A compound is secreted by its flowers, almost a pheromone to us and certainly attractive to pollinating insects. You'll find this compound in some other flowers of the Rosaceae - cherry blossoms smell similar, for example. It's called triethylamine, and its odor is very characteristic. When Hawthorn flowers first bloom, locals say the trees smell of arousal, juicy and enticing. So it is perhaps no coincidence that triethylamine is found in abundant concentrations in human semen and vaginal secretions, and is in part responsible for their characteristic odor. The lady of the May gets us thinking about fertility right away.
But triethylamine is also a byproduct of the degradation of flesh - or, to put it more bluntly, it can smell like rotten meat. It all has to do with the aromatic context, the floral versus the musky, and can evoke very different reactions. As Hawthorn's blooms begin to fade, the smell shifts, and the locals say the tree smells of death. Hawthorn, with her flame-red berry, reminds us that fire kindles, but it also destroys. Don't bring her into your home when she's in bloom, or death will surely follow.
As a ruling, archetypal spirit, for me Hawthorn embodies the flux of creation and destruction more than any other plant. She represents the circulation between activity and rest, between systole and diastole, between love and anger, life and death. Sitting at the bookends of the time of growth, she guards the seasonal shifts - but rooted at the edge of the field, she also guards the border between the wild and the hearth. She loves humans, and thrives with our touch, but she remains forever untamed, her children unruly, her thorns toxic. Her leaves, flowers, and berries yield a medicine that governs the fluxing heart, the person, the community, the culture. No wonder the locals leave any lone Hawthorn well alone: you don't mess with such a powerful ecological thermostat.
What does it mean to be such a nexus in the ecology? What does it feel like? I'm not sure Hawthorn knows - at least not in the way we imagine "knowing". Picture an old clearing, now surrounded by forest on all sides, where a Hawthorn has been living for a hundred years. She's more ragged now than in her youth, but still produces abundant berries, and remembers the farmer who planted and tended her many years before. It's late September, early morning, the air is cool and smells moist but not heavy. A thrush on her way south flies in. There are asters and goldenrods in the middle of the clearing, mixed with the grasses. Field mice look up as the thrush alights on a branch. Try to feel that whole thing. Fill in the pieces - what insects are on the plants? On the soil surface? What spiders spin between the branches? Wind and water, morning sun and moist soil, all that grows and moves and lives and dies and rots, if it all wanted to send a message to the thrush, how would it? How would the thrush hear?
The first story comes from the epic of Gilgamesh, which is a four-thousand-year-old tale from the fertile crescent, the land we now call Iraq. Gilgamesh is the ruler of a city, the first city, which he holds almost in defiance of the gods who created the world. In punishment for his arrogance, the gods bring forth Enkidu, who is as wild as Gilgamesh is civilized. Raised by the beasts of the mountains, Enkidu sets out to destroy the city of Uruk and take down its ruler. But Gilgamesh uses a prostitute to seduce Enkidu, and tames him, seeing in his rival a shadow-side of himself. The two become like brothers. Uruk thrives - and the pair of warriors now sets out to cut timber from an ancient cedar grove, and slay the giant who guards it. They succeed, and return to the city with their bounty.
Ishtar, the goddess of the evening star, of love and war, who conquered the underworld and was the undoing of many before Gilgamesh, attempts to seduce him upon his return to Uruk. This effort fails. Enraged, she attempts to kill him using a magical bull, but this too fails: Gilgamesh and Enkidu slay the bull, and sacrifice it not to the goddess, but to their own glory, and to their city. Ishtar demands retribution, and the gods curse Enkidu with a slow, fatal disease that saps him of energy, wisdom, flesh, and, finally, life. As Enkidu descends into madness, he struggles against the wildness that inexorably eats away at his civilized life.
After his companion dies, Gilgamesh despairs. He casts away all the glory of Uruk and wanders through the wilderness, trying to find a way to restore his companion to life, while at the same time confronting his own mortality. He is about to give up his quest when, finally, an ancient hero from the time before the floods reveals to him the secret of immortality: if he journeys to the bottom of the ocean, he will find a white-flowered Hawthorn that bestows eternal life. Gilgamesh plunges into the depths, and emerges with the flowering branch, immortal and radiant.
