Archive for the ‘Hawthorn’ Category

The May, Whitethorn, Quickthorn, all are country names for this most remarkable of trees that blooms so prolifically throughout much of the month. I believe I have written about hawthorn more than any other plant, yet every season and every year affords me fresh insights into her great worth.

The blossoming of the May is one of the highlights of my herbal year. Though many dislike the smell, which is deep, musky and often compared to rotting meat  (I don’t see the resemblance myself!) I find it nothing short of delightful – earthy, sensual and rich.  It ties me to a sense of time and place and fills the countryside with wonder for the few short weeks it is in flower.

If you live in this corner of the world, the South of England, now is the time to harvest hawthorn flowering tops for teas, tinctures, elixirs and anything else you fancy. It is usual to pick a little bunch of the blossom, either just before or just after opening, with the first few leaves attached, as both blossom and leaf have important medicinal constituents. The photo below shows the amount that I usually pick for drying or tincture making.

Do remember when harvesting not to over pick from a single tree and to just take a little from each one as the blossoms will become berries in the autumn which are an important source of food for the birds and other creatures, as well as being food and medicine for us. Hawthorns are pollinated by a variety of insects including solitary bees and, due to dwindling insect populations, there are said to have been declining numbers of berries in recent years. They are still abundant in most parts and we humans, without the benefit of flight, tend to pick from lower branches whilst the birds feast on higher ones but it’s always good to bear in mind how many other creatures rely on exactly the same species that are so beneficial for us.

Hawthorn flowers are often acknowledged for their benefit in treating heart conditions and are typically included in preparations alongside the berries for a range of cadiovascular and circulatory disorders ranging from angina to chilblains. This is in part due to their antioxidant content found in the form of phenolic compounds which are actually even higher in the leaves and blossoms than they are in the berries. We tend to think of antioxidants occurring mainly in highly coloured foods like berries but you can see that the colour of the tea made from the flowering tops is also rich and deeply hued after being left to infuse for fifteen minutes or so.

Though truly enjoyable when drunk as a simple, hawthorn blossom also combines with a variety of other herbs to make any number of delicious teas. Here are some of my favourites:

Spicy – Combine 2-3 flowering tops with a couple of slices of ginger and an inch of cinnamon stick to wake the circulation and protect the heart.

Floral – Hawthorn blossom is both deeply calming and nurturing when combined with rose petals and linden blossom in a beautifully heart opening brew.

Seasonally Sleepy – A few cowslips flowers along with hawthorn blossom make a great bedtime tea as mentioned in my last post.

Sensual – Hawthorn tops, rose petals and half a vanilla bean thinly sliced make for a sweet, earthy and fragrant tea.

Despite being placed firmly in the category of a ‘heart herb’ in Western herbal medicine, hawthorn has a multifaceted personality, just like so many of our herbal allies. I consider the blossoms in particular to be a primary nervine tonic as they are deeply relaxing and calming to states of anxiety and over stimulation. I like to use them alongside other nervine herbs, like avena, for people who are sensitive to everything; loud noises, strong colours, smells and sensations and need to be calmed and comforted. In 19th century France an infusion of the blossoms was used to treat insomnia and herbalist Maurice Messegue writes “I myself make use of the hawthorn for nervous spasms, arteriosclerosis, angina and obesity and it is one of my favourite tranquiliser herbs.” It therefore makes an exceptional choice in problems where the circulatory and nervous systems are both affected such as nervous palpitations, restlessness and arrhythmia.

The powerful combination of antioxidants makes hawthorn blossoms and berries good food for the immune system as well and modern research suggests they have an inhibitory effect on the breakdown of collagen, therefore aiding healing and having an all round rejuvenating effect. Hawthorn is a very safe medicine that is tolerated by almost everyone though it is of course wise to consult with a herbalist before taking it alongside medications. It has been traditionally eaten as food, the young leaves in spring salads and the berries in jams and preserves later in the year so it can be incorporated in our lives in any way that suits us best.

The blossoming of Hawthorn has long been associated with reawakening life; with spring, with fertility and with love and it leaves you with a kind of lightness of spirit that dusts away the very last of the wintery drear. These two holly blue butterflies flew along the hedgerow beside me for a time, flirting in and out of the branches and rejoicing in the return of the sunshine. And I rejoiced along with them, for the return of this most cherished of herbal medicines and dearest of friends.

