Hawthorn berries: identify, harvest, and make an extract

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Hawthorn Berries: Identify, Harvest, and Make and Extract

Hawthorn Berries: Identify, Harvest, and Make and Extract

Hawthorn berry harvesting is a new one for me this year. They are sweet and mild if you get them at just the right time, and in past years I was tasting them too early in fall. This year, Washington hawthorn was sweet and mild in late October. But by that time, single-seeded hawthorn was beginning to rot, so next year I’ll look for those in mid-October.

I owe some credit to Josh Fecteau’s recent hawthorn post, which inspired me to try hawthorn berries again. As Josh points out, there are many hawthorn species, perhaps 50 in New England. And, in all of North America, possibly a thousand species, according to George Symonds (from his wonderful book Tree Identification Book : A New Method for the Practical Identification and Recognition of Trees, my favorite guide for learning tree ID). Fortunately, you don’t need to be able to identify particular species. You just need to know it’s a hawthorn, because all hawthorns have edible berries.  HOWEVER, like apple seeds, hawthorn seeds contain cyanide, and should not be eaten. Don’t panic; just spit out the seeds.

Why bother with hawthorns? They are beautiful, interesting, and tasty wild edibles with known health benefits. Some people use the berries to make hawthorn jelly, but I have yet to try this. Berries, leaves and flowers can be used to make a tea. Scroll down to the bottom of the page to see how I am making hawthorn berry extract.

I’m going to describe two species here, to exemplify the general characteristics. That should help you recognize a hawthorn when you see one, but if you are uncertain that you have a hawthorn when foraging, please check with additional sources until you ARE certain, before eating the berries.

Washington Hawthorn, Crataegus phaenopyrum

Washington hawthorn (Crataegus phaenopyrum): berries, leaves, and thorns

Washington hawthorn (Crataegus phaenopyrum): berries, leaves, thorns in early November. Coin for scale.

This grows as a small tree or large shrub, and bears clusters of white flowers  in late spring. The berries turn red in September (here), but sweeten later. By October 31st, they were sweet, and maybe slightly past peak. Each berry has 3-5 seeds.

Hawthorn Berries: Identify, Harvest, and Make and Extract. Photo shows flowers of Washington hawthorn.

Hawthorn Berries: Identify, Harvest, and Make and Extract. Photo shows flowers of Washington hawthorn.

Washington Hawthorn: Identify, Harvest, and Make and Extract. Photo shows thorns of Washington Hawthorn.

Washington Hawthorn: Identify, Harvest, and Make and Extract. Photo shows thorns of Washington Hawthorn.

The leaves are lobed and toothed, as you can see in my photo above. Many other hawthorn species have similar leaves. The tree is heavily armed with long thorns, up to about 3 inches in length. However, with reasonable caution, you can easily harvest the berries, which tend to hang away from branch. It’s even easier later in the season after many of the leaves have fallen and no longer obscure the thorns.

Single-seeded hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna

Single-seeded hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) berries, leaves, and thorns

Single-seeded hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) berries, leaves, and thorns

Also called common hawthorn, this is a European native which has escaped cultivation and naturalized in North America. It is sometimes branded as an invasive plant, but I don’t find it very often, and when I do see it, there isn’t a lot of it in one area. Perhaps it is invasive in other parts of the country, but it does not seem to be particularly aggressive here. Like Washington hawthorn, single-seeded hawthorn grows as a shrub or small tree, and bears clusters of white blooms in late spring. The oval red berries ripen a little earlier (than Washington hawthorn) in fall and contain a single seed (hence the name). The toothed leaves are more deeply lobed than those of Washington hawthorn, but the thorns are much smaller, only about 1/2 inch to an inch in length.

Compare leaves, berries, and seeds of Washington hawthorn (left) and single-seeded hawthorn (right)

Compare leaves, berries, and seeds of Washington hawthorn (left) and single-seeded hawthorn (right)

Summary of hawthorn characteristics

Washington hawthorn loaded with berries

Washington hawthorn loaded with berries

  • Grows as small tree or shrub
  • Smallish, toothed leaves which are lobed to varying degrees
  • Thorns which vary in size, depending on species
  • Clusters of flowers  (usually white, but some species have pink or red) in spring
  • Clusters of edible red berries in fall
  • Berries contain one or more seeds which should not be consumed due to cyanide content
  • Fruits most prolifically in sunny spots

Where to find hawthorn berries

Hawthorns are common in the forest understory here in Massachusetts, but those are scrawny specimens which do not fruit well. It’s too shady in the forest. To find fruit laden hawthorns, look in sunny spots, such as shrubby fields and thickets, at pasture edges, and along streams. They are often planted as ornamentals, so if your friend has one and doesn’t mind you picking some berries, you have an easy foraging experience at your fingertips.

Make hawthorn berry extract

This is my first experience using hawthorn berries, and I am using them to make an extract, with the same process you would use to make vanilla extract. I hope to use hawthorn extract as a flavoring in cooking and baking. I filled a clean canning jar about 3/4 full with berries, covered them with 80 proof vodka, and capped the jar. I am not sure how long it will take to extract enough flavor from the berries, so I will be checking it daily. I know that other extracts, (such as vanilla extract) take weeks, so that’s what I’m expecting here.

