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Use foraged hawthorn berries and vodka to make hawthorn tincture. This recipe follows a folk method and creates a natural medicine that is used for heart health and enhancing memory.
Many years ago, I took a beginner herbalism course at the College of Naturopathic Medicine (CNM) in London. The course was called ‘Herbs for Everyday Living’ and was taught by the mother-daughter team, Lorne Driver-Davies, and Jill Rosemary Davies. Jill is the author of The Complete Home Guide to Herbs, Natural Healing, and Nutrition which is a well-thumbed book that still lives on my bookshelf. It was in that course that I was first introduced to the medicinal benefits of hawthorn. I also learned how to make hawthorn tincture.
Hawthorn can create a powerful yet relatively safe heart medicine for oxygenating the blood, improving circulation, strengthening arteries, and clearing the mind. This hawthorn tincture recipe is based on a larger quantity recipe provided in the course. I’m providing it to you for educational purposes and in no way am recommending that you use it personally.
Foraging for Hawthorn Berries
Hawthorn Crataegus mongyna is a shrubby hedgerow tree that grows right across Britain and Europe. You can find it in other parts of the world too, including northwest Africa, Asia, and North America. In spring it bursts to life with deeply loped green leaves, that used to be commonly eaten. when at the young and tender stage. Called ‘Bread and Butter’ or ‘Bread and Cheese’, you’d eat hawthorn leaves in the hungry gap in spring, along with wild garlic, nettles, and anything else that popped up before the first harvests. I’ve had a nibble myself and can’t really recommend them based on flavor!
In late spring the tree blossoms with beautiful sprays of white blossoms that bees adore. I’ve also heard that they were also used to crown the May Queen at Beltane, in ancient tradition. The flowers are used in herbalism too, in making tinctures, decoctions, and even powered and made into pills.
As spring moves into summer, the flowers fade and develop into small red berries affectionately called haws. They can cover the branches in good years and are often still clinging to bare branches in winter. For medicine, you pick the berries when they’re in good condition though, in late summer to early autumn. Often, you can spot them from a good distance away and in my region, they turn parts of the hedgerow bright red!
When you forage for haws, be careful of thorns, and pick only the reddest and plumpest ones. If any berries feel squishy, leave them. The only berry that I think they could be confused with is rose-hips, and I’ve seen them growing side by side in the hedgerow. Rose hips have their own medicinal properties and are delicious as tea too.
Cooking with Hawthorn Berries
Hawthorn berries are edible, but they have a lot of tannin in them. So if you have a nibble, they’ll make your tongue feel like cotton wool afterward. It’s a weird feeling, eating fresh hawthorn berries but I understand that they make decent ketchup. The berries also contain a lot of pectin. If you mash the berries with your hands, it will set into a kind of jelly with no cooking required.
Haws also contain large seeds that need to be removed if you’re going to use the berries in cooking. The seeds are similar to apple seeds and contain a compound called amygdalin that can change to hydrogen cyanide. There’s a lot of hysteria over this online. However, you’d have to crush and eat hundreds of the seeds to have any negative effects.
There’s a difference between eating hawthorn berries to taking them as medicine though. The amounts of active constituents in hawthorn preparations are low when made into jam, fruit leathers, syrup, or other recipes. In tinctures, they are much higher. That’s because alcohol (and water) are very effective at pulling them from the berries and concentrating them.
How Hawthorn Tincture can help your Heart
According to Andrew Chevalier, FNIMH, in his book The Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine, hawthorn berries contain bioflavonoids, triterpenoids, proanthocyanidins, polyphenols, and coumarins. These active constituents’ key actions are cardiotonic, relaxant, antioxidant, and also dilate the blood vessels. He says, “Its [hawthorn] main medicinal benefit is due to its bioflavonoid and proanthocyanin content. These constituents relax and dilate the arteries, especially the coronary arteries. This increases the flow of blood to the heart muscles and reduces symptoms of angina.”