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Firstly, apologies for not having posted the final cream recipe yet, I ran out of time before Christmas and have been having a little holiday from the computer so it will be with you in the New Year instead.

However as 2011 draws to a close, I would like to take a few moments to look back over the Hawthorn trees which I have been observing throughout the year as part of The Tree Year project. Inspired by the UN’s announcement that 2011 would be the International Year of Forests it encouraged people to pick a tree to observe closely for one year and record some of their findings in whatever way seemed appropriate to them.

I followed these trees which sit atop the Sussex Downs from Winter to Summer and back again, observing not only their individual transformations, but the way they have been shaped by their landscape and by the myriad influences of humans and nature.

For many years I have appreciated the Hawthorn as a fantastic source of medicine and food, not just for humans but for wildlife as well. This project gave me the opportunity to learn more about some of its other facets however and the more I learnt, the more I appreciated its story as that of a true survivor. It thrives in many environments, from cities and gardens to woodland edges, hedgerows and open grassland and it flourishes where other trees could not. The Downs themselves would once have been covered in woodland in all but the most exposed sites but centuries of animal grazing have ensured the trees have not returned. Only the hardiest survive atop these windswept and rain blasted escarpments with their shallow, chalky soil. And they are mainly gorse and hawthorn.

Sheep grazing the Downs prevent the return of natural woodland in more sheltered spots.

Here in the UK, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw the privatisation of huge amounts of open fields and common land and the removal of  access rights of local people through the Inclosure Acts. This saw the planting of miles of Hawthorn hedging throughout the country as hawthorn grows quickly and densely and has sharp thorns – the perfect way to keep people out. This rapid growth gave rise to one of Hawthorn’s old common names, Quickthorn. I often think that perhaps one of the only good things to come out of such a travesty was the Hawthorn hedges which are now such a distinctive and cherished part of our countryside and support such a wide variety of wildlife.

The hawthorn is home to up to 300 different insects and provides food and shelter for many birds. Blackbirds, greenfinches, yellowhammers, robins and wrens all make use of it along with migrant birds like redwings and fieldfares. They spread seed through their droppings making this a mutually beneficial arrangement. Small mammals like voles and wood mice also eat the fallen berries and seek shelter amongst the dense growth of hawthorn branches.

Whilst I love the hedges, Hawthorns are by far the most beautiful when allowed to grow into their full splendour as small trees. They will grow well in most soil types, though they need some sun, as their root system is not too extensive and doesn’t require large amounts of nutrients. They are often seen standing alone on hilltops, each one a unique individual having been shaped by natural forces. In folk mythology it was thought that these lone Hawthorns were inhabited by faeries and Hawthorn is still considered one of the faery trees to this day.

New leaf buds forming in early spring.

It is used as a rootstock for grafting pears and medlars and the wood was apparently one of those preferred by the Druids for making runes. A fascinating fact (which I am sure you will all find very useful) is that some myths claim hawthorn wood to be the best for staking vampires! I wonder if this refers to the long association with qualities of protection, part of which must come from all the many species it shelters and provides uses for.

Unfurling spring leaves – delicious in salads.

It is a tree that looks beautiful in each of its manifestations throughout the changing seasons. The small buds emerging early in the year give way to tender green leaves which are delicious in salads before they toughen up later in the year.

The blossom has equally fantastic medicinal properties as the berries and the two preparations are often used together by herbalists. You can read my accounts of some of the medicinal benefits of Hawthorn here and here.

Blossom buds.

One of the most beautiful sights of spring.

The blossom can be used to make teas, tinctures, herbal honeys, elixirs, flower remedies or to sprinkle on salads. Some people find the smell offensive but others, including myself, find its sweet headiness quite pleasant.

The oldest Hawthorn in the country is in a village in Norfolk and is thought to be about 700 years old! I would very much like to take a little trip to visit it this coming year. There is said to be one more than twice as old again in France, though apparently this hasn’t been verified.

Summer green glory.

The summer hawthorn is all green fullness and abundance. I often wonder how the leaves stay on in such windy conditions!

