Beneath the Hawthorn Tree: Magic & Medicine


Five years ago on the Autumn Equinox, I had just met my now-husband a few weeks before. Of course everything felt new and exciting. I was constantly distracted and completely smitten and we were spending every free moment together. While he knew I was all about the plants, seasonal cycles, and Earth magic, I was also a bit self-conscious about my private rituals around the seasons, so when he asked what I wanted to do the night of the equinox I replied with something like, "I dunno what do you want to do?" He looked into my eyes and said, "What would you be doing if I wasn't here?"

I thought about it and with a bit of trepidation replied, "I'd be gathering Hawthorn berries from my favorite tree under the moon with my favorite basket, then going home to process them and listening to my fall Celtic playlist while sipping my favorite fall tea steeped with these berries."

He said, "Oh! Can I come?"

And he did. We had a magical night under a waning Gemini moon.

And while we don't do this on *every* Autumn Equinox, we always remember that's what we did on our first equinox together. We talk about how Hawthorn brought us together that night and I think to myself about how Hawthorn helped me heal, soften, and open my own heart to invite someone else in.

On a side note, later when I looked up the energetics of the Moon in Gemini, I read about how it manifests itself by the need for changes and spontaneity. True security lies in thinking about your feelings and sharing them with others.

Hawthorn is known for its associations with magic, witches, and the fae. As herbalist Darcey Blue writes, Hawthorn’s “rank smelling flowers and thorns and association with spirit worlds make Hawthorn a tree of ‘death’ and transformation, and also of protection and caution.”  Death here, to me, doesn’t mean literal death, but rather a completion, a releasing, letting go of that which no longer serves us. The archetypal theme of the life, death, rebirth cycle which is so timely as we slip ever-deeper into the season of the Crone, the season of completion.

Emotionally and energetically, Hawthorn - traditionally viewed as a heart tonic - reminds us to be patient with ourselves, slow down, and give our heart space to breathe, be still, and speak. It provides sacred boundaries and a soft space to rest in times of heartbreak, grief, or when your energetic heart needs a rest. Hawthorn opens and heals the heart, and I tend favor it in energy medicine any time I’m working with grief, heartache, a sense of guarding, as well as anxiety and depression centered around the heart. I find, for me, it weaves particularly potent medicine with Rose and Motherwort when working with the energetic heart.

The main actions of Hawthorn are tonic, astringent, diuretic, and trophorestorative (meaning it is nourishing to a particular organ or organ system). It has an affinity for the heart, cardiovascular system, and the GI tract. Its sour taste indicates its energetics of cooling and tonifying (as in, it tightens lax tissues).

Medicinally, Hawthorn berry, leaf, and flower are used for modulating high blood pressure, irregular heart rate, and even anxiety. Research has shown Hawthorn can actually increase the strength of cardiac muscular contractions to increase blood flow. I also like combining it for certain cases with Mugwort because of the uterus/heart blood connection. I find that the combination works nicely to stimulate movement, warm the womb, and nourish the blood.

In TCM, Hawthorn is used to aid digestion because of its ability to cool hot inflamed tissues and tonify lax, leaky, and damp conditions in the digestive tract.

Hawthorn’s biochemistry is truly brilliant. Rich in bioflavonoids, antioxidants, and procyanidins, Hawthorn leaf, flower, and berry are considered supreme heart tonics. They nourish and strengthen the heart, dilating the arteries and veins, enabling blood to flow more freely, and releasing cardiovascular constrictions. Hawthorn promotes circulation and regulates blood pressure while helping maintain healthy cholesterol levels.

Not only that, Hawthorn helps stabilize collagen and helps repair ligaments, tendons, and muscles. Coupled with its tonifying and cooling energetics, Hawthorn's biochemistry and herbal actions make it a beautiful remedy to support healthy skin topically and internally.

It is important to note that while Hawthorn is a brilliant remedy for both Pitta and Kapha constitutions in Ayurvedic terms, if you identify more with the Vata constitution, it can be too cooling and drying on its own and can overtighten tissues due to its tonic energetics.

Around here Hawthorn’s gnarly branches are often laden with thick green moss or lichen. The berries are easily picked this time of year when they become deep red, but be careful! The thick branches are covered with thorns - Hawthorn is from the rose family after all. These thorns are part of hawthorn’s folklore and were even used as protective charms against malevolent spirits and medieval elves that folks believed caused all sorts of illnesses, discomforts, and even death.

Queen of the May or The Faery Tree, wild and enchanted, woven throughout with powerful fairy magic from its slender thorns to its deepest roots. Long ago, this dense shrub, known simply as “May”, with its gnarled and twisted branches, was used to enclose fields to keep the “commoners” from grazing their animals on any particular pieces of land. After all, what better than the common but thorny and impenetrable Hawthorn?

In the old days it was said that folks would know it was safe to put away your “winter woolies” once you saw the flowers of the May Tree. Much of the folklore attached to it seems to come from the fact that the tree is covered in long branches of white blossoms around the time of Beltane which is the other "thin" time aside from Samhain and directly opposite on the Wheel of the Year.

May was the month of courtship after the winter's cold, so the hawthorn tree is often found in folklore linked with love-making. Of course its magical connection with the heart might also have something to do with its association with love and courtship. And then of course there is its very distinctive smell which some people refer to as the smell of sex and death. Two sides of the same coin, one might say.

They say a lone hawthorn tree growing on a hill is a portal to the world of the fae, and tales of kidnapping  and re-emergence of mortals after a statutory seven years abound. Legends claim to damage or cut down a Hawthorn tree will anger the faery folk and result in bad luck befalling whoever does the damage. Perhaps this is at the root of why many of the accounts I’ve read have said not to bring branches of the May tree inside your home as it might invite mischievous or even evil actions against you as retribution.

Hawthorn, the tree of sex, death, and rebirth, invites us to to ask ourselves:

  • What are we ready to let die? What are we ready to let go of? Expectations, projections, shame, “nice”-ness for the sake of likeability.
  • Are you ready to release being acceptable to everyone in favor of being truly and deeply seen, heard, and known?
  • Are you ready to let go of the clothes that don’t feel like yours? The earring missing its match? The socks with holes?
  • What do you need to release in order to feel truly refreshed when the year begins again at Samhain (in the old calendar)?

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