HAWTHORN (Crataegus pinnatifida)

Latin: Crataegus pinnatifida, Crataegus laevigata
Latin: Crataegus Species
Chinese: Shan zha

WHAT IT DOES: Hawthorn berries and flower buds are sour and sweet in taste, and slightly warming in action.  Hawthorn nourishes the heart, increases oxygen flow to the heart muscle, reduces blood vessel lining inflammation and helps digest fats and oils.


SAFETY ISSUES: Patients taking cardiac glycosides such as digitalis should inform their physicians that hawthorn may potentate the drug’s effect, and dosage may need to be adjusted.

• Dried powder: 10-100 grams per day
• Concentrated powder extract: two to15 grams
• Concentrated syrup: one to four teaspoons per day

Similar (but not identical) species of hawthorn are used by both Chinese and Western herbalists to benefit the heart.  Western herbalists consider it to be a tonic “food for the heart.” At our clinic we use it in formulas for all heart and cholesterol-related problems.  It is safe and effective for long-term use.  For serious heart conditions, it may be best to use concentrated dried decoction extracts and syrups, which contain more of the beneficial pigment compounds.  The darker the syrup, the better.  TCM herbalists use the fruit to help patients digest fats and other heavy foods.  Because the species are not identical, it is best to use the Western variety (C.  oxycantha) to treat heart problems, and the Chinese variety (C.  pinnatifida) to treat digestion-related disorders.  It is very common in China to see children eating candy-coated hawthorn fruit on a stick.

Hawthorn is used to treat hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, palpitations, tachycardia, angina, cardiomyopathy, coronary artery disease (CAD) and varicose veins.  The fruit contains high levels of procyanadins, which are known to be cardiotonic (Rehwald, 1995).  The mature flower buds and young leafy spring tips are quite high in flavonoids and proanthocyanins, which are useful for treating diabetes and arthritis, as well as for strengthening and repairing connective tissue (reported in Upton, 1999).

Some herbalists report that long-term use of hawthorn, six months to a year or more, can sometimes reverse essential hypertension.  I have had two patients for whom this has been true, both able to go off their western medication.  This clinically-observed effect may be due to gradual reduction of low-level inflammation affecting the inner walls of the vessels combined with hawthorn’s numerous other heart-protecting activities.

A group  of Cochrane  researchers identified 14 randomized studies and concluded that hawthorn had clear benefits for the heart.

Research Highlights

• German physicians combine hawthorn with digitalis in cases of rapid heartbeat with and without atrial fibrillation, and report it can also be used for heart conditions for which digitalis is not yet indicated (Blesken, 1992).

• Studies have shown hawthorn to be sufficiently strong to benefit patients with NYHA (New York Heart Association) stage II cardiac insufficiency (Weikl et al., 1996) as well as patients in stage I and stage II congestive heart failure (Ammon et al., 1981). 

• Chinese researchers have also reported a beneficial effect on angina symptoms (Weng et al., 1984).