Immediately he seeks to bring this power back to Uruk, to share the secrets of his quest. But in a final cruel twist, a serpent steals the Hawthorn branch away from him. The specter of death returns. He makes his way to Uruk, wiser but also resigned to his human fate.
This is a story of the taming of the wild, but it also reminds us that the wild - whether we find it in the wasteland, or in the depths of our internal ocean, is the sine-qua-non of eternal life. And there, guarding, giving and taking away, is the Hawthorn tree. What does it mean to be immortal? How would we achieve long life, even immortality? How would the thrush hear?
An ecology may not be immortal, but it certainly transcends our human experience. Just as the Hawthorn holds the key to immortality in the old mythology, it may also hold the messages that the ecology uses to knit its components together. These messages are how the thrush hears, it is how we hear, and if we listen to them and allow our organisms to commune with them the way the thrush communes with the Hawthorn berry on her way south, we may indeed achieve a measure of immortality. At least a transcendence that allows us to become a fully integrated part of the ecology. We have been walking around half-dead, unable to mix with the energies and fluxes of the world around us, sort of like a brain half-removed from its blood supply, sluggish, forgetful, tired.
The ecology has hormones, just as any living being has hormones. These are chemical messengers secreted into the distribution channels of the organism, the usefulness of which is evident locally but also systemically as they travel from their sites of secretion to their target organs. The flavonoids and other allied polyphenols are some of the best examples of such ecological hormones, and show us tangibly how cross-kingdom signaling knits the ecology together. For example:
- flavonoids, as pigments, serve as pollinator "on-ramps" guiding insects to nectar and anthers. They also guide beneficial insects (like the silkworm to the mulberry tree via the compound morin). [Simmonds, Monique SJ. "Importance of flavonoids in insect–plant interactions: feeding and oviposition." Phytochemistry 56.3 (2001): 245-252.][Ishikawa, Shigeo, Tuneo Hirao, and Narihiko Arai. "Chemosensory basis of hostplant selection in the silkworm." Entomologia experimentalis et applicata 12.5 (1969): 544-554.]
- anthocyanidins, a type of flavonoid polymer, are sensitive to pH and as an unripe, sour fruit ripens to sweetness, their color changes from green to pink to purple. The thrush knows this, and so do we. [Liu, Pengzhan, Heikki Kallio, and Baoru Yang. "Phenolic compounds in hawthorn (Crataegus grayana) fruits and leaves and changes during fruit ripening." Journal of agricultural and food chemistry 59.20 (2011): 11141-11149.]
- flavonoids (isoflavones in particular) are secreted by rootlets of legumes to attract symbiotic Rhizobium bacteria, which participate in nitrogen fixation, nourishing the plant, the bug, the soil. It's how the ecology harvests nitrogen from the air using all its players and the hormones that knit them together. [Hartwig, Ueli A., Cecillia M. Joseph, and Donald A. Phillips. "Flavonoids released naturally from alfalfa seeds enhance growth rate of Rhizobium meliloti." Plant Physiology 95.3 (1991): 797-803.]
- flavonoids also control unwanted bacterial and fungal incursions, by stimulating plant immunity and altering local flora so it can out-compete pathogens. They do this in part by inhibiting quorum sensing in pathogenic bacteria, so the bad bugs can't tell when there are enough of them to cause damage, and never begin the secretion of toxic chemicals. [Vikram, A., et al. "Suppression of bacterial cell–cell signalling, biofilm formation and type III secretion system by citrus flavonoids." Journal of applied microbiology 109.2 (2010): 515-527.][Quave, Cassandra L., et al. "Effects of extracts from Italian medicinal plants on planktonic growth, biofilm formation and adherence of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus." Journal of ethnopharmacology 118.3 (2008): 418-428.]
- flavonoids and polyphenols, which taste bitter to us (see citrus bioflavonoids in the white albedo of an orange, or the potent quercetin in Solidago species), are strong neurotoxic insecticides that help protect plants and are overexpressed when an insect feeds on a plant. We, who consume them in limited doses, derive an adaptive benefit from the challenge they pose. [Harborne, Jeffrey B., and Renée J. Grayer. "Flavonoids and insects." The Flavonoids. Springer US, 1994. 589-618.]
