In Praise of Haws
The hedgerows (that haven’t been savagely shorn) are laden with red berries. The haws of the hawthorn are far more useful than you might realise.
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I have a particular soft spot for the hawthorn tree. When asked to name native British trees people usually mention oak, birch, Scots pine, beech and rowan but often forget hawthorn. Perhaps because it is not often allowed to grow into a huge tree but is more commonly put to work in hedges. Much of the glory of the hawthorn is missed nowadays, due to the practice of using mechanical hedge-cutters that flail and rip the branches into neat boxes. Like many in the Rose family, it flowers on the previous year’s growth So when it is pruned so severely it fails to flower in the spring except in the parts - such as the gaps in the hedge - that the machine has missed. The flowers, traditionally called the may - as they flower in the month of May - look amazing when you do see them. Absolutely masses of white flowers. What a sight the hedgerows must have been 100 years ago as every roadside was edged in a thick, froth of almond-scented delight. No wonder May was the traditional month for weddings and brides wore white lace like the hedgerows. Interestingly, up until the change of calendar - from Julian to Gregorian in 1751 - the 1st of May was actually the present 12th of May by which time the hawthorn would be blooming.
Of course you need flowers to produce fruit, and right now the hawthorn hedges that have escaped the annual cut, are laden with red berries called haws - leading to lots of euphemisms and puns! Both the flowers, the leaves and the berries have several uses - both edible and medicinal.
In the Spring the leaves are soft and tender and can be nibbled straight from the bushes or added to salads. Once called ‘bread and cheese’ although tasting nothing like it, I imagine the name came from the tradition of adding the leaves to sandwiches in the same way that people add lettuce nowadays. Certainly, the farm workers who planted thousands of miles of hedges in 18th and 19th century Britain can scarcely have failed to notice their taste. The edible flowers can be used to decorate Spring salads and made a delicious almond-flavoured essence when steeped in brandy.
Hawthorn has a long-tradition (since at least the Middle Ages) as a herb used by herbalists to normalise high and low blood pressure, stabilise an irregular heart beat (arrhythmia), improve hardening of the arteries, strengthen the heart muscle and arterial walls, and it contributes to lowering high cholesterol. There is a lot of well-documented clinical evidence behind its use.
The haws, picked when red-ripe in the autumn and winter, are not tasty raw. There is little flesh on most species and it tastes dry and mealy. The flavour of the haws is in their skin so it is best in teas, sauces, ketchups and spirits. In Chinese herbal medicine haws are known as Shan Zha which is mainly used to stimulate digestion and improve gut transit time of people who cannot digest meat and fats very well leading to bloating, feeling overly-full and with epigastric or abdominal pain. This is probably why haw sauces and ketchup were historically served with food over the winter when our diets become heavier. Relieving the overly-full feeling is also why it is often used in people with anorexia. Shan Zha is also used to promote the circulation of Blood (often added to hair growth tonics) and Qi. It will also positively affect the blood circulation but it less used for this purpose than the leaves and flowers.
One way of taking hawthorn is as a tincture. A tincture is basically the herb macerated (soaked) in alcohol for 4 weeks to form a tincture (vodka will do). A 4ml teaspoon would be taken 3 times a day. A tea made with the leaves or berries is also a healthy way to keep your blood pressure low, especially if combined with lime flowers. (If your blood pressure is very high and you are on medication you shouldn't just stop taking it. Hawthorn takes 12 weeks to fully work. However, with the support of a medical herbalist you may be able lessen your dependence on drugs.)
All species of hawthorn can be used. Hedging hawthorn is most commonly Crataegus monogyna. The midland hawthorn tree Crataegus laevigata tends to have pink flowers. These are our 2 native hawthorns but there are over 100 world-wide and many non-natives have escaped from gardens, often noted by larger fruits or leaves.
Hawthorn gin is much nicer than sloe gin. It is not as sweet and syrupy, in fact it tastes more like a fortified wine such as dry sherry, than it does a liqueur. It is worth maturing. Hawthorn gin made now will be perfect next Christmas. If you don't think you can wait that long, then make double the quantity - some to be drunk young this year, and some to mature for the next. Make lots anyway as it is very moreish! Hawthorn gin is also a form of tincture. And a very, small nip taken regularly, as in old country days, may help to keep the heart and circulation healthy and improve digestion after a heavy meal.