However, he also cautions that you should only take hawthorn under professional supervision. I think that’s a wise recommendation, especially if you suffer from heart problems. If you have heart issues and are considering using hawthorn tincture, then please speak to a licensed herbalist or medical practitioner. You could also become a herbalist yourself, by enrolling in an accredited program.
Hawthorn can be a Safe Heart Medicine
I do have to point out that in the original course I took, hawthorn was introduced as a safe herb to use on your own to support heart health. I take it that both of my instructors meant under the circumstance that you were educated in herbalism and/or did not have a major heart issue, though. One reason I take hawthorn tincture is that hawthorn can also increase attention levels and clear the mind. Rosemary is another herb that you can take for memory and brain function.
In the CNM course, I also learned that hawthorn berries help build stronger veins and artery walls. This is down to their natural chemical component, rutin, a flavonoid. Taken regularly it can also regulate blood pressure, improve circulation, and reduce the pain caused by angina. Hawthorn tincture could also be helpful for someone who has blocked veins and arteries due to smoking and cholesterol buildup.
Make Hawthorn Tincture from Haws
One of the most common ways to take hawthorn as a medicine is as a tincture. Tinctures are concentrated plant medicines that use a menstruum such as alcohol. You take a small number of berries, mix it with the alcohol, and let it draw the medicine out. With dosage, it comes down to a matter of drops or teaspoons per day.
Alcohol and water can draw different types of active ingredients from plants and suspend them in the liquid. That means that we can use standard 40% alcohol (80 proof) vodka, to extract both the water and alcohol soluble constituents from haws. 40% alcohol also contains 60% water and they both work to pull different active constituents from the berries. Tinctures also preserve those constituents for at least two years, so it’s a great way to make a supplement that lasts a long time. Though this recipe focuses on using hawthorn berries, you can also use the flowering tops of hawthorn to make tinctures.
Hawthorn Tincture Recipe
- Rolling pin
- large ziplock bag
- Glass Jar
- Dark glass bottle
- Dropper bottles
- 1 cup fresh hawthorn berries or 3/4 cup dried
- 2 cup Vodka* 40-50% alcohol
- Pick the red berries from hawthorn trees in autumn. Choose plump red berries in an area away from traffic.
- Remove the leaves and brittle stems and rinse the berries to remove dust and other impurities. Allow to drip dry in a strainer or sieve. They can still be a little moist for the next step.
- Place the berries in a ziplock bag and then roll over them with a rolling pin. This opens the berries but doesn't crush the seeds inside. You should avoid crushing the seeds when making hawthorn tincture.
- Empty the crushed hawthorn berries into a glass jar. Pour the vodka over them, seal tightly with a lid, then shake for about a minute.
- Store the jar in a dark and cool (to room temperature) place such as a kitchen cupboard. Leave it to infuse for two to four weeks. Shake the jar every couple of days. As the soluble components of hawthorn extract into the vodka, the berries lose their color.
- After the allocated time has passed, strain the hawthorn tincture through a muslin laid over a fine mesh strainer to remove the berries.
- Get every last drop of tincture that you can from the berries. Gather the muslin up and squeeze as much liquid out, as you can. Afterward, discard the berries.
- Pour the tincture through a funnel and into a dark glass bottle. Label it with the type of tincture and the date made, and store it in a cool to room temperature place out of direct sunlight. It has a shelf-life of about two years.
- Adults typically use 2 ml (a few drops) daily. The easiest way to have it is to squeeze the drops into a small glass of water and drink. You can also take the tincture directly under your tongue.
More Foraging and Herbalism Ideas
Autumn is a time of bounty and after a warm summer, plants are filled with energy and goodness before their winter sleep. Here are some foraging and herbalism ideas to inspire you to make the most of the season ahead:
- How to forage and pick Porcini Mushrooms
- Healing Plants to grow in a Salve Garden
- How to make Elderberry Syrup
- Grow Herbal Remedies for the Cold and Flu
- I also share how to make calming Chamomile Tincture in my book