Hawthorn: Heart-Tree of Enchantment and Resilience

Hawthorn: Heart-Tree of Enchantment & Resilience
Craetagus spp.

The Tree Series continues……..
Trees are living beings as well as symbols — of physical and spiritual nourishment, transformation and liberation, sustenance, spiritual growth and union. Trees are the source of our oxygen, as we exchange with them their food of carbon dioxide. Trees breathe, we breathe. Many, many medicines for all levels of being including physical, emotional, mental and spiritual, come from Trees. Recent research documents how trees communicate with each other, passing along deep knowledge, assistance, food and other information for the community.

Finally we are here:    Hawthorn: Heart-Tree of Enchantment & Resilience, Craetagus spp.

Let’s begin with a short meditation. Rest your feet on the ground, close your eyes, place one palm or both on the center of your chest, and take some deep relaxing breaths. Bring your attention to the beating of your heart. Bring your awareness to your heart, beating for you now and through your whole life, without your having to ask it to or to even think about it. Feel, sense and know gratitude for your heart beating out the rhythms of your life in every moment. Give thanks to your heart. Let gratitude well up within you. Let gratitude fill your heart to overflowing. Let it wash over your heart, flow through your chest, flow through your body, flow out with your breath. Rest here as long as you like, and then find yourself in an open field, at the foot of a small mound where Hawthorn, our medicine tree, grows.

A Tree of Magical Enchantment

Right now in late December on this 7th day of Christmas, Hawthorn (Craetagus monogyna ‘biflora’ known as the twice-blooming Holy Thorn) is blossoming in Glastonbury, Somerset, England. This unseasonable manifestation of white flowers has given rise to much lore — imagine seeing the white blossoms emerge in the chill and dark of December! Miraculous and magical as is this dark and luminous time of the year.

The Holy Thorn has become linked with the legend of Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy follower of Jesus and perhaps Mary’s uncle, sometimes credited with establishing the Christian Church in England…..there are so many legends and lore, perhaps just let it wash over your being.

So the story goes…..Joseph fled Jerusalem not long after Jesus’ crucifixion. Joseph carried a walking staff made of Hawthorn from the Tree whose thorny branches were formed for Jesus’ crucifixion crown. He arrived by boat in Southern England some years later. According to the legend, Joseph’s boat sailed over the flooded Somerset Levels, coming to rest on Glastonbury Tor. Here Joseph is said to have wearily planted his walking staff in the ground on Christmas Day. He then promptly fell asleep; when he awoke, his staff had miraculously taken root, spouted and bloomed, turning itself into the original Glastonbury Thorn tree or Holy Thorn.

Doubtless this miracle impressed the local Celtic Druidic folks who had lived in the area for millenia. The Hawthorn Tree was already deeply revered, loved and respected. (We will get back to this shortly.)

The Thorn tree growing at the Abbey itself was said to have survived into the 17th century – when the Puritans came to power and cut it down as a relic of nature worship. Grafts were subsequently replanted. Other holy thorns grow locally near Glastonbury, near St John’s Church and the Chalice Well.

The custom of sending a flowering branch to the Queen on Christmas Day appears to have begun in the 17th century and continues today. Queen Elizabeth receives a flowering branch that is said to decorate the Christmas Day breakfast table. (There is a custom that states unequivocally that it is unwise to bring the flowing branch inside……just so you know….but this long-standing tradition refutes that.)

I like to imagine that Hawthorn invited this magical second-blooming enchantment as play, even before the Christian period. The Hawthorn has long been believed to be inhabited by a great Nature Spirit which imbued it with magical healing powers. The Tree is a boon to wildlife, supporting many moths, butterflies and birds. Hawthorns are quick growing and tolerant of a range of growing conditions: wind, wet, sun, shade, drought, & varied soils. By a very long tradition, Hawthorn is a plant that calls our deep respect.

Hawthorn Botany and Etymology

Hawthorn, a small tree or large shrub of the Rose family, is found growing all over the temperate zones of the world in over 300 species, from a straggly single tree to thick hedgerows to stately old field inhabitants. She often grows at the edges, where the wild meets the cultivated, at the boundary of the field, at the boundary of a point in history, at the thin places between the human realm and the subtler realms.

Hawthorn may be most well-known for its association with May Day or Beltane, festivals of fertile spring, as well as for the strong scent of its blossoms. Hawthorn is a sacred tree to the Celts, symbolizing love and protection. Along with Ash and Oak, Hawthorn creates a sacred circle of Trees.

Known for living long, up to 400 years, Hawthorn loves humans yet remains true to her own untamed heart. The lobed leaves, fragrant white flowers and deep red berries all yield a medicine that governs the movements of the heart, the whole person, the community, the culture. She is gentle enough for children, gentle enough for long-term use with few if any contraindications. And yet her thorns are sharp — one cannot brush by them like with her sisters Wild Rose or Raspberry, as Hawthorn thorns will give a sharp cut of NO to anyone who reaches in without asking permission and going slowly.  And so it is with our own hearts: when boundaries are respected, connection can blossom.