What becomes really interesting is noting that plants under stress begin to overproduce these important ecological hormones. Wendell Combest, a pharmacologist at Shenandoah University, analyzed the various parts of ground ivy (Glechoma), comparing the leaf, flower, stem, and gall. You may have seen these small green-red balls that occasionally swell on the trailing stems of ground ivy. Out of all the parts analyzed, the red tissue of the gall showed the highest concentrations of polyphenols. Others have studied crops exposed to different stressors - and found higher concentrations of these important eco-hormones [Treutter, Dieter. "Managing phenol contents in crop plants by phytochemical farming and breeding—visions and constraints." International journal of molecular sciences 11.3 (2010): 807-857.]. When a plant is challenged, it expresses chemistry to help it, but also to help those who consume it. In the clearing, the Hawthorn elaborates chemistry that directly represents the state of stress of the clearing itself. Its inhabitants, and its visitors too, get to plug into this signal net and adapt.
And who is to say that a well-adapted human, exposed to a cocktail of challenging polyphenolic chemistry from the berries and fruits she consumes, isn't a better component of the ecology? Hawthorn would say she is. Hawthorn would encourage her to consume flowers, leaves and berries - thereby to live long, realize the benefits of herbal medicine, and spread the wild trees and plants for the benefit of bacteria, soil, air, and thrushes. Maybe immortality means connecting to these wild signals. We live forever, if only for a moment.
>> Elixir of Immortality - Hawthorn Wild Weed Blend
The key for this one is that at least one of the ingredients be a plant you harvested close by, one that knows your ecology as well as you do. In this sense, the local plants you find are the most important ingredients.
Hawthorn berries (fresh ideally, though dry will do) 2 cups, packed well
Cinquefoil (Potentilla spp., fresh or dry) 1 cup chopped, or cut-and sifted herb
Rose buds (dry is ideal, more aromatic) 1 cup whole buds, coarsely chopped
Use a quart-sized mason jar. Fill with herbs, then cover with a mixture made of 50% vegetable glycerin and 50% apple cider vinegar. You will probably need around 9-10 ounces of each fluid depending on the amount of dry herbs. Close tightly and shake daily for two weeks, then strain and enjoy 2-3 teaspoons a day.
This is a Rose family blend. It is loaded with the important chemistry - bitter, astringent tannins; sour bioflavonoids; aromatic volatiles; demulcent starches and sugars; and many trace minerals. Cinquefoil, a favorite of Jupiter and the Earth element, grounds the blend while Rose lifts it up and Hawthorn holds the center. For a more bitter blend, substitute Agrimony for Cinquefoil if you have it available. If you can't find either one, try common Avens (Herb Bennett, Geum urbanum) as a substitute.
The next story comes from modern-day Ireland - or, at least, it's only about thirty years old. Apparently, during the construction of a car factory there, workers were at a loss as to what to do with an old Hawthorn in the middle of the site. Not being fools, they refused to uproot it and worked around it until construction had to grind to a halt. The project manager called in a bulldozer operator from England (of course) who promptly ripped the old Hawthorn out of the ground, casting it aside. There are numerous other stories of these fairy trees getting uprooted: one tells of hundreds of white mice escaping from the hole, another talks of dark vines grabbing and swallowing the unwitting humans who disrupted the tree. In this particular tale, nothing that dramatic happens. Everyone gets back to work, and the task of the day is pouring massive concrete foundation columns, fifteen feet tall and three feet wide, to serve as supports for the roof of the factory. They finish the day's work in good order, and the workers go home to sleep.
The next morning, upon returning to the job site, there is surprise and consternation because every single concrete column has been moved three feet to the left. No one can explain exactly how this could have happened, and no evidence of the heavy machinery that would be required can be found. Undaunted, the foremen order the columns moved back. The work is done, and everyone goes home to sleep.
As you might guess, the columns are moved again the following morning, this time three feet to the right. Stubbornly, orders are given to reset them in their proper place. But of course, the next morning the columns are all off again. Now quite angry, the project managers call a meeting to determine who's responsible for the three days of lost productivity, hoping to correct the problem once and for all. From the back of the room, a rather short gentleman stands up and says, simply, "You must give us back our tree". Anything's worth a try, came the wise (though reluctant) response, and the Hawthorn was rescued and replanted in its hole. It remained in the courtyard, twisted and gnarly, and construction proceeded without further setback.
