I fell deeply in love with the hawthorn tree when I started studying herbal medicine in 2002 to receive Practical Herbalist and Consultant Herbalist diplomas. As part of the program we spent an entire weekend studying herbal medicine making and wandering around a foggy homestead near Duncan, BC called Hawthorn Farm. There, I encountered a number of different Crategus species that had been lovingly planted decades earlier. I heard stories about the hawthorn tree’s berries, its leaves and flowers, and the affinity they all seemed to have with the heart and the cardiovascular system. It was there that I first intimately encountered the leaf shape of the introduced and one-seeded Crategus monogyna, the dark purple berries, the grey and rough bark of the BC native Crataegus douglasii.
In Autumn, leaving the capital city of Victoria and driving up Vancouver Island assures you an encounter with lush rainforests mixed with maples and cedars, all dripping in moss, ferns, and usnea. From the road you can see rocky walls dressed in lichens and the cascading waterfalls towering behind. Barely into my 20th year, a recent prairie transplant, I was fixated on everything outside the backseat window of a fellow student’s car. I was without a vehicle and didn’t get a chance to leave the city much, so our recent shamanic and Ayurvedic adventures, our herb walks and plant identification workshops all allowed me my first real taste of the diversity of plant ecology and wealth of herbal medicine available on the Pacific Northwest coastline.
Soon we were arriving at Hawthorn Farm for the first morning of our weekend herbal medicine-making retreat. After pulling off the highway we weaved along the side roads with their pavement free from painted lines or potholes, framed in blackberry brambles all tangled around ancient crooked fences. Each of their simple wooden posts connected with thin undulating strands of barbed wire. These simple country barriers always strong enough to keep the horses in, and just inviting enough (if you can find a break in the brambles) to welcome a passerby to tug on the bottom wire and step through. The same way my mother taught me.
Right foot first, torso hinging forward and under, then rising and pulling the left leg completely through.
We dipped in the old blue car: low-laying clouds leading to the crests of small hills. Passengers headed to the hawthorns, each of us silently watching the sun peak over the green grey horizon, sending its rays down onto the country homes and acerages, the organic farms, and grazing cattle.
A small faded sign with Hawthorn Farm carved into it welcomed us and we turned onto a long dirt driveway with at least a dozen Hawthorn trees split evenly on either side of us. One pair after another. Brimming with red berries, the haws of the hawthorn trees ready for the first frost after another summer of cool foggy mornings and warm afternoons.
The weekend progressed into teas, decoctions, tinctures, and salves. I gathered hawthorn berries from the trees and made my first tincture using them. Later in the course when we needed to create our first materia medica, I instinctively chose to do a medicinal plant profile on the hawthorn tree. One of the first lessons that we are taught as instinctive herbalists is to listen to our senses, let them lead you. I was called clearly to those hawthorn trees that day, I was fascinated by the thorns of the hawthorn tree, the distinctive characteristics that some hawthorn leaves have, the more palmate the leaves are, somehow the more magical to me. Then there is the cracked ashy bark of some of hawthorn trees – some of them becoming crones of the garden. They are protectors, rejuvenators, mothers, and magicians all at once.
This Thanksgiving, while visiting our sister in Kamloops, I harvested two large bags of berries and leaves from a hawthorn tree (Crategus crus-galli) in her backyard that Jared had planted about 10 years ago. Just days before the first frost, my fingers stiffened to the hard cold red berries as I pulled them from their branches. Some say that the best hawthorn tree berries are harvested after the first frost, but the haws are ready in September or early October. I grabbed a few hundred berries from the tree and took them home to Vancouver to dry and tincture.
Future posts to come on how to dry the haws and use the fresh berries to make a hawthorn berry tincture. The plant profile below contains the plant information I gathered for the first materia medica entry I made as a student of herbalism over 15 years ago. It feels like a lifetime ago to me, but 15 years is surely just the blink of an eye to a hawthorn tree.