I heart hawthorn.
We visited friends this weekend and went for a beautiful walk at Stokenchurch near Oxford, on the Aston Rowant nature reserve. It’s a great place to see red kites (although we’d already seen more than a dozen soaring effortlessly over the motorway as we drove there, and at least twenty on the return journey). The reserve is make up of mature beech hangers and chalk downland, with scrub of juniper and hawthorn. It’s all a bit blighted by the M40 roaring right through the middle of it – the controversial stokenchurch cut, where the powers that be decided to plough the motorway straight through the protected chalk hillside. It makes for lovely views when you’re on the motorway. For the people enjoying the nature reserve… not so much. It’s still a stunning place though, and must be beautiful in spring and early summer, with the orchids and chalk downland flowers that thrive there.
I came across some hawthorn bushes – Crataegus spp. absolutely loaded with berries. Crataegus berries and flowers are a valuable herbal medicine, so I couldn’t resist picking a quick bagful. The berries are rich in anti-oxidant flavonoids and oligomeric proanthocyanidins, and contain cardioactive amines. Crataegus has been found to act as a tonic to the cardiovascular system, dilating the blood vessels (particularly the coronary blood vessels, which maximises oxygenation of the heart), improving the contractility and efficiency of the heart, and lowering blood pressure. It’s a well researched herb, and is accepted as a safe adjunctive treatment in heart failure.
Crataegus is in the Rosacae family, and there are hundreds of species in the genus. They are small, thorny deciduous trees and shrubs, and have been utilised as food or medicine since the late iron age. The hawthorns here were more like bushes than trees; dense and scrubby. I don’t know whether that’s the variety of Crataegus or a result of the harsh winds blowing constantly across the hill. We saw a much grander specimen at Petworth recently.
I’ll be making these berries into a tincture by bashing them about a little bit (to break the skins), then covering them with vodka (or maybe gin – I’ve got some left from making sloe gin a few weeks ago) in a sterilised container and steeping them for a month or so, shaking the container regularly.