So, perhaps Hawthorn isn't simply a gift we can connect with on our journey to immortality. Perhaps it's also an important element of proper function. Acting as an integrated organ in the ecology isn't a luxury for us - it may be a necessity.
The story of the Blutsauger is the story of a German vampire. In the north, this being is also known as a Nachtzehrer or "Night Waster". These twisted undead creatures roam the night looking for blood to fill their empty hearts, and their lot is cast by being the first person to die of an epidemic disease, or by dying in a particularly violent and gruesome way. In many different ways, the Hawthorn is seen as the primary protective force against these bloodsuckers, against the wasting and weakness they cause in their victims. The first is to carve sharp stakes of Hawthorn wood and nail down the corpse of the deceased, through the head or heart, so that it cannot escape its coffin. Another is to scatter Hawthorn flowers over the grave, so that the Blutsauger has to stop and collect the blossoms and, forgetting all else, be surprised and destroyed by the rising sun. Finally, Hawthorn boughs can be hung around the house (outside, of course) to protect the family from the night wasting.
In all of these examples, we see that Hawthorn can play a role in the interplay of life and death, as we've seen in the old myths, but it can also have an effect on influences that disrupt the flow of blood. The Latin name of the tree, Crataegus, is thought to derive from the Greek krataigos, which means strength and resilience, but it also is a direct cognate of crataegon, a word the Romans used to refer to the heart itself. The crataegon was not only the heart, where life-giving oxygenated blood mixed with the spent venous flow, but it was also a great bowl used at feasts to mix water and wine together. It is important to remember that, although the grape was the primary fruit fermented into wine, the Romans (and likely many others before them) fermented Hawthorn berries and honey into meads as well. Mixed in the crataegon, the liquor gave life to the heart, and the tree of resilience inherited the name.
Of course we know now how valuable Hawthorn is for the human heart, strengthening it in times of weakness and protecting it from over-exertion, keeping it supple and responsive [Pittler, Max H., Katja Schmidt, and Edzard Ernst. "Hawthorn extract for treating chronic heart failure: meta-analysis of randomized trials." The American journal of medicine 114.8 (2003): 665-674.][Walker, Ann F., et al. "Hypotensive effects of hawthorn for patients with diabetes taking prescription drugs: a randomised controlled trial." British journal of general practice 56.527 (2006): 437-443.][Verma, S. K., et al. "Crataegus oxyacantha-A cardioprotective herb." Journal of Herbal Medicine and Toxicology 1.1 (2007): 65-71.]. If there is a single place in our bodies where the essences of life are mixed and circulated, it would have to be the heart - a tireless pulsing flow, holding two aspects of our vital fluid side by side. The arterial blood on the left glides powerfully out through the aorta while the venous blood on the right seeps slowly into the heart and is gently pushed along to the lungs. Any hardening or stiffness, eddies in the smooth flow, pinches or restrictions can compromise this great mixing bowl over time, and sap vitality from its host. Hawthorn addresses all these concerns, and it also balances the active pushing, the systole, with the rest and refilling, the diastole - the muscle works more efficiently, pressure stays balanced, vitality holds poise. Many berries and their polyphenols can contribute to this cause - grapes, with resveratrol; blueberries, with anthocyanins; goji, with is diverse flavonoid cocktail. But it is the Hawthorn that is the crataegon itself.
So much of a necessity is this tree, that without it, the heart's failure becomes the first reason we die. Like the spirit of a child from whom love is withheld, our great mixing bowl of life withers and fails, weakened before its time. Heart disease in the western world is a painful example of plant deficiency syndrome: we pass by the clearing, we can't see the Hawthorn exchanging hormones with the thrush, we wall ourselves off from the dance that we can truly never leave. The brain of the unloved child doesn't choose its fate: that's the family, as an organism, at work. In the same way the American heart doesn't choose to fail: that's the culture at work. And don't you think the Hawthorn suffers too?
>> The Red Ones - Hawthorn Heart Blend
All the herbs in this formula reinforce the action of the heart while helping it relax and work more efficiently, too. The addition of chile should be to taste - I have attempted a guideline dosage but everyone's preferences vary.
