One of the loveliest things we have to do in the first year of our Herbal Medicine degree at Lincoln College is the Tree Study. As far as I can tell (and there are actually very precise instructions for completing this assignment) this involves adopting, or, rather, being adopted by, a tree which is local and medicinal; we sit with it and get to know it, its energy, its ambience, its nature, its tree personality, in all weathers, throughout the year. I’m not anthropomorphising here, trees have quite different personalities from humans, and it is not only humans and animals that have personalities. We draw it, talk to it, listen, (sorry Karl – a fellow student of mine may have apoplexy at this interpretation of the Tree Study) exchange gossip (if she is talking to me, and if I am listening), and in my case, harvest leaves, flowers and berries for teas and tinctures.
I present to you here, the most lovely Hawthorn (Crataegus oxycantha or C. monogyna):
She lives along the Waters of Leith and when I visited her this morning, the conservationists were tidying up the area and doing a bit of hand mowing with scythes. She is usually quite difficult to get to, but for a few weeks, at least, she will be more in the open. She is quite a small tree, about 10m or so, and underneath her she has Ramsons growing in the Spring and Summer, nettles and various umbelliferae (apiaceae now?) – anyway, the plant family with the flower heads that look like parasols or umbrellas, e.g. Hemlock, Sweet Cicely, etc. This particular Crataegus seems to have less frilly leaves than some of her siblings, and has never seemed to have very prominent thorns – but I have been pricked often, so I know they are there. when I looked carefully today, I found them on the end of little twiglets, not coming off the main branch or twig itself. That dark thing you can see sticking up is in fact a thorn on the very end of a twiglet, from which leaves are sprouting. You can see them sprouting at the tip, where the thorn begins, and at the base.
Crataegus is of the Rosaceae family and she is also called variously ‘English Hawthorn’, ‘Mayblossom’, ‘Whitethorn’, ‘Quickthorn’ or ‘Bread-and-Cheese’. Her biochemical constituents, which probably account for a great deal of her power, include flavonoids (incl. rutin and quercetin) oligomeric proanthocyanidins (amazing how that trips off the tongue these days!) and triterpenoid saponins. She has a regulating, soothing and tonifying effect on the heart and is used in congestive heart disease and cardiac insufficiency, cardiac arrhythmias and other ailments and dysfunctions of the heart. As a peripheral vasodilator (she opens up the arteries towards the surface of the body, thus decreasing pressure towards the inside of the body) she helps lower blood pressure. She improves the efficiency of the heart’s functioning, meaning that the heart is able to contract more strongly without much increase in effort. It’s quite complex, so consult a medical herbalist for how and whether to use her yourself. The biochemistry of this is currently doing my head in. Hence a break for the blog post.
Traditionally, Crataegus has not only been used for physical / physiological problems of the heart, but for the soothing and nurturing of the emotional heart. Our tutor Robyn made us tea of Crataegus leaves, to experience the taste, the qualities and their effect on us. This is not a practice to be trifled with. Slowing down to experience the effect of what one is ingesting has an effect in itself; we didn’t know what the tea was – that’s trust in a lecturer for you! Crataegus tea seemed thick, soothing and slowing (other teas had perked us up, physiologically and mentally). It seemed to open me up, but provide a structure at the same time. Softening, nurturing, gently stimulating. So welcome. She is supposed to be sour… I found her sweet and woody, green.
I spent half an hour or so looking, touching and sketching, taking a few photos, and then talking with the conservation volunteer who seems to esteem her greatly, too. She still has lots of berries on her – what this means about the coming weather I don’t know, but there are plenty left for the birds.