The best-known herb for the heart in western herbalism is Hawthorn, which
is a small tree or shrub that grows throughout the northern hemisphere.
The fruits, flowers, and leaves are processed into tinctures and other kinds
of extracts available in capsules or tablets in the U.S. and other parts
of the world.
The comely hawthorn is a dense tree with small, sharp thorns growing to
25 feet. It has small white flowers with rose-like petals and bright red
berries containing one or two large seeds. Hawthorns are native to Europe,
North America and Asia.
Dioscorides, the most reliable of the ancient authors on plant medicines,
called Crataegus “Oxuakantha”, which was retained by Linnaeus
in the name C. oxyacantha, an old name for C. laevigata. Although
many botanical and herbal writers from the15th through the 17th centuries
took this plant to be a kind of Crataegus, Parkinson (1640) determined
that it was likely a Pyracantha–common ornamental shrubs with small
red berries. It is listed as C. pyracantha in Gunther’s edition of
Dioscorides (1933), today referred to the genus Pyracantha, a genus
not particularly lauded for its healing properties. Galen’s “Oxyacanthus”
is also certainly a Pyracantha, Pyrus (pear) or Mespilus
(medlar). The latter three genera are closely allied and until the 17th
century were likely to be poorly distinguished from Crataegus (Parkinson).
Gerard (1633), one of the best-known of the Rennaissance herbalists, called
hawthorn oxyacanthus, white thorne, or hawthorn tree. The latter
two, and the name “May-Bush,” are still common in England. In
Germany hawthorn is now called weifdorn, while in France it is referred
to as l’epine noble (the noble thorn) because it was supposedly used
for Christ’s crown of thorns.
In both the East and West, hawthorn has been used for millenia as both a
food and a medicine. The current use of hawthorn for heart conditions dates
back to the 17th century, according to the French doctor, Leclerc. Green,
an Irish doctor, is known to have used it extensively–though secretly–for
heart ailments. After his death in 1894, his daughter revealed the famous
cure to be a tincture of the ripe berries of Crataegus oxycanthus.
In Europe, both homeopathic and allopathic doctors used the herb for various
heart and cardiovascular ailments from the late 19th through the early 20th
centuries–and with great clinical success. Hawthorn had entered American
clinical practice by 1896–only to fade from use in the 1930s.
Over the centuries legends about hawthorn have abounded in England and Europe.
The poets, too, have sung its praises, as in Chaucer’s phrase:
Marke the faire blooming of the Hawthorne tree
Who finely cloathed in a robe of white,
Fills full the wanton eye with May’s delight.
Goldsmith, in his “Deserted Village,” penned these well-known
The Hawthorn-bush with seats beneath the shade,
For talking age and whispering lovers made.
Assmann, a German homeopathic doctor from the late 1800s, said the following
regarding hawthorn’s use as a cardiac medicine:
Crataegus is no panacea, but for the handling of chronic illness, it
is much more suitable than digitalis [foxglove] and strophanthus,
because it has no unpleasant side-effects and no cumulative effects. Its
success can be achieved if the tincture of the fresh ripe fruit in a suitable
dose (3X daily 10-20 drops after meals) is prescribed.
Today, hawthorn is an official drug in the Pharmacopoeias of Brazil,
China, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Hungary, Russia, and Switzerland.
As a measure of its lasting popularity, it is an ingredient of 213 commercial
European herbal formulas, which are mostly for the treatment of heart and
I have a special affection for this herb, because it helped my father strengthen
his heart and significantly increase the quality of his circulation. Twenty-six
years ago he had a heart attack and has since been taking hawthorn in extract
form for over 15 years with excellent results.
The extract of hawthorn can increase blood flow to the heart muscle itself,
helping to counteract one of the most common modern causes of death in industrial
countries–heart attack due to lack of blood flow to the heart. In pharmacological
tests on both animals and humans, hawthorn has been shown to improve the
contractility of the heart muscle (which can lead to a stronger pumping
action of the heart), increase cardiac performance and output, lower the
peripheral vascular resistance (reducing the workload of the heart), steady
the heartbeat (antiarrhythmic effect), as well as increasing the heart’s
tolerance to oxygen deficiency, such as might happen during stress or excitement,
or in diseases where the arteries are partially blocked.