Hawthorn berries (fresh or dry), 2 cups, packed well
Dan Shen root (fresh if you have it, or dry Salvia milthiorrhiza), 1 cup, chopped and packed well
Chile pepper (fresh, ripe red Tabasco chile), 2 peppers, coarsely chopped
Use a quart-sized mason jar. Fill with the herbs, then cover with 20-24 ounces of 100 proof (50%) vodka. Cover tightly, and shake daily for two to four weeks, then strain and take 1/2 teaspoon twice a day.
The herbs in this blend are traditionally used as cardiovascular tonics, particularly indicated in the prevention of or recovery from heart attack and stroke. Use caution mixing this blend with conventional blood thinners: Dan Shen may potentiate their effects. If you can, spend some time looking at the fresh root of Dan Shen - it's red, remarkably so, and its branched taproots are very similar to the branching coronary artery.
The last story is from Italy.
Once upon a time, out in the countryside, lived a young girl and her aging grandmother. They lived in a very small, thatched-roof cottage with a very small fireplace, surrounded by a barren, prickly hedge and yellow grass. Every day the grandmother would go out and collect what little wood she could find to start a fire and cook the meager food the two had to share. But it happened one day that she became quite ill, and did not have the strength to rise from bed to do her chores.
It was winter, and a cold fog hung over the fields. The fire had long since burned out, and the two were hungry. So the young girl, whose name was Serenella, resolved to venture out on her own. "Perhaps I can find some twigs for the fire, and warm my grandmother," she thought. Pretty soon she came to the stump of an old oak tree, and was trying to pry off pieces of bark for the fire when she felt someone tugging at her hair. When she turned around, she stood before a beautiful woman, cloaked in thin fabric that looked like wisps of valley fog, radiant and white.
"Those pieces of wet bark won't do anything to warm your house or fill your belly" she said. "Take this wool from me instead," and she handed Serenella an armload of freshly-sheared fleece. "If you spin this wool into yarn for me, and bring the balls of yarn back to this tree stump, you will have a roaring fire and a pot of soup in your hearth every day."
Serenella was overjoyed, and gladly took the fleece, though all she could think on her walk back to the cottage was how she hadn't spun a day in her life, and how was she going to comply with the fairy's wishes? But when she got back a fire was blazing and hung over the flames was a bubbling pot of soup. She warmed herself and poured some soup into a bowl for her grateful grandmother. Then she began the work of spinning.
Inside the pile of fleece was a small wooden drop-spindle. She fastened some of the wool to it, and, twisting and pulling, she slowly began to spin some yarn. It was tedious work, and the thread broke often at first, but with patience she got better and better until, after a week's time, all the wool was spun. Serenella set out immediately to find the oak stump again. When she got there, she placed the ball of yarn into the stump. But before she could turn around to go back home, the fairy reappeared to take her gift.
"The yarn is lumpy and uneven, I know, but it is the first wool I've ever spun, and I will do better next time," Serenella pleaded.
Looking at her with kind eyes, the fairy broke off pieces of yarn from the ball and handed them back to her, along with a fresh pile of fleece. "Take these threads and fashion them into stars, and hang them on your hedge for me," she said. "And spin this new wool into more thread." At that she disappeared into the mist.
Serenella walked back homeward, overjoyed that her work had been good enough, and when she got to the dry hedge that encircled her cottage, began to fashion tiny, white, woolen stars. She was about to start hanging them when a little thrush landed on the ground next to her.
"How strange to see you here in the cold season," she said to the bird.
"Alas, when fall came I hurt my wing and couldn't fly away with my brothers and sisters! So now I am trapped here in the cold, and I will surely die if you don't give me your white stars to make a warm nest..." the bird replied.
Serenella was torn. She had promised the fairy that she would hang the woolen stars on the hedge. But in the end, she felt so sorry for the thrush that she gave him the stars.
Inside the cottage, a strong fire burned as it had been doing for the whole week, fresh soup was in the pot, and bread in the cupboard. The grandmother, though still gravely ill, was smiling more and her appetite had improved a little. Serenella started spinning.
After another week, she had finished more yarn, stronger and more even this time. She returned to the oak and the fairy reappeared, and again asked her to hang more stars on the hedge alongside last week's, and again gave her fresh wool to spin. But again, right as Serenella was about to hang the stars, the thrush came asking for a fresh lining for his nest.