Hawthorn berry extract in progress: After just 24 hours in 80 proof vodka, berries faded to yellow.

Extract in progress: Hawthorn berries in vodka. After just 24 hours, berries faded to yellow.

Sources consulted for species identification:
These are the authoritative sources for plant identification in the US.

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Comments

Hawthorn berries: identify, harvest, and make an extract — 34 Comments

  1. I wonder if we have them around here ( Western PA ) This was very interesting! :) I ‘ll have to Google and see if we do but if we do they must be uncommon / while I have heard of them, I have not really heard of anyone doing anything with them locally…but learn something new every day ! :)
    Thanks for your comment on my Hawk post..I’d not have known if it was an adult or juvenile without your comment : ) They fly around ( I see them coasting in the skies and hear them often ) but it’s the first close-up visit that I have had.

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Deb! – the first comment on any post is always exciting – like opening a Christmas present, LOL!

    Bet you do have hawthorns out there. They’re very common, and once you learn to recognize them, you’ll be amazed how often you see them.

  3. Hello, I found you on the Natural Living Link-up. I LOVE hawthorn! I have been sneaking hawthorn into my dad’s teas and foods (with my mom’s help) for a few years now because he has heart issues. Thanks for the information and the beautiful pictures! I loved how you used a quarter to show the size of the berries! That was genius. :)

  4. Thank you so much. We have hawthorns here and I love using wild plants for jellies and extracts. This was extremely informative. I can’t wait to try these ideas next year.

  5. I have tentatively identified a tree on our property as hawthorn, although I want to confirm before I consume any of the berries. It’s BEAUTIFUL this time of year with so many red berries on this one tree it almost looks like a red tree from a distance! Thank you so much for sharing this post (visiting from FarmGirl Friday hop)

    ~Taylor-Made Ranch~
    Wolfe City, Texas

  6. Learned from a naturopath treating my wheezy 4yr old that hawthorne extract taken as a tincture in 1/4 tsp doses every 10-15 minutes until symptoms subside will open the airway. It can ward off asthma attacks if taken at first signs. Also, my 9 year old has been suffering from a terrible bronchial cough after flu for the past several days that has made sleep difficult. Remembering hawthorne and wheezing success, I decided to try it. 2 doses later, she is sleeping soundly and not coughing. There are no side effects, except that is is a mild sedative (along the lines of chamomile) which is a plus for us. Online, there is no information on its benefits for breathing support, but I am convinced. Thanks to Dr. Pais, Whom I have learned this from years ago….We will attempt making our own extract this summer as bushes flower and fruit. Until then, I have some liquid available from Emerson Ecologicals. Only place I found it in liquid form.

  7. Here in Oregon, I find (common) hawthorn extremely invasive. Have spent the last decade trying to eradicate it from my property. The thorns are extremely painful, and seem to leave something behind, even when you pull them out of your skin, leaving a painful “ache” in your muscles that last for a long time. I routinely curse the person that introduced them to my area. After reading your article, will have to try making an extract similar to your method. Are there other methods of use, such a fruit leathers, dried powders, jellies that prove useful. How do you use your extract after it is made, (a few teaspoons in a night time chamomile tea?)

    • Hi John, yes! there are other ways to use hawthorn berries! If you haven’t already, try googling recipes for hawthorn berry jelly and fruit leather, and you won’t come up empty handed. The extract has a pleasant flavor and I add to cookies and quick breads. It is mild though, and you need to let the berries sit in the alcohol for several months.

      Very interesting that common hawthorn is highly invasive in Oregon. It is not very aggressive here, but I do recall reading that it is invasive in some areas. I hope you’re able to make some good use of this plant. If you do used the berries, you will at least reduce the spread of the plant. Good luck!

      • Interesting. I’m in Portland, OR, and just harvested a gallon of common Hawthorn berries from Mount Tabor. (single large seed, short thorns = common Hawthorn) There are over a dozen in one area, so it makes sense that they might be invasive. I didn’t find the thorns to be bothersome, though. I did get lightly pricked a few times but the bark was worse than it’s bite! Much more painful was the prick from the invasive blackberry growing in the same area.
        The berries I harvested today were dry and bland. Not sweet, not tart, very little flavor (though a hint of apple).
        My current plan is to let the berries sit in bourbon and fish out a spoonful a day for medicinal use, chew them whole, then spit out the seeds. Seems easier than making jelly. And at the end, I’ll have a tincture, but I don’t expect any flavor from these berries, hence bourbon instead of vodka.
        Thanks for the great info and ideas!

  8. Hawthorn is primarily known as a cardiac tonic. It can help heal the damage done to the heart after a heart attack, strengthens arteries, and helps lower elevated BP. However, for those benefits, you would need to make your tincture a bit differently, as you’d be looking to extract the chemical constituents. Using fresh berries, you’d want to use something more like grain (not iso) alcohol, like Everclear. The alcohol extracts not only the alcohol soluble constituents, but it also draws water out of the berries, taking the water soluble constituents with it as well. 80 proof vodka has too high of a water content to do that as effectively. Another option would be to dry the berries, and then use the vodka to extract.

