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While visiting a beautiful rural property to discuss designing a couple of herb and flower gardens, the owner pointed at one of the boundaries of the property and said, “I want to get rid of those weedy shrubs over there.” The flowers had already bloomed (which can be an easy way to identify plants) so we headed over to the shrubs while she described the bright red berries that appeared each fall.
When I saw the leaves and the thorns I knew it was the European species of hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), brought over to North America to serve as a source of fencing material and a hedgerow plant. Identification down to species can be challenging: there are almost 300 species worldwide and they love to hybridize but this species has made its way across North America. When I told the owner about the long history of hawthorn uses for the heart and how the berries could be used to make jam, tea, and even wine... she rolled her eyes and said, “Well, they need to stay then, don’t they?” The owner is a professional winemaker.
My other memorable story about hawthorn did not turn out as well. On a hot August afternoon, I joined a friend to pick the ripened black haws of our native Black Hawthorn (Crataegus douglasii) on her property. As we began, both of us disturbed an apparently large and not-visible-to-us gathering of yellow jackets who were also enjoying the ripened fruit. We were both stung immediately and the yellow jackets were buzzing us intensely. Taken by surprise and in panic mode, I bent down to grab my basket and run when a yellow jacket flew into my face. Trying to swipe it away, I lost my balance and fell into the large thorny hawthorn. Ignoring the pain, we ran down the road as fast as we could. We each are mildly allergic to yellow jackets and our arms were quickly swelling and throbbing. My fall into the shrub garnered a few scratches from the thorns. For all of that pain and trouble we each had a handful of hawthorn berries.
Around here, yellow jackets always rule.
There is a long history of hawthorn uses as a food source among indigenous people in North America, and for centuries Europeans considered the hawthorn herb as one that maintained the health of the heart, helped with digestion and, during the Middle Ages, was used for sore throats, insomnia, and as a diuretic.
Modern research supports regular hawthorn uses as an herb that relaxes and repairs vascular walls, reduces blood pressure, positively affects cholesterol, relieves shortness of breath and fatigue and, specifically, assists people who live with mild levels of congestive heart failure. (Note: Always work with a health practitioner when considering the use of herbs to help with a diagnosed condition, and people taking pharmaceutical drugs should always check with their doctor or pharmacists for possible drug-herb interactions.)
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Herbalists consider hawthorn a tonic herb - one that supports the foundation of our health and can be safely taken each day to support our overall wellness by nourishing our body’s systems.
Like many people, when I first started exploring herbs I thought of them as either culinary seasonings or medicinal remedies. As I began to study individual herbs, I discovered that some herbs can be taken as daily or weekly tonics in the form of tea, tincture or capsules. It seems so obvious now but at the time it was a new way of thinking about how I could use herbs on a daily basis.
Since then, I have become a bit obsessed with thinking up ways that I can add tonic herbs to my everyday recipes because there is only so much tea I can drink in a day!
Adding powdered herbs to recipes is an easy way to add tonifying herbs to your daily foods. I powder some of the herbs I grow but I purchase powdered berries and roots from Mountain Rose Herbs. I do recommend buying small amounts with a plan to use them within three months, as powdered herbs lose their medicinal qualities faster than whole herbs. Here are a few ideas for incorporating the slightly tart and sweet tasting powdered hawthorn berries into your everyday recipes:
Traditionally, whole hawthorn berries were utilized by Europeans to make jam, jelly, chutneys, pie fillings, wine, and ketchup. Last year, I had access to an abundance of fresh berries and made hawthorn ketchup for the first time. It was the perfect excuse to eat more than my share of french fries last fall!
The smelly/fragrant (you decide) hawthorn flowers also provide medicinal benefits for the heart and were traditionally used in making a spring cordial. The berries can also be used for cordial-making; cordials are delightful herbal liqueurs that look wonderful in antique cordial glassware and are perfect for sipping on a cold winter’s night.
For the tea drinkers, the berries, leaves, flowers and twigs can all be used to make tea and nourishing infusions.
One of the easiest ways to incorporate the heart-healthy hawthorn into your daily life is through a simple syrup. Syrups can be used to flavor water, smoothies, drizzled over yogurt, added to salad dressings and stir-fry sauces, and used as part of the sweetener in baking recipes. They are tasty enough to take by the tablespoon and are safe for all ages.
I have become enamored with shrubs for the last few years, incorporating a variety of fruits and herbs for both flavor and health benefits. A shrub is a historical beverage that includes fruit infused in vinegar and then sweetened, usually with sugar but I often use honey. I make a half-gallon about once every six weeks and have a glass or two on most days. Though there is sugar or honey added, I can control the amount and now prefer the stronger tastes of vinegar to the sweet taste of sugar.
Shrubs are easy to make, nutritious, multifunctional, and embrace the creative drink maker in us. Berries and cherries are ideal but I have found many recipes that use apricots, peaches, pears, plums, nectarines, rhubarb, cranberries, apples, and even tomatoes and cucumbers. Herbs and spices can be added for flavor, additional nutrients, and medicinal benefits.
In the following seasonal recipe, I used a variety of cultivated and wild fruits and herbs that offer flavor and support for my cardiovascular and immune system.
Add to ½ gallon canning jar:
Fill with a vinegar of your choice, ensuring that all of the fruit is covered:
Never use distilled white vinegar... except to clean the house.
Stir and cover with a plastic lid. Store in a cool cupboard or the refrigerator for 7-10 days. Go in and stir or shake each day.
Strain the fruit & herbs out of the vinegar; a potato ricer is ideal for getting every last drop of goodness.
Add 2 - 4 cups of sugar to the infused vinegar: white, brown, or turbinado. Or add 1-3 cups of honey. Store in the refrigerator for one week, stirring each day to dissolve the sugar.
Pour into glass bottles and store in the refrigerator for up to a year.
To enjoy: Add 1-2 tablespoons to 8-10 ounces of water or carbonated water. I often squirt some bitters blend on top.
Shrubs can also be used to make salad dressings, as a base for marinades or in stir fry sauces.
Sue Kusch, a former community college instructor and academic advisor, incorporates her experiential wisdom, expertise and science-based research garnered from her three decades of growing vegetables, fruit and herbs into her educational writing about plants and how people use them. In addition to her BA in Social Sciences and Masters in Education, she completed the Master Gardener training in 2011 and two permaculture courses in 2001 and 2014. She has studied medicinal and nutritional uses of herbs, including studies at Herbmentor and East West School of Planetary Herbology, since 1997. An avid reader, lover of historical and folkloric information, and a promising storyteller, Sue writes about the intersection of plants and people.