"The rains came, and my nest is cold and wet!" he pleaded. "Sweet girl, please give me more of your wonderful stars that I might outlive this cold winter." And again, Serenella gave him her white, woolen stars.
Week after week this ritual repeated itself, the cottage fire kept burning bright, food was always in the pot, and grandmother kept getting stronger and stronger. Finally, the cold began to let up. It was a rainy April, and so every week the thrush kept asking for fresh stars to keep his nest dry. Every week there was new yarn to spin. The valley started greening up, and the early spring flowers were blooming. Until one day, when Serenella brought her yarn to the old oak stump, the fairy had no new fleece to give her.
"Your grandmother is better now," she said, "and I need you to collect all the stars you hung on the hedge and bring them back to me." And, as usual, she disappeared into a swirl of fog.
Crestfallen, Serenella made her way back home, knowing she had no stars to collect. When she got close to the cottage, the little thrush alighted on her shoulder.
"Why so sad?" he asked.
"The kind fairy wants me to return her magic stars, but I have none because I gave them all to you!" she exclaimed.
"Don't worry, little one," the thrush replied. "My brothers and sisters are back home now, and we are all most grateful to you. Tomorrow is the first of May: go out tonight, under the moonlight, and you will find your stars."
Unconvinced, Serenella went straight back home, her downcast eyes fixed on the path, to find her grandmother stirring the soup and stacking firewood. Grandmother truly was better now, the pink color back in her face and the sparkle back in her eyes. They shared a meal, and went to sleep. But in the late hours of the night, the young girl awoke to the sound of thrushes singing in the hedge outside. She went out barefoot, and under radiant moonlight, found that her whole hedge had burst into bloom, white blooms like stars. An incredible fragrance filled the air, rich and floral and wild.
"My stars!" she cried out, overjoyed. "I will pick these to bring to the fairy!"
As she spoke these words, the fairy appeared before her and took her hand, which already held one of the fragrant flowers.
"Dear Serenella," she said, "I am the Lady Whitethorn, and you have shown me the true kindness of your heart. From now on, your hedge will bloom and fruit and give you what you need to keep your grandmother strong. You can trade the berries for meat and grain. It will help you as you helped the thrush."
She disappeared in a cloud of mist, leaving Serenella there on May eve, under the moonlight, surrounded by thrush-song, wild fragrance, and a field of stars.
>> The Three Flowers - Appreciation and Open Heart Blend
Despite containing a root, this mix makes a great and effective infusion. Consumed regularly, its side effects include a more balanced blood pressure. Since it's made with equal parts by volume, the recipe can easily be scaled up to make a big jar full of tea herbs.
Hawthorn leaf and flower (dry), one tablespoon chopped or cut-and-sifted herb
Linden flowers (dry), one tablespoon chopped or cut-and-sifted herb
Peony root (dry), one tablespoon coarsely chopped root
Use a large (12-16 ounce) tea mug, or a 16-ounce French press. Place the herbs in the bottom and add hot water just off the boil. Cover promptly and steep, for at least 20 minutes but up to 4 hours. Strain, press and drink daily. This tea blend opens the heart in many different ways, helping us to appreciate the simple things that are in front of us, like family, a warm hearth, wildflowers, and birdsong. The addition of antispasmodic, sweet Peony root helps to relax tissue and vessels, reinforcing the tonic and aromatic Hawthorn and Linden.
I leave you with a poem by Kathleen Raine. We are the ecology. It enmeshes in us, and we in it.
A hundred years I slept beneath a thorn,
Until the tree was root and branches of my thought,
Until white petals blossomed in my crown.
A thousand years I floated in a lake
Until my brimful eye could hold
The scattered moonlight and the burning cloud.
Mine is the gaze that knows
Eyebright, asphodel, the briar rose.
I have seen the rainbow open, the sun close.
A wind that blows about the land,
I have raised temples of snow, castles of sand,
And left them empty as a dead hand.
A winged ephemerid I am born
With myriad eyes and glittering wings
That flames must wither or waters drown.
I must live, I must die,
I am the memory of all desire,
I am the world's ashes, and the kindling fire.