    • Yes I know some people use it as a cardiac tonic, but that was not my intention here. I use it for flavoring. I personally would not use hawthorn as a “cardiac tonic” and would not recommend it as such. It hasn’t been adequately studied enough for those purposes, imo, and dosing a homemade concoction is pure guess work.

      • I understand that wasn’t your intent. I do appreciate your interest as only a flavoring. However, as a practicing herbalist, I have to point out that you’re incorrect about there not being adequate studies or about dosing being guesswork. It’s been written about and its efficacy documented extensively in very biomedically-oriented texts such as Principals and Practice of Phytotherapy, Medical Herbalism, and others in that genre which are geared to more clinical practices, not to mention additional studies published on PubMed.gov.

        • That’s great news. If you have references for definitive double blind, placebo controlled studies, please share. The only ones I could find are encouraging but preliminary, but you may well know of studies I haven’t seen.

            • I meant for the specific journal articles. I read many; they were mostly promising, but not definitive. A thorough 2013 review of the many hawthorn studies summed up the issue:

              “So, further systematic in vivo and in vitro researches are warranted to explore and verify the potential effect to provide precise guidance for clinical use and new drug discovery. Besides, with the studies published, the strength of the evidence, however, was often limited by lack of controls or placebos, nonrandomization, non-blinded design, or small numbers of patients. It is imperative to conduct multicentered, large-sized samples and randomized and arid controlled trials to reasonably evaluate the efficacy and safety of Chinese herb and formulas for CVDs. In addition, there are so many active ingredients in Crataegus, so that large quantity of active ingredients should be identified, extracted, and purified from the herb. What is more, some active ingredients are chemically unstable, which have limited the large-scale synthesis. All these pressing issues should be resolved in future researches.”
              From: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3891531/

              • That’s one study. There are others. There are many in the texts I’ve mentioned. If you’re actually interested, you can look into it for yourself. I thought it would be helpful to comment regarding the method and how to get the most out of the plant. That doesn’t seem to be what you’re about, which is my error. I’m very sorry to have bothered you, and won’t be back to trouble you again.

                • No trouble at all!! I am very interested in ethnobotany and chemistry! I am sorry if I seemed curt, but I have a lot of other things going on here today and might have typed too quickly. I really did appreciate your input.

                  That said, I don’t support recommending anything for medicine that has not yet withstood the test of rigorous study published in peer reviewed journals – the same standards used for any other potential medication. If it meets those standards, I am all for it. As well as I can determine, though, hawthorn still needs further study.

                  The article I quoted was not just one study – It is an extensive review of 116 studies on hawthorn. It is from a journal called Evidenced-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. People who publish there are very much interested in herbal treatments, as long as they are adequately studied. If you read the article, I think you will see that the authors believe hawthorns may well be useful clinically, but they don’t think it has been sufficiently studied. From what I have read thus far, I agree.

                  Anyway, thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

      • Not so evident. I use a hawthorn tincture made by myself in Spring following the indications of the french codex, to treat a permanent Afib. And it helps very much. In fact, historocally, the cardiotonic properties of hawthorn have been studied by two american practitioners at the end of the nineteen century, and in France, by Dr. henri Leclerc at the beginning of the twentieth century. Now, since, in France, it is not easy to find the right product -due to the “norms”-, I made it by myself.

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  10. Follow your blog and facebook pages extensively! This year we went to a fair in Washougal (Washington State) and found there were several hawthorn trees in the park. I wasn’t sure, cause they are HUGE trees, easily rivaling nearby apple and oak trees, are thorn-less, and the leaves are lobed, but smooth like white oak leaves, not serrated really. Asked around to several more knowledgeable herbalists and plant/tree people in our area, and they all agreed that yes, they are hawthorn trees for sure – the single berry types. Can send you pics, if you’d like to add them to your collection of tree ID pics. :) I was so leery about them, cause yeah, the trees are so tall and not a thorn anywhere on them! But the berry clumps are gorgeous on them! So interesting how many varieties of hawthorns there are!

    • It is really interesting, Lise. I think I misidentified hawthorns plenty often when I was learning tree and shrub ID, if they did not have berries when I saw them. Sure, if you’d like to send photos, it would be interesting to try to ID the exact species. You can send them to my email address on the Contact page. Thanks!

  11. I live in Arkansas.Does hawthorn have a different leave in some palaces? Every thing fits exsept leaves!they aren’t toothed. Shines an waxy an pointed.
    I wish could send you pic.

  12. Hi Janet, do you by any chance, sell hawthorn plants? I’m here in Tx. and very new to sustainable living. Please get back to me. Thanks and God bless you!

    • Hi Norma, no I don’t sell hawthorn plants, and since I live in MA, plants I have here would probably not do well in TX. You should find out which hawthorns are native to TX (I know there is at least one species), then determine which of those species would likely do well in your particular area. TX has lots of different habitats, so just knowing “native to TX” probably won’t be enough. Good luck!

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