HAWTHORN: HEALTH BENEFITS OF HAWTHORN, USES AND HISTORY: HAWTHORN LIQUEUR CHOCOLATE RECIPE
The hawthorn tree is known by many names including Bread and Cheese (Bara Caws; couse as in mouse, in Welsh) May and Whitethorn. The proper Welsh name for hawthorn is Draenen Wen. It is called Bread and Cheese because this is what the leaves are supposed to taste like, and I’ve eaten them but didn’t see much resemblance to the flavour of bread or cheese. My grandfather used to feed me the leaves if I was hungry on one of our long country walks.
It is called whitethorn because of the whiteness of its bark, and the fruit or haws are called by many interesting names, such as Pixie Pears, Cuckoo’s Beads and Chucky Cheese. The haws look like mini apples and have stones inside them.
Hawthorn is a member of the rose family along with the Prunus and Pyrus trees, such as plum, aloo Bukhara and peach trees (Prunus), the crab apple and Mountain Ash (Pyrus). Along with the oak and ash, it was one of the three sacred trees of the Celts.
The Hawthorn tree is native to the British Isles and northern Europe, although others grow in other parts of the world: the Crataegus aronia is native to southern Europe, Israel and West Asia and is prized for its haws, while the C.odoratissima and C azarote are also valued for the fruit they produce. The name Crataegus comes from the Greek, kratos meaning hardness, and oxcus which means sharp and akantha meaning thorns. The German name for it is Hagedorn, which means Hedge Thorn, indicating that it was used to mark boundaries between fields. Haw also means hedge.
Hawthorns can live for hundreds of years and according to legend the Glastonbury thorn was more than a thousand years old when it was cut down by Cromwell’s men during the Interregnum which followed the Civil War in Britain in the 17th century. They can grow as tall as 30 feet and John Milton (1608-1674) wrote these lines; “Every shepherd tells his tale under the hawthorn in the dale.” This shows how prolific these trees once were.
The Glastonbury Thorn was said to have sprung from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea, who, legend has it, brought the blood of Christ in the Holy Grail to Glastonbury. The staff was also said to be made from a hawthorn tree, as was the crown of thorns placed on Jesus’ head before his crucifixion.(Sometimes the hawthorn is referred to as Christ’s Thorn”.) The hawthorn at Glastonbury was said to be the biggest tree in England. A smaller one now grows where the original was thought to have grown.
The flowers of the hawthorn blossom in May and where I come from in South Wales, there’s an old saying, “Ne’er cast a clout ‘til May is out” which means that you shouldn’t stop wearing your winter clothes until the hawthorn has blossomed. It is called May because it blossoms in that month. The flowers have a smell that is said to be like that of a woman who is sexually aroused, and this gave it the reputation for being an aphrodisiac in Arabic erotic literature. In Britain the flowers are reputed to still bear the stench of the Great Plague of London of the early 17th century.
In ancient Greece brides wore garlands of May flowers and torches made from hawthorn wood lit the way for the procession to the bridal chamber. In Wales and Ireland wreaths of hawthorn are made and left outside for the fairies or angels to find. The tree was sacred to Hymen, the Greek god of the marriage chamber, and to the goddess Maia (the Roman goddess equivalent was Flora).In ancient Greece and Rome the hawthorn was taken into homes for good luck and protection from evil spirits. In the Christian era it became a symbol of hope.
However hawthorn also has darker associations. In Teutonic funeral rites, the wood was burned on funeral pyres in the belief that souls would be carried to the afterlife by the smoke that rose from the pyre, and so it took on a grimness which led to superstitions about it. It was believed to be a fairy tree, and the evil fairies that dwelled in it would severely punish anyone who harmed it. Celts believed that on Beltane (May Day) witches metamorphosed into hawthorn trees and the Scots Gaels though that the tree was the gateway to the other world. In Welsh legend, Merlin the magician was eternally trapped in a hawthorn tree by the most powerful of the witches, Nimue.
