A friend and I have had several conversations recently about hawthorn. One of the things we had both been thinking about was the scent of hawthorn blossom. To some people it smells lovely, to others it smells rotten. Apparently there are two things going on there. Amygdalin is responsible for the attractive smell (the marzipan one, smells like almonds) and attracts bees. The other smell is apparently like decomposing flesh, and attracts insects who like that sort of thing, who also help pollinate (presumably flies). I don’t really smell the rotten scent, it’s there as an undertone sometimes but mostly I find the smell divine. But my friend’s partner can’t stand the smell. She wondered if it’s a male/female thing. I wondered if it’s to do with who needs what medicine (and smell receptors in the nose and brain). Probably where the tree is growing, and what the climate is like will have an influence as well. British sources speculate that different species of hawthorn have more of one smell than the other, but as far as I know the local species are all Crataegus monogyna.

Smell is a very useful tool in learning about medicine and which ones to take. The smell of a plant will signal to the body certain things about what the plant contains. If the plant is taken over time the body gets to know it, and then the smell can signal at other times that it’s right to be taking that medicine. Possibly my friend and I would do well with hawthorn blossom as medicine, but not her mate.

Although I’ve used the berries in tinctures and vinegars I’m new to hawthorn flowers and leaves as medicine. My initial ways of getting to know the plant include tasting, making infusions and tea, reading other people’s experiences, talking to my friend and visiting the plant often to see what is going on.

I started by tasting the flowers and was a bit surprised at an obvious bitter taste. It wasn’t overpowering, and it lessened with older flowers, but I had read about making such delights as hawthorn flower syrup and wine cup where you would expect a strong pleasant taste. The bitterness wasn’t offputting though and bitter is a very good flavour for human health, one that is missing from most modern diets, so a little bitter in my hawthorn is a good thing.

However once the flowers are steeped in hot water, the tea brings out the true hawthorn flavour. The bitterness is there in the background, but also a distinct pungent almost sweet flavour. Not sweet like sugar, but the subtle nectar of a small flower*. There’s also a greeness, as expected from the leaves. I made some blossom and leaf tea, about a cup of fresh flowers to 3 cups water, and drank some after 10 minutes, 30 minutes, and an hour.

hawthorn brew

I found the brew almost immediately relaxing. It made me a bit sleepy, not a sedative but it definitely mellowed me out after a tense afternoon. The later stronger brew was even more so. I also found it relaxing to my digestive tract. After 10 minutes the tea had a green subtle taste. 30 mins and it was sweeter, still a bit green. In an hour a subtle bitter taste came through, might be from the bottom of the pot or the longer brewing.

Since then I’ve been making infusions and enjoying a couple of cups a day when I need to unwind. I’ve found hawthorn berry tincture has a similar kind of relaxant effect.

Hawthorn is well known as a heart tonic. In the US the focus seems to be on the berries, but I’ve been interested to see British and European sources talk about the leaves and flowers as the best medicine. Hawthorn’s ability to nourish the heart and assist in recovery from heart problems is well documented in traditional herbalism, contemporary herbalism and supported by science.

In the past week I’ve been harvesting the leaf and bloom clusters to dry for tea later once the spring is past. When you harvest make sure that you get flowers that aren’t too old. Give the branch a gentle shake and if some of the petals fall off it means the flowers are nearly done. They’re probably less potent and they’re likely to fall apart when you harvest and not dry so well.

hawthorn flowers drying

The flowers and leaves seem to dry easily. I’ve got them spread out on a cane tray and give them a shuffle every now and again. It’s a good idea to keep each cluster as separate as possible, they dry better that way. When they’re crisply dry I’ll store them in dark glass or paper bags.

*I did watch the bees on the flowers one day, and they were definitely feeding on something I had trouble finding. Hawthorn flowers have a single central pistil (that’s the monogyna bit in the Latin name)…

hawthorn pistil

photo by Ben Grader

The pistil is the yellow tipped bit in the middle. At the bottom of that where it meets the petals was were the bees were feeding from. I couldn’t see anything that looked like nectar, but taking the flower apart and eating that middle bit yielded the sweetness.

Btw, that photo is from flickr (not a chance on my cellphone camera), and someone has left a comment there about how the pollen on the stamens looks like tiny red hearts! Brilliant. The pinkness doesn’t last though, and on most of the flowers I harvested the stamen end was black.

Further reading:

Brigitte of myherbcorner has a recent post on hawthorn.

Susun Weed’s article on hawthorn as a heart medicine.