The Latin name Craetagus is related to the Greek kraitaigos, which means strength and resilience. It is also a cognate of crataegeon, a word the Romans used to refer to the heart itself. The crataegeon was not only the heart, where life-giving oxygenated blood mixed with the spent venous flow, but also it was a great bowl used at feasts to mix water and wine together. Although the grape was the primary fruit fermented into wine, the Romans (and others) fermented Hawthorn berries and honey into meads as well. Mixed in the crataegeon, the liquor warmed and strengthened the heart, and the Tree of Resilience inherited the name.

In Irish, the hawthorn is known as Sceach Gheal, from sceach meaning ‘thornbush/ briar’ and geal meaning ‘bright, luminous and radiant’.

This Rose-Family Tree is so easy to love and yet knows how and when to protect herself. Boundaries, respect, steadfastness, courage, accompaniment for grief, opening for love.

“The thorns are like nails, inches long and strong; and yet
a gentler more nourishing medicine plant is unlikely to be found”.
Herbalist jim mcdonald

A Tree of the Thin Places, where the Realms meet:
Another myth concerns the ancient people of Ireland, the Tuatha De Danann, the people of the Goddess Danu, ancient earth mother goddess.

Before the Celts and the coming of Iron, the Tuatha De Danann were known and spoke as water flowing over a stone, as wind through the trees. They called the storm, they called the trees to bloom. They were people who walked in all worlds at once, and lived by the flow of the river within and the river without. (Sean Donohue)

Then the people of Mil came, the story continues. The sons of Mil and the people of Dana lived together, and the Irish people were born from this union. But eventually, the life of the sword and plow became too brutal and rigid. The peoples’ lives were full of weeping. The Tuatha de Danann finally went back by the river’s way, retiring beneath the mounds and the hollow hills. At the gateways to their world they planted Hawthorns to tangle and repel the brutish and unwary, but nourish the hearts of those who grieve for lost worlds. They became the people of the Sidhe, the “good neighbors”, the “fair folk”.

At the mound where the Fairies entered the Earth, there grows a Hawthorn.

Even today many Irish people hold the single Hawthorn in a field as sacred to the Fairies and would not dare to harm it, nor even to trim branches, saying there is a limit to human encroachment on the wild places. Stories abound of roads re-routed around a lone Hawthorn. A particular golf course advises players to apologize if they inadvertently hit the Hawthorn Tree with a ball. And the story goes that one of the reasons the Delorean car manufacturing plant was so beset by problems was because a Hawthorn Tree on the building site was finally bulldozed away, after many workers refused to cut it down.

In the Scottish ballad of Thomas the Rhymer (13th c.), Thomas loves to wander in the wild Eildon Hills. One day he stops to rest beneath a single Hawthorn and falls asleep. He wakes to find the Queen of the Fairies on her milk-white steed beside him; she invites him to ride with her. She shows him three roads, three ways of being in the world:

The first is the narrow road of righteousness, defined by the laws and rules of civilization, marked by extreme reliance on logical consciousness, where we wall ourselves off from the wildness of the natural world, forgetting that we receive our life from it. The second road is the broad road of cravings, instinct uncoupled from consequences, individuality untempered by respect and connection, leading to alienation and an endless hunger. And the third path, the middle way, that goes beneath the Hawthorn; this is the path of the Heart. “It’s a path that leads to a wilder place, a place outside all ideas and judgements….a place beyond and beneath and before the stories of guilt, fear, and shame we all carry. A place of wild innocence where you can re-member your connection to the world around you…(and) your response to its unspeakable beauty.” (Sean Donohue)  Thomas chooses the middle path to ride with the Queen. When he wakes up, 7 years have passed and he has been gifted by the Fairy Queen with the voice of prophecy as well as the inability to tell a lie. This makes it challenging for him to live out in the world again! (Thomas was an actual person and you can find his prophecies written down and preserved.)

For the Physical Heart
Hawthorn has a long history as a blessed friend of humans, providing remedies for toning and strengthening the physical heart and circulatory system. Herbalists use all the species interchangeably, and several have been scientifically studied in more depth: Craetagus monogyna, C. oxyacantha and C. laevigata. The whole plant including leaves, blossoms, berries, branch tips and even the thorns are used medicinally. It is more foodlike than druglike in its actions and is generally considered safe to use in interaction with heart medications; however consulting with one’s physician and holistic practitioner is always recommended.

Hawthorn is a calming, relaxing herb rich in antioxidants, helpful to the nervous system. It is considered tonic and adaptogenic, meaning it is most effective when used consistently over time to experience its foodlike benefits. It is often prepared as a tea, jam or jelly, tincture or a delicious cordial, elixir or liquer. A popular heart tonic in Europe, the berries are made into jam that is found in grocery stores as well as pharmacies. Hawthorn berries in preparations are delicious. My favorite preparation is a cordial and the recipe is below.

