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Hawthorn, the Playful and the Joyous

Plants have personalities.

There are some that are solemn, others that can make you feel closer to Spirit or others dig deep down inside you and bring out old memories, or hidden feelings. Some are tricky. Some are luscious and sensual.

There are some plants, though, that just like to play. They are so overwhelmingly beautiful and bright that at times it can be almost comical, poking up at you donned in color like a mother playing patty-cake with her laughing baby.

The rose family makes me feel this way. Whether it's little strawberries by the roadside, brambling bushes of blackberry or the most exquisite red rose, I become that laughing baby. I mean, how can you help but smile at these deeply-colored, prickly, juicy plants who just seem to want to push their way up to you as close as possible? Rose family plants are like little kids who just lost a tooth and can't wait to run up to every adult to show them just how cool they look now. I fall for it every time.

Especially with Hawthorn.

If you haven't seen Hawthorn trees in bloom, you really are missing a treat. As one of the bigger members of the family (along with cherry, apple, etc), you might miss Hawthorn or dismiss it for just another tree. It is most certainly not. If closely at a Hawthorn tree, you will see the dramatic thorns it keeps on its branches - in fact, this is the easiest way to identify it when its not blooming, although there are other trees in the rose family with thorns such as crabapple. They are about the size of an apple tree and grow in similar patterns, making them generally smaller than cherry trees which do not grow in the characteristically "twisted" looking way that apple and hawthorn do. Their blooms are fragrant (I mean its the rose family, right?), the leaves are ornate and toothed.

The berries of the hawthorn tree are smaller than a cherry in size but bigger than most rose hips, red/orange in color and tart to taste. We use the leaf, flower and berry in medicine, which means if you are making a tincture, you really have to make two: one for leaf and flower and one for the berry, then combine them after both have set separately and have been properly strained.

So whatcha gonna do with your hawthorn once you've made it? Well let's see, shall we?

Tastes: sour (berry), astringent, sweet

Energetics: cool, moistening

Actions: restorative, anti-inflammatory, anti-spasmodic, nourishing, tonic, secondary relaxant qualities

Tissue state affinities: heat, atrophy, constriction, tension

Constitutional affinities: Excess fire, excess air, "high blood"

Like most plants in the rose family, hawthorn is sour and astringent by taste making its energetics cool and toning. Because of the underlying moist sweetness in the berries, it also make a fine restorative and nutritive.

Hawthorn is one of our best remedies for what the Southern herbal tradition calls "high blood" - these are states of energetic excess. When the blood (vitality) sits high above the heart, there is often flushing in the face and redness in the skin. Headache is often a common presenting co-symptom when the blood pressure to the head is increased. Fever is common when the blood is high during acute illness. There is often anxiety and mental hyperactivity. High blood can also manifest emotionally as a short temper, emotional lability and excessive intensity.

In folks well-suited to hawthorn, the blood vessels may be prone to coronary artery disease, hypertension and other vascular problems where tension is at work. While hawthorn is not an antispasmodic, its cooling properties allow it to relax the great vessels. For fever, systemic heat signs, and inflammatory conditions of all types, I find that it pairs well with Elder, and rose (or rose hips) and cooling members of the mint family such as peppermint. I also find the moistening qualities of hawthorn to be useful here as well, since often folks that are overheating end up with secondary dryness and fluid deficiency as their water basically evaporates. For cardiac hyperactivity like high heart rate or palpitations, I pair hawthorn with cardiac-specific nervines such as motherwort and linden. And always milky oats. When there is high blood pressure, high blood sugar, redness in the tissues and other signs of metabolic overdrive, I find hawthorn pairs well with sumac, blueberry and schizandra. Lastly, when I see signs of cardiac strain due to tension in the vessels - heart failure, coronary artery disease, angina - I use hawthorn with warming aromatics such as ginger and garlic to open the circulation and move stagnant blood.

In addition to the cooling properties of hawthorn, the astringency of this plant restores function, tone and nutrition to injured vessels and prevents injuries to the tissues to begin with. Furthermore, hawthorn berries are nutritive and moist, only adding to the enhancement of tissue function. This role also comes into play in cardiac conditions where the tissue has atrophied - valve disease, heart failure or a past heart attack. The overall result of all of this is a better working heart, with better working arteries, less prone to blockage, spasm and weakness.

Hawthorn’s usefulness does not stop with the heart. In addition to other clinical applications such as and anxiety, I find Hawthorn to be clinically indicated for immune hyperactivity and inflammation as well. In times of overactive immune stimulation such as acute illness, autoimmune flare, skin eruptions, intestinal permeability or any sort of allergic reaction, the cooling energetics of Hawthorn serve us well. The heat signs are similar in presentation to those of high blood, but with a few common additions: there is often fever with active infection or illness, redness or swelling in the periphery, heat signs in the skin or skin eruptions (especially with hypersensitivity reactions or allergy) and an overly high metabolic set point (excess fire). It is a great asset during cold and flu season.

The last way I use hawthorn in my clinical practice is as an antioxidant. Like most berries in the rose family, hawthorn berries are have strong antioxidant properties with the capacity to neutralize free radicals that find their way to the coronary arteries. In this way, it helps prevent coronary artery disease. Antioxidants also helps protect the arterial system from other potential sources of damage such as diabetes, hypertension and stress. When giving hawthorn berries as an antioxidant, I like to use a daily hawthorn berry syrup. I usually use it in conjunction with other antioxidant foods such as blueberries, beets and pomegranates.

All this being said, the "coolness" of hawthorn, just like the kid ever trying to get our attention, is very real. Not only is it hard not to laugh with this plant, as it seems to be always laughing near us, but its amazing actions actually do help us to let go, relax, cool off and cool down. Hawthorn helps us make space to enjoy life - to stop and smell the roses (or rose's close cousins), to play, to smile, to breath. To rest from the life of "always too much" that affects so many of us. And it doesn't do this by sedating, or really by affecting the nervous system much at all. It is a plant that brings joy to our hearts, and child-like freedom to our souls. It lets us let go.

Maybe after the year we have all had, thats exactly what we need right now - to be brought down from the stress and the heartache, tucked into a cool bed and taught to smile again.

I encourage you to let hawthorn show you the way.

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