After the blossom dies back, small green berries begin to form which ripen into the wonderful red fruits we so associate with late summer and autumn. These can be made into all sorts of delicious syrups and elixirs as well as being used for tinctures and decoctions. You can read about my Hawthorn syrup here.

Early blushing berries.

Autumn harvest for wildlife (including herbalists!)

Hawthorn has a use for every season; food, medicine and wildlife habitat, it also keeps us warm in the winter months as its hard, dense wood burns hot without being too smoky.

The latin name, Crataegus, comes from the Greek word for strong. Whilst this is thought to reflect the qualities of the wood, I suspect it may actually refer to the nature of the tree itself which is resilient, tough, hardy and above all abundant and unfailingly generous.

Like many of the plants we consider weeds and many of our wilier animal friends like crows and foxes, the hawthorn has only survived and flourished in a changing habitat due to its ability to adapt.

I look forward to many more years of knowing, appreciating and working with this remarkable plant.

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The Harvest Moon shone bright and beautiful in the sky at the beginning of the week and it seems there is no denying it any longer, autumn is here.

Autumn signifies many things to many people but for me, aside from its obvious beauty, it represents a time of community and friendship. I normally like to go out harvesting alone and wander in silence amongst the plants and the trees but in autumn there is something so special about gathering together with a friend and filling your baskets with the glorious bounty of the land. Now is the final celebration of the abundance and generosity of Mother Nature before we start to withdraw against the harsh onslaught of the winter months and what better way to celebrate than with each other.

I have been blessed to go out berry harvesting with two lovely friends and wonderful herbalists, Therri and Mindy this month and have spend a great afternoon with my lovely husband collecting Hawthorn berries and sloes.

Mindy amongst the Hawthorn

When up in my favourite elder picking spot we noticed both flower and fruit on the same tree. This is something I have never seen before, have you? Excuse the poor quality photo, the light wasn’t great that day.

Flower and berries on the wise Elder Mother.

The result of these outings was lovely fresh tinctures, dried berries and lots of delicious syrups!

The first elderberry harvest.

My first syrup making session was with elderberry, unbeatable for tastiness and immune supporting goodness for the colder months. I have already posted my method for elderberry syrup making here, so I won’t repeat myself but this year I added a vanilla bean to the ginger, cardamom, clove and orange peel and it turned out really well, so tasty I keep sneaking to the fridge for an extra spoonful.

Next up was the hawthorn berry syrup. The Hawthorns round here have been so fat and large this year and the trees literally dripping in them. I wonder if that means we are in for another hard winter.

I made a simple hawthorn and ginger syrup by simmering them together in a pan with enough water to cover, straining the liquid and adding an equal amount of raw honey once the liquid had cooled sufficiently. I use a fair amount of ginger because I love the resulting taste of the two combined but you can adjust according to preference.

You can tell when it is almost ready because the berries start to loose their colour. I simmered mine on a low heat for about half an hour.

Berries starting to loose their colour.

At the time of straining they have gone a yellowy colour.

It’s basically the same technique as the elderberry syrup but it’s good to store your hawthorn syrup in jars rather than bottles because the berries are high in pectin which means it can set like a jelly and you’ll need to be able to spoon it out. The more of the thicker, mushy liquid you strain into the end product the more likely it will set. There is lots of goodness in this bit too however, so I say go for it. Do be warned though as I can’t imagine many things more dissapointing than being unable to get at all my delicious syrup because it had set in the bottle.

Look how firm the resulting syrup/ jelly is here on our morning porridge.

Finally, the pièce de résistance was the five berry syrup I made which included elderberries, blackberries, hawthorn berries, rose hips and sloes. I used the same technique again but this time added no spices or other flavourings and just let the natural flavour of the berries shine through. It’s so yummy I am wishing I had made litres of it!

Simmering berries.

Give them a good mash to get all the goodness out.

This syrup feels so vital and nourishing and is packed with antioxidants and other immune supportive constituents.

Another advantage is that it gives you a wonderful opportunity to polish up your Lady Macbeth impression.

“Out, damn’d spot! out, I say!—One; two: why, then
’tis time to do’t.—Hell is murky.—Fie, my lord, fie, a soldier, and
afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our
pow’r to accompt?—Yet who would have thought the old man to
have had so much blood in him?”