Some other physical benefits of Hawthorn’s accompaniment include improving circulation, oxygen uptake and heart muscle tone; lowering blood pressure; reducing palpitations and arrhythmias; improving cardiac function in heart disorders with or without chest pains; and as a preventative for all manner of heart conditions. Clinical trials are proving out these benefits.

“A tonic in the true sense, Craetagus can be considered a specific remedy for most cardiovascular disease.”
 – David Hoffman, clinical phytotherapist, Fellow of Britain’s National Institute of Medical Herbalists

For the Emotional Heart
Hawthorn is a profound ally through emotional loss and healing as well. Our Hearts are our largest organ of perception, fitted with many receptors for a wide range of hormones and neuropeptides, chemicals that affect emotions. Hawthorn is an unparalleled remedy for grief, despair, trauma, anxiety, depression and heartbreak of all kinds — from personal loss to the state of the world. It “thickens the skin without making a callous” says Appalachian herbalist Janet Kent.

Hawthorn accompanies us through the unexpected times of grief’s numbness, overwhelming sadness and the challenges of loss. Its presence is just as transformative for chronic grief, lifetime trauma and ancestral healing as for acute heartache. Hawthorn does not mask grief or push us through it, though; as a true pillar of compassion and a protector of broken-heartedness, Hawthorn holds the space for us to find our own essential pathway through grief, held in love.

Adding a thorn to the preparations infuses them with extra magic of the Tree, providing protection from anything that is too much right now — physical, emotional, mental, spiritual. The thorn reminds us it is OK to have a limit.

Making a medicine bag with some berries and a thorn in it to wear around your neck is another way to be with Hawthorn’s accompaniment.

Nourishing the Centrality of the Heart
The Chinese traditionally taught that the heart is an earthen vessel that holds the shen — the individual spirit or consciousness.

Hawthorn journeys with us to nourish the Heart’s centrality to our essential being-ness on the planet. Particularly today, in in-between times, in transition times, in times when the past has faded but what is coming is not yet clear, Hawthorn protects and nourishes our Shen: “The small heart spirit has the responsibility of making sure the big Spirit connects properly to the world of time and space.” (Kaptchuck, p64)

I have wildcrafted Hawthorn tincture and flower essence available in
1 oz bottles for $15 each (plus shipping).

I also co-create custom remedies for acute and chronic heartbreak and grief,
trauma, anxiety and depression, working alongside Hawthorn.

Hawthorn Cordial
(Start now and you can have it ready by St Valentine’s Day.)
1 cup dried hawthorn berries (wild-harvested or find from your favorite herbal supply shop or online)

1 apple, chopped, seeds removed

1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger

3 cardamom pods, crushed

1 cinnamon stick

zest of 1 lime

1/3 cup unsweetened 100% cherry juice

1/2 cup honey, or to taste

2 cups brandy
(recipe adapted from Rosalee de la Foret, with gratitude)

Combine all ingredients in a 1-quart jar. Infuse for 4 weeks, shaking often. Strain and store in the refrigerator. Best used within one year — but it won’t last that long!
Serve 1 Tablespoon with sparkling water for a low-alcohol festive drink or sip straight in a tiny, lovely cordial glass.

Thank you for reading and reflecting on beloved Hawthorn with me. This true medicine Tree has been a guide for me for a long time now and it is a joy to share a little with you. It is our birthright to listen to and get to know the other-than-human beings that we live alongside on this amazing Earth. May we re-member this.

May you know a lovely Hawthorn Tree nearby you and may you continue to deepen your relationship with this Heart-Tree of Enchantment and Resilience. Your Heart at all levels will be grateful.

My Energy Medicine Practice is open for distance treatments & herbal consults as well as contemplative practice guidance.

Thursday Evening Group Healing sessions resume January 7, 2021.

Please call on me if I may be of support to you in awakening, nourishing and strengthening your Inner Healer.

Thank you so much!

Many Blessings and So Much Love,

My sincere thanks for the teachings of Hawthorn to this lovely Tree herself, to herbalists Sean Donohue, Rosemary Gladstar and Guido Mase, and others mentioned in the article above.

This article is adapted from my final project presentation on Hawthorn and the Heart at Blue Ridge School of Herbal Medicine in October 2017. I spent a lot of time with the Hawthorns at Craggy Gardens on the Blue Ridge Parkway above Asheville while preparing that paper. I sense that Hawthorn has always been close to me. My mother grew up on Hawthorn Road in Winston Salem NC, though I have been unable to find a Hawthorn growing anywhere along this road now. It is a big road that connects the two big hospitals in town across several miles — there must have once been many healing Hawthorns along it.

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