How to Make Hawthorn Gin
Sort, top and tail the berries. This is quite time consuming and not the end of the world if you don't - however it will result in sediment that is hard to strain out later and will impair the clarity of your gin. Pack the berries into a preserving jar, sprinkling a little sugar between layers. Once you have reached the top of the jar (leaving a little space to allow for shaking), fill with cheap gin (supermarket own brand will do). Seal and put in a cupboard. Every few days or so give the jar a shake.
After 4 weeks the berries will have lost their colour and the gin turned a shade of rosé. (If you leave it longer before straining, the flavour will intensify. However, you are more likely to get a sludgy sediment occurring. If you have bright plump berries you could leave the gin to macerate for several months, but if the berries are hard and discoloured a month is sufficient.) Once strained, filter off into bottles and mature for a further three months at least. Enjoy in moderation!
How to Make Hawthorn Brandy
Follow the process above but substitute brown sugar for white sugar, and brandy for gin.
Chilli Haw Ketchup
This is one helluva ketchup meets brown sauce baby. There is nothing like Chilli Haw Ketchup to put some fire in the belly this winter. It's got an amazing taste, sweet and sour, peppery, tangy, umami. I remember Chinese haw flakes from when I was a child. This is that taste but with a grown up kick. Use as a condiment, marinade or just with cheese.
750 grams haws (no stalks)
500 ml vinegar (homemade or apple cider)
250 grams dark brown sugar
2 red chilli peppers
Black pepper to taste
Simmer the haws and the chilli peppers in the water and vinegar until the flesh is really soft. Strain the mixture through a wire sieve. Push the berries around the sieve with the back of a spoon, trying to get as much of the pulp as possible through the sieve. (An ideal job to delegate!)
Return to the pan and add the sugar and black pepper. Bring to the boil and simmer until the sauce is thick. Pour into sterilised glass jars or bottles with a reasonably wide neck. Keep in a dark cupboard - the flavour just keeps on improving with age.
So do enjoy experimenting with haws this winter. And best of all, look after the hedges. Plant more trees in the gaps. Appeal to your local council or farmer about the over-pruning. We need the wildlife that the hedges and their berries support and less pruning is such an easy way to support birds and small mammals. PlantLife often runs a campaign to protect our hedgerows so get involved. Finally, as you change to your winter diet - happy digestion, and when you get to next Spring, ne’er cast a clout till May is out (keep your coat on until you see the may flowers!).
Some references for Hawthorn’s action in humans.
Asgary, S., Naderi, G. H., Sadeghi, M., Kelishadi, R., & Amiri, M. (2004). Antihypertensive effect of Iranian Crataegus curvisepala Lind.: a randomized, double-blind study. Drugs under experimental and clinical research, 30(5-6).
Cloud, A. M. E., Vilcins, D., & McEwen, B. J. (2019). The effect of hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) on blood pressure: A systematic review. Advances in Integrative Medicine.
Negi, P. S., Singh, R., & Dwivedi, S. K. (2018). Evaluation of antihypertensive effect of fruit beverage of Crataegus crenulata Roxb.: a wild shrub of Himalayan hills. Def Life Sci J, 3, 146-150.
Niederseer, D., Ledl-Kurkowski, E., Kvita, K., Funk, P., & Niebauer, J. (2019). safety and effects of Crataegus extract WS 1442 and Nordic walking on lipid profile and endothelial function: a randomized, partially blinded pilot study in overweight volunteers. Acta clinica Croatica, 58(4), 604–614. doi.org/10.20471/acc.2019.58.04.06
Orhan, I. E. (2018). Phytochemical and pharmacological activity profile of Crataegus oxyacantha L.(hawthorn)-A cardiotonic herb. Current medicinal chemistry, 25(37), 4854-4865.
Verma, S. K., Jain, V., Verma, D., & Khamesra, R. (2007). Crataegus oxyacantha-A cardioprotective herb. Journal of Herbal Medicine and Toxicology, 1(1), 65-71.
Wang, J., Xiong, X., & Feng, B. (2013). Effect of crataegus usage in cardiovascular disease prevention: an evidence-based approach. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2013.