowers are produced in late spring (May to early June). The botanical name Crataegus means strong or powerful and refers to the plant’s healing properties.
During difficult times, such as the first and second world wars, common hawthorn leaves were used as a replacement for tea leaves. The seeds were also finely ground and used to brew coffee. Even its edible fruit were turned into purée or flour to enrich people’s meagre diets.
Active ingredients and their effects
The leaves, flowers and fruit of various types of native European hawthorn are used for medicinal purposes. They can be found in many herbal tablets and drops designed to alleviate cardiac conditions. Hawthorn contains high concentrations of various antioxidants such as proanthocyanidins, catechins and flavonoids. Antioxidants catch free radicals, thereby counteracting oxidative stress, which is associated with cell damage, physiological ageing processes and many diseases.
Clinical studies have confirmed that hawthorn extracts have many positive effects on cardiovascular function. Hawthorn enhances the heart’s ability to pump blood around the body and improves circulation through the coronary vessels and the heart muscle. Researchers believe its positive effect on circulation is caused by proanthocyanidins. Extracts from this medicinal plant can be used to treat both low blood pressure and high blood pressure. These kind of equalising effects are referred to as adaptogenic effects and are typical among herbal medicines.
What is hawthorn used for? Strengthening the cardiovascular system
Hawthorn extracts made from hawthorn leaves and flowers or hawthorn berries are available as drops or tablets and are primarily used to treat ageing hearts. Specifically, hawthorn is used to alleviate symptoms caused by slight cardiac insufficiency and/or early signs of narrowed arteries, often in combination with tight sensations in the chest caused by nervous tension. Hawthorn can also be beneficial to young people, such as those with fluctuating blood pressure.
Hawthorn preparations for heart complaints
Numerous studies have confirmed that varieties of Crataegus have a cardiotonic effect on people with slight cardiac insufficiency (NYHA I or II). Heart complaints are classified using the functional classification scale published by the NYHA (New York Heart Association). When people classified as NYHA II undertake physical activity it can lead to exhaustion, Angina pectoris (a feeling of pressure in the chest area), shortness of breath, fluid retention (oedemata) or heart palpitations. Here, too, hawthorn can help.
People with heart complaints can use preparations like zeller herz, which contains a standardised extract. This ensures that each dose contains the same amount of active ingredients. Hawthorn preparations need to be taken daily for a longer period of time before the active ingredients fully take effect.
Hawthorn for cardiac conditions related to nervous tension
Cardiac conditions related to nervous tension include feelings of pressure or tightness in the chest, heart palpitations and a rapid pulse rate. These symptoms often make it difficult to fall asleep. In such cases, herbal blends containing hawthorn leaves, flowers and fruit as well as calming medicinal plants such as hops and passionflower have been shown to provide effective relief. One such blend is zeller herz und nerven, which is available in the form of drops and film-coated tablets.
Please note: Herbal medicines can also have side effects and interact with other medications. Please read the package insert and talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you require further information. Before you start taking drops or tablets containing hawthorn extract, you should first visit your doctor to find out if you are suffering from severe heart problems.