Watch out amateur dramatics… here I come.

I hope your autumn has also been full of harvests and community or anything else that nourishes your soul.

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It’s been a while since I posted about the beautiful Hawthorns that I have been observing as part of the Tree of the Year project. They sit atop the Downs, relentlessly battered by wind and rain, and as a result they differ from many of the other Hawthorns in this area. With everything being early this year, most of the trees already had bright red berries at the beginning of August, not quite ready for harvest, but not far off. On these trees however, the berries were still small and green, reflecting how the harshness of their environment affects their development.

Nearly a month on they are reddening up nicely and the trees from a distance have that exquisite blush which tells you autumn is around the corner.

There is no doubt that the constant high winds we have had all summer have taken their toll. The trees look less healthy than this time last year with many of the leaves browning and some branches swept almost bare. Like people whose lives have been filled with hardship, they are weathered and worn.

It’s interesting to observe how bare of berries the side of the trees that faces the wind is compared to the relatively more sheltered branches.

I feel these trees teach me a lot about resilience, tenacity and strength and about adaptability in the face of hardship. They speak of the beauty of form and motion and of holding fast to this living edge of surrender. Perhaps most importantly they show that, in spite of difficulties, it is still possible to give generously.

Elsewhere on the Downs other Hawthorns tell their stories, each as unique as snowflakes.

I loved this one, entangled with the wild rose like lovers.

And everywhere the berries are fat and red and perfect. I’ll be out next week to get the first harvest in. Who wants pills when your medicine can look like this?

The Downs themselves are carpeted with wild flowers at present.

The yellows and whites of bedstraw, yarrow, burnet saxifrage and cat’s-ears mix with the mauves and purples of two of my favourite wild flowers;

Small Scabious

and Round-headed Rampion.

Whilst lone stalks of agrimony wave in the breeze.

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Sunday was May Day or Beltane, the traditional Celtic fire festival that marks the beginning of summer. It was a beautiful day which gave me the perfect opportunity to get out and make a Hawthorn blossom remedy.
Though it has long been associated with Beltane, it’s been rare in recent years that the Hawthorn has been in flower this early. This is how the Hawthorns looked on the 3rd of May last year.

This year they came into bloom in late April and were in the finest of forms by May Day. Their heady scent instantly lets you know when the Hawthorn is in flower.

I wrote about the mythology and medicine of Hawthorn blossom last year in this post and now is the perfect time to be gathering the buds, blossoms and leaves to make a fresh tincture.

Making a flower remedy on Beltane itself seemed like too good a chance to miss so I dragged myself from bed (it was Sunday) and got set up so my remedy had several hours to steep in the early morning sun. I have full instructions on how to make a flower remedy here if you are new to the process.

Hawthorn as a flower remedy is equally concerned with the heart as when it is used medicinally as a whole herb, though of course it works on a very subtle level. My personal experience is that it relaxes the whole chest area, allowing us to let go and let the love that is naturally present in us all come to the fore. It helps heal deep emotional wounds and brings the space in which forgiveness can occur. There is also a calm sort of joy about this remedy, as it opens your heart a little half smile creeps upon your lips without you even noticing. Blissful.

Use it whenever negative feelings cause you or others to shut down and turn inwards or when the heart needs a little extra support to heal from grief.

Or simply use it for no other reason than that it is beautiful.

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What a pleasure it has been to watch the emerging of the Hawthorn leaves this month. The trees I am observing for the Tree of the Year project were a little behind their more sheltered relatives but now they too have begun to burst into life.

Over the past couple of weeks they have been slowly opening out of their protective buds and are now adorning the escarpment and hedgerows with the fresh green vibrancy of spring.

At this time they are just perfect for adding to spring salads as they are still very tender and delicious, as spring wears on the leaves become too tough to be enjoyable. In olden days they were referred to as ‘bread and cheese’ because they were such a staple of country diets and were often added to a cheese sandwich!

In this salad I combined them with finely sliced wild garlic-mustard, sorrel leaves, dandelion leaves and handful of chickweed. Adding chopped almonds and seeds with a dressing of cleavers infused vinegar and a drizzle of olive oil made this a lovely side dish.