Other superstitions are that if an angler has a thorn from the tree in his/her pocket, a good catch is assured. You may still see ribbons on hawthorns, or pieces of cloth, especially on trees that stand at a crossroads. These are for good luck or for wishes to be granted.
Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII after his defeat of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, adopted the device of the hawthorn bush as one of his men found Richard’s crown on a hawthorn bush and presented it to the future king. (Henry Tudor was the father of King Henry VIII.)
In Wales, the hawthorn is once more growing in abundance as the sheep that usually eat hawthorn saplings were culled during the foot and mouth epidemic in 200-2001. Now the trees are flourishing again and it is believed that their origins go back 12000 years or more to the last Ice Age. This is good for the migrant cuckoo population as the hawthorn trees provide caterpillars for them to feast on.
Hawthorn protects against evil and a sprig in a barn will help cows provide and increased milk yield, according to superstition. In mediaeval times and after, cattle were given garlands of the leaves to wear to protect them from the malice of fairy folk.
The physicians of Myddfai used hawthorn as a remedy for jaundice, “take the leaves which grow on the branches of the hawthorn and the mistletoe, boiling them in wine or good old ale, till reduced to the half, then take off the fire and strain. Drink this three times a day.”
Traditionally the hawthorn has been used as a diuretic, a heart tonic and for its astringent qualities, which are notably in the berries and the flowers. A decoction of either has been used for sore throats and as a diuretic as well as to disperse gravel and kidney stones. A liqueur can be made from the berries by steeping them in brandy for a month. You can then strain the liquid and use the mushy berries to make chocolate liqueurs. In older times the leaves were used to adulterate tea when it was an expensive commodity in Britain.
The wood from the tree (if anyone dares cut it) makes good fire wood and the charcoal from it can be heated to such a high temperature that it is said that pig iron can be smelted with it. The wood has also been used to carve trinkets and decorative items.
Dioscorides in the 1st century AD believed that hawthorn was good for heart disease, and this has proved to be the case. Today the leaves and flowers are used medicinally and the University of Maryland has said that there is “good evidence that hawthorn can treat mild – moderate heart failure.” There are flavonoids in the leaves and flowers and fewer in the berries. These help to control blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Hawthorn can help with restlessness and insomnia and increases oxygen utilization by the heart. It is also rich in vitamin C and has strong antioxidant properties. Like grapes, hawthorn contains oligomeric procyandins which have potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
A decoction of the berries has been used as a remedy for diarrhoea and dysentery due to their astringent qualities, and the berries, flowers and leaves are good for the digestive system and promote appetite. Tisanes and decoctions made from them have been used to alleviate stress and anxiety as they have a relaxing effect on the nervous system. Traditionally these tisanes and decoctions have been used to help with menopausal symptoms such as night sweats and as a vaginal douche for infections such as candida (thrush).The infusion of the flowers is particularly good for increasing the flow of blood to the heart, and when mixed with yarrow, can help relieve stress and hypertension. Juice from the berries can be expressed and used as a digestive aid, a cardiac tonic and to stop diarrhoea. The decoction is made with 30 gr berries boiled in ½ litre of water for 15 mins, then allowed to steep for 10-15 mins. Drink a cupful 2 or 3 times a day. For a tisane wash the berries or flowers and leaves thoroughly and the pour a cupful of boiling water over them and allow them to steep for 15 mins before straining and drinking.
CHOCOLATE LIQUEUR FROM HAWTHORN BERRIES
1 bottle brandy
1 kilo hawthorn berries, washed and cleaned
3 large bars of chocolate
Steep the berries in the brandy for a month, turning the bottle upside down once a day for two weeks. Leave in a cool dark place for the whole month.
Strain the berries and reserve.
In a heavy pan, melt the chocolate, then remove from the heat and stir the mushy berries into it so that they are well mixed.
With a metal spoon, scoop out the mixture and place on a greased baking tray. When you have finished, refrigerate so that the chocolate sets again. They are soon ready to eat.You also have hawthorn brandy, which is delicious too.
These have Taste and are a Treat.