As autumn sets in, the harvest yield of wild plants and foods begins its steep decline. However, fall is one of the best times for gathering of many of the berries and roots that can be stored over winter. One of the most beneficial, yet least tasty berries is the hawthorn.
Hawthorn shrubbery is not native to North America, arriving on this continent with the early European settlers. Like dandelion and horseradish as well as many varieties of sparrows, hawthorns are opportunistic, quickly flourishing in this climate and environment. Often, like horseradish, hawthorn can be found growing near old homestead sites.
It is a hardy shrub, growing ten to fifteen feet in height, but producing ample sharp thorns that make harvest tenuous and risky. Early pioneers, turning adversity into opportunity, used those protective thorns as sewing needles, and records show that they were even used to suture deep wounds. My mother, on one occasion, used the thorns when stitching up the cavity in our Christmas turkey.
Like many of the staple emergency supplies used by North American natives and Canadian explorers, hawthorn offers little in the way of culinary delight, yet it has found its way into many dishes and meals, because of its nutritional value.
Berries are dried (preferably in the open air and shade), for use throughout the deep winter months. For most effective use, those dried seed pods are ground, using a small coffee bean grinder. The result is a rather gritty tea base that needs to be filtered, using a cheesecloth (tea ballers let a lot of the powdered residue through, as they do with rose hips).
The most common use of hawthorn is as a tea or infusion. For improved flavour, add ½ teaspoon of ginger powder (or let a piece of crystallized piece of ginger steep with the hawthorn) and one teaspoon of honey to each cup of berry tea.
Another recipe for hawthorn herbal tea is to mix two teaspoons of hawthorn berries, one teaspoon of yarrow, two tablespoons of horse chestnut and one to two teaspoons of ginger to six cups of boiled water. This blend is excellent for treatment of varicose veins, and is believed to strengthen veins and capillaries.
Some herbalist parents use rooibos, chamomile, ginkgo, lemon balm or hawthorn to treat hyperactivity in their children. It is recommended, though, that you consult with a physician prior to implementing any such treatment.
Bad breath and mild stomach conditions are relieved by using an infusion of hawthorn, fennel, ginger and boiled water.
I have found that one of the best preventive combination of herbs for my regular gout condition is a mix of celery seed, nettle and hawthorn. When dried, I have ground and sprinkled them on salad, but most frequently make a concentrated infusion, then mix the tea with cherry juice.
A First Nations friend of mine swears that hawthorn also is effective to repair fatigued and strained muscles, and has been successfully used to treat sprained ankles, and to reduce hypertension.
Regardless of the many claims of healing powers attributed to hawthorn, it provides excellent nutritional benefit, particularly in winter months. It is high in vitamin C, and is a phenomenal survival food for winter country hikers. Commonly, as a result, hawthorn was used, along with dried saskatoons or blueberries, rose hips and even mountain ash (another non-native to Canada’s prairies) in pemmican recipes, carried by couriers du bois and natives on winter excursions.
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