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February Hawthorns

One of my favourite Buddhist meditation teachers, Venerable Antonio, used to remind us during the long days of sitting practice in retreat that, whilst it may feel like nothing is happening, in fact everything is happening, we are just not so good at paying close attention.

At this time of year everyone is getting impatient for spring and the last days of cold, grey weather seem to drag on interminably. It seems like nothing is happening but, when we look closely, we can see that actually everything is happening!

This is how I felt whilst observing my Tree of the Year this month. Nothing much was changing at first glance and the escarpment Hawthorns looked as wintery and asleep as last month.

Looking a little closer I could see that perhaps changes were appearing after all…

Do you see the tiny buds? Look closer still…

And even closer …

Lean in…

And marvel at the beauty and potential held in the smallest of things.

Now is also a fine time to admire the twisted roots of Hawthorn, before we get distracted by leaf and blossom. Like miniature landscapes they rise and fold, their contours are at once hard and soft and I’m quite convinced the faeries live amongst them.

On the way back down I took a detour to visit another of my favourite Hawthorns. Sheltered beneath the Downs she can grow straight and tall compared to the trees at the top who are forever bent to accommodate the unrelenting winds. I’m convinced the quality of the medicine from the two trees will reflect the differences in their circumstances and, this year, I will make flower remedies and tinctures from both to compare.

Hawthorn blossom allows us to expand and flourish and I imagine that a remedy from the escarpment Hawthorn would lend us strength to do this in even the most adverse conditions where as one from the second tree would allow us to create a sheltered, loving and safe space in which to grow.

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I visited my Tree of the Year once again a few days ago to observe the subtle changes that are taking place for this Hawthorn as the winter rolls on and we come to the end of January.

She hangs on the edge of the escarpment, ravaged by wind and by rain and the weary passage of unforgiving winter days and shows me how character may be formed at the confluence of hardship and beauty.

Those berries that are left so late in the season are withered and blackening but buds are starting to form and a new growth of thorns offer their protection.

Whilst the bark of her trunk is textured, old and cracked, her branches have a wonderful smooth reddish skin.

One of the many things trees can teach to us mortals is the way to be young and old simultaneously, the balance between retaining and renewing wherein lies the path to wisdom.

There is nothing straight or symmetrical about these Hawthorns, they twist and bend as nature dictates and, in so doing, they endure.

Until the leaves and blossoms come to soften their forms, they stand stark in their sculptural beauty, yielding yet defiant against the changing palettes of relentless January skies.

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I noticed a couple of my fellow bloggers taking part in an exciting project which I finally got round to looking at this week. The Tree Year blog has been set up to coincide with the International Year of Forests and is encouraging people to pick a tree to observe closely for one year.

As soon as I read about it I knew I wanted to join in and I’m really looking forward to reading other people’s contributions and getting to know a variety of trees across the world through their eyes. It was easy for me to pick my tree as I’d already committed to spending the year observing a group of my favourite Hawthorns for a herbal project Brigitte, Lusach and I are hoping to put together about this wonderful healing tree.

Of the group I have one particular favourite. Here she is in October:


And again in December:


As the year progresses I’ll be posting about the changes I observe, the medicines I make and any other thoughts or inspirations that she evokes. As soon as the weather warms up a bit I’ll be out with my sketch pad too! I’ve written about Hawthorn a couple of times before looking at the blossoms here and the berries here.



If anyone else fancies joining in the instructions on the site are as follows:

Be more aware of the little things in life – see and enjoy the diversity and beauty of the life and colors on a tree – and share it with others.

How to start:

  1. Pick a tree – either one you like a lot or one that you see every day on your way to work or that happens to live on your balcony.
  2. Observe it: every day or once a week or less. What grabs your attention? What kind of animals are and what kind of plants grow on it?
  3. Write about your observation, make sketches or take photographs and share it with us.

Darcey Blue over at Gaia’s Gifts is also looking at Hawthorn so it will be interesting to see how our observations differ, she being in the US and me in the UK.  Clare at Hedgerow Hippy is looking at a lovely Lime tree and Ananda at Plant Journeys is spending time with her favourite Birches. There are many other contributors too, have a look by following the link at the top of the post.

