Crataegus oxyacantha, known as Common Hawthorn, is a species of hawthorn native to Europe, northwest Africa and western Asia. Other common names include May, Maythorn, Quickthorn, Motherdie, Mayflower, May tree, Quickset, Whitethorn, Maybush, Mayblossom , Halves, Hagthorn, Ladies' Meat, Bread, Cheese tree and Haw. It is a broadly spreading shrub or small tree 5–14 m tall, with a dense crown. The bark is dull brown with vertical orange cracks. The younger stems bear sharp thorns, 1 to 1.5 cm long. The leaves are 2–4 cm long, obovate and deeply lobed, sometimes almost to the midrib, with the lobes spreading at a wide angle. The upper surface is dark green above and paler underneath.
The Hawthorn is called Crataegus Oxyacantha from the Greek kratos, meaning hardness (of the wood), oxcus (sharp), and akantha (a thorn). The German name of Hagedorn, meaning Hedgethorn, shows that from a very early period the Germans divided their land into plots by hedges; the word haw is also an old word for hedge. The name Whitethorn arises from the whiteness of its bark and Quickset from its growing as a quick or living hedge, in contrast to a paling of dead wood.
Hawthorn thrives in hedgerows and fields, this familiar tree will attain a height of 30 feet and lives to a great age. It possesses a single seed-vessel to each blossom producing a separate fruit, which when ripe is a brilliant red and this is in miniature a stony apple. In some districts these mealy red fruits are called Pixie Pears, Cuckoo's Beads and Chucky Cheese. The flowers are mostly fertilized by carrion insects, the suggestion of decomposition in the perfume attracts those insects that lay their eggs and hatch out their larvae in decaying animal matter.
Hawthorn was regarded as a valuable heart remedy as far back as the Middle Ages. The Hawthorn was considered sacred in early times and believed to furnish the Crown of Thorns. Legend has it that between AD30-63 Joseph of Aramathea came to England and planted his hawthorn staff in Glastonbury soil. This became known as the Glastonbury Thorn and grew and blossomed at Christmas and Easter as if in celebration of the Christian Year. The original specimen at Glastonbury Abbey, now long dead, has been propagated as the cultivar 'Biflora'. The Celts used Hawthorn in May celebrations using it to dress maypoles and symbolic effigies, and associated it with fertility.
Many country villagers believe that Hawthorn flowers still bear the smell of the Great Plague of London. The tree was formerly regarded as sacred, probably from a tradition that it furnished the Crown of Thorns. The device of a Hawthorn bush was chosen by Henry VII because a small crown from the helmet of Richard III was discovered hanging on it after the battle of Bosworth, hence the saying, 'Cleve to thy Crown though it hangs on a bush.' In many old tales it is simply referred to as the Thorn, as in "Oak, Ash and Thorn", a particularly potent combination of trees if found growing together. Often it is viewed warily, because of its thorns, and because it is said to be the haunt of faeries, elemental and enchantments.
Hawthorn's therapeutic actions come from the berries, flowers and leaves, all have a vasodilatory effect, opening the arteries and improving blood supply to all tissues of the body. This helps to balance blood pressure and makes an excellent remedy for high blood pressure particularly when associated with hardening of the arteries. The total complex of plant constituents is considered valuable as a remedy for those with circulatory and cardiac problems. It is believed to regulate and support these systems and be beneficial to use in the following conditions:
- Angina - Believed to give relief from cramp-like symptoms.
- Mild congestive heart failure - Believed to increase cardiac output and increase the flow of blood through the coronary arteries.
- Arrhythmia (irregular heart beat) - Thought to counteract rhythm disturbances.
- High blood pressure - Believed to cause vasodilatation of peripheral blood vessels and lower blood pressure.
- Nervous Heart Disorders (palpitations) - Believed to have a sedative effect on the nervous system which may render it useful in heart conditions where the nerves are involved.
- Heart Weakness - as caused by infectious diseases e.g. pneumonia, scarlet fever and diphtheria. Is believed to restore and support heart function.
Hawthorn opens the coronary arteries in the heart, thereby improving blood flow and softening deposits, and makes an excellent remedy for angina. Hawthorn has further benefit to the heart in its action on the vagus nerve which influences the heart, so that an over-fast heart rate is slowed and heart irregularities settle down. It can be used to improve poor circulation associated with "aging" arteries, poor circulation to the legs and poor memory and confusion related to poor blood supply to the brain.
It is also believed to encourage concentration and memory function as it improves circulation of blood and oxygen to the brain. It also increases circulation to the brain and decreases inflammation caused by allergies making it useful in treating attention deficit disorder. The berries have an astringent effect and can be used for diarrhea and dysentery. The leaves, flowers and berries have a relaxant effect in the digestive tract and act to increase the appetite, relieve distension and stagnation of food in the intestines. They have an equally relaxant effect on the nervous system, relieving stress and anxiety, calming agitation, restlessness and nervous palpitations and inducing sleep in those suffering from insomnia. They also have a diuretic effect, relieving fluid retention and dissolving stones and gravel, and can be used during the menopause for debility or night sweats.
A decoction of the berries can be used as an astringent gargle for throats and a douche for vaginal discharges.
Both the flowers and the berries are astringent and a decoction of these will help ease sore throats. Combined with Ginkgo, Crataegus can enhance poor memory by improving the cerebral circulation and thereby increasing the amount of oxygen to the brain. Hawthorn was traditionally used in Europe for kidney and bladder stones and as a diuretic. In China, the berries of Crataegus pinnatifida, known as shan zha, are mainly taken for symptoms of 'food stagnation', which can include abdominal bloating, indigestion, flatulence and diarrhoea. They are believed to 'move' the blood, and are used to relieve stagnation in dysmenorrhoea and after childbirth. Ayurvedic medicine recommends hawthorn for heart and circulatory complaints.
In common with other members of the Prunus and Pyrus groups of the order Rosaceae, the Hawthorn contains Amyddalin. The bark contains the alkaloid Crataegin, isolated in greyish-white crystals, bitter in taste, soluble in water, with difficulty in alcohol and not at all in ether.
Large doses may have a sedating effect. Use with care during pregnancy. Hawthorn is considered to be a non-toxic herb. It does not accumulate in the body as Digitalis does. There are no apparent side effects and is not believed to lead to dependence. Due to this Hawthorn is believed to be safe to use over long periods. Hawthorn Tea is believed to possess hypotensive action and as a result should be used with caution in low blood pressure. Studies have shown the herb to decrease blood pressure even further and in some instances cause fainting. Check with your doctor before taking hawthorn if you are taking any medication for blood pressure. Should only be used under qualified supervision. Crataegus may increase the effect of other cardioactive drugs taken simultaneously.
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