In Europe, thousands of doctors prescribe hawthorn to prevent cardiovascular
disease or to help alleviate symptoms of mild to moderate problems. It is
considered so safe that it is sometimes prescribed concurrently with heart
medications such as digitalis. Hawthorn is also considered a mildly calming
herb for the nervous system–an appropriate bonus considering that stress
and nervousness often accompany cardiovascular problems.
In my own experience, it is the first herb, besides garlic, that should
be added to one’s daily dietary regimen when there is any suspicion of problems
of cardiovascular disease. If one has a family member who has heart or vascular
problems, or for people eating a diet that includes moderate to high levels
of fat (especially from dairy products or red meat), or who are stressed
or using stimulants (such as coffee), hawthorn is an excellent protector.
Initially, hawthorn berries were the only part of the plant used in making
extracts but eventually the flowers and leaves were added, as they were
shown to have significant concentrations of the active flavonoids as well.
The extract can be taken long-term, is very safe, and will not interfere
with any medications, according to the official European Community monograph
(ESCOP) on hawthorn. The daily dose is 2-4 dropperfuls of the tincture,
or 1-2 tablets of the standardized extract, morning and evening.
Table 1. Changes in Cardiovascular Functions with Crataegus Extracts
Parameter Change Possible Significance
Arterial blood decrease may be useful for treating high pressure blood pressure
Heart stroke volume increase increases heart’s ability to circulate blood
Contractility of increase may strenghten heart’s ability the heart muscle
to pump blood (pos. inotropic)
Coronary blood flow increase extra blood to heart may offset insufficient
blood flow due to vascular disease, speed recovery from heart damage, and
be useful for angina
Rate of heartbeat decrease may be useful for increased (neg. chronotropic)
heart rate due to stress, etc.; also, slower heartbeat lessens heart’s workload
Peripheral blood flow increase may help reduce high blood pressure
Since the late 19th century, hawthorn has been used successfully for various
diseases of the cardiovascular system, inluding angina pectoris, functional
heart disease, arhythmia, early manifestations of circulatory insufficiency
of advanced age, and as a heart tonic to regulate circulation.
One of hawthorn’s primary applications is to support the effect of digitalis
and to serve as a substitute where digitalis cannot be tolerated or where
side effects need to be avoided (Madaus).
One view of the scope of hawthorn’s application is represented by this excerpt
from a recent German monograph drafted by Commission E:
- reduction in heart function (NYHA stages I or II)
- uneasiness and oppressed feeling of the heart
- not yet digitalized heart (not taking digoxin)
- light forms of bradycardic arrythmia
Hawthorn works slowly, like all herbal tonics. It should be taken for at
least 3 months, up to several years or longer, if needed. It is safe to
use concurrently with allopathic drugs such as digitoxin and may even allow
a person to reduce the dose of this commonly prescribed, but highly toxic
With long-term use, hawthorn can safely help to strengthen and nourish the
heart. Here is a summary of the important clinical effects of hawthorn:
1. It dilates the arteries that supply the heart muscle itself with blood,
oxygen, and fuel, providing a better supply of these essential nutrients.
This results, with continued use, in a stronger, more efficient heart beat.
2. It acts as a powerful free-radical scavenger, protecting the heart against
the harmful effects of lessened oxygen–a common result of vascular disease,
such as atherosclerosis.
3. It can help steady the heartbeat, if it is irregular, and does not lead
4. It has mild sedative activity, which may be useful where mild heart disease
is combined with nervousness, hypochondria, etc., in which case it can be
combined with lavender or lemon balm.
In this modern age with its times of stress and anxiety, it is reassuring
that nature has provided such a gentle yet effective cardiovascular protector