What a wonderful opportunity to learn, raise awareness and celebrate our amazing tree friends!

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It’s been a busy week so far gathering the last of the blackberries, the first of the rosehips and lots and lots of lovely hawthorn berries. I don’t think I really have a favourite herbal plant, there are so many to love and admire, but if I had to choose one then hawthorn would certainly be a strong contender.

Beautiful Hawthorn, abundant with berries

The Hawthorn is a beautiful and elegant tree, with a rich lore of mythology and magic behind it, however it still remains very much human in scale. Growing in practically every hedgerow, it’s easily accessible and offers us medicine in the form of its flowers, leaves and berries. Whenever I see hawthorn, which is pretty much everywhere round here, I think ‘friend’.

Hawthorn Berries

Hawthorn is fascinating medicinally because it’s one of the few Western herbal adaptogens, loosely meaning it helps to bring the body into balance, irrespective of whether it is over or under functioning whilst being safe and non-toxic. Widely used as a heart tonic it can help lower high blood pressure and will benefit almost any problem that affects the heart or circulatory system, from high cholesterol to chilblains. It helps to dilate coronary arteries, improving circulation and bringing relief from angina. It also increases the heart’s ability to pump blood effectively by improving the contractility of the muscle and its high levels of antioxidants help to protect the capillaries.

A cascade of berries

What is particularly interesting though is that whilst here in the West hawthorn is used almost exclusively as a heart tonic, it has been used quite differently by other cultures and in other ages. Culpepper, writing in the 17th Century, tells us it is ‘singularly good against the stone and… for the dropsy’ implying it was mainly used as a urinary tonic, possibly because, being a member of the rose family, it has some astringency. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, where it’s known as shān zhā, it’s been used predominantly as an aid to digestion, to help the body assimilate fats and as an aid to liver function. In Ayurveda the berries are considered sour and heating, so not suitable for Pitta types in excess. In the Yoga of Herbs the authors write, ‘Hawthorn berries are a good example of the stimulatory power of sour herbs for both circulation and digestion. They have a special action on the heart, strengthening the heart muscle and promoting longevity. They are particularly good for Vata heart conditions like nervous palpitations, or the heart problems of old age (the age of Vata) like cholesterol and arteriosclerosis.’

The flowers are soothing and nervine and many herbalists combine preparations of flower and berry to get the benefits of both. You can read more about the flowers in my earlier post here.

Red and shiny and perfectly ripe

I like to prepare my berries in alcohol or vinegar as well as drying a good number for use in decoctions. To make a decoction simmer two teaspoons of dried berries in a cup of water for 15 mins and drink three times daily.

A delicious herbal vinegar can be made by filling a jar with hawthorn berries, either alone or combined with rosehips and covering in apple cider vinegar then leaving to infuse for a month or so before straining and rebottling. Remember to use a plastic lid as metal with go black and nasty.

Tincture can be made in a similar way by covering the berries in vodka or brandy. This year I made a simple hawthorn tincture in vodka and another in which I combined the berries with rosehip and ginger in a mixture of port and brandy, yum. Let infuse for 2-3 weeks before straining and rebottling.

A lovely way to use hawthorn berries is to dry and powder them. They can then be used in numerous ways by adding a little of the powder to smoothies, soups, cookies, breakfast cereal or just about anything else. They are tough though and have a stone in the middle which needs removing (due to toxicity) so it can be easier to just buy them already powdered from a good herbal supplier. If you want to make your own powder you can mash the whole berry with you hands and the tiniest bit of water then push through a sieve, removing the stone, and spread the resulting pulp out to dry on baking paper or silicon sheets. When completely dry, powder in a high power blender or grinder.

Left to right – hawthorn and rosehip vinegar; (top) hawthorn, rosehip and ginger in port and brandy; hawthorn tincture in vodka.

Hawthorn, you truly are a heroine!

Lusach has a beautiful post on making hawthorn berry decoctions here, which is well worth a read.

Culpepper’s Complete Herbal – Nicholas Culpepper
Medical Herbalism – David Hoffman
The Yoga of Herbs – Dr. David Frawley and Dr. Vasant Lad

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