Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” -Rumi
Hawthorn is one of the 12 trees featured in The Herbal Healing Deck, and it’s a plant that holds special meaning for me. In fact, Hawthorn changed my life, opening my heart not only to deep healing within the context of relationships and community, but also to plant spirit healing. Here, I will introduce this wonderful plant’s medicine and share my personal story with Hawthorn.
The Physical Medicine
Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) is a type of small tree or bush that produces red berries. These tasty and edible berries, along with the flowers and leaves of the tree, are a medicinal heart tonic. Hawthorn’s medicine is gentle, so the tea or tincture can be taken as a long-term heart and circulatory tonic. As a nutritive herb, it restores damaged tissue of the heart. Hawthorn also strengthens the heart beat and regulates blood pressure. Good for connective tissue, Hawthorn can be used as support for joints, veins, tendons, and ligaments. It also helps with circulation, improving blood flow to the extremities.
The Heart of the Matter
While this plant provides great benefit to the body, Hawthorn’s ties to the heart go far beyond the physical realm. The plant spirit of Hawthorn is one of the most beneficial for healing and opening the energetic heart. This is a very important medicine, as Western culture suffers greatly from physical heart disease and emotional heart blockage alike.
The heart chakra is the very center of our being, the middle ground between the earthly, lower chakras and the heavenly, upper chakras. The heart is what allows us to rise above mere survival, pleasure, and will-power and to feel true love for others and for life itself. Our hearts connect us to our families, partners, and friends, as well as to the world at large. The heart is now being recognized as a primary organ of perception, with an electromagnetic field many times larger than the brain’s. Our hearts process our emotions and allow us to feel the greatest feeling of all—love. Getting the heart pumping with feelings of gratitude and joy also boosts our ability to manifest our desires. Clearly, caring for our hearts, both physically and metaphysically, is of immeasurable value to our lives.
An Introduction to Plant Spirit Healing
Hawthorn certainly holds a special place in my heart–this was the first plant spirit I consciously connected with. It was in the summer of 2010, during my internship with Herb Pharm, where I’d gone to learn the nuts and bolts of herbalism. I got a lot more than I bargained for when plant spirit healing was introduced in a weekend-long seminar. Up until that point, I had always felt that plants had a magic about them, but it hadn’t really occurred to me that they also possessed a spirit or consciousness. That weekend, everything changed.
I have to admit that Hawthorn reached out to me even before this experience. I’d been working as a buyer in a health food store, and it was my job to order the bulk herbs. There were some old Hawthorn berries that nobody had touched for a long time. We discontinued the product, so I took the rest of them home. There they stayed in my cabinet, untouched for many months. I told myself, “I don’t have heart problems, so I don’t need this medicine. I just don’t have the time to mess with it right now.”
To introduce us to the Hawthorn spirit, our teacher had the class of about 15 people sit in a circle around a small Hawthorn tree. She explained that Hawthorn was a fairly accessible plant spirit, and I got the impression that she would be working her shamanic mojo to help open us to the experience. She passed around two bottles of tincture, which were used as a drop dose to connect with the energy of the plant.
This is great exercise, by the way–sit quietly in a relaxed state and place a single drop of tincture of any medicinal plant on your tongue. Get quiet to absorb the taste as well as any feelings or images that come to you. I’ve seen this done as a kind of blind test in many classes, and it’s amazing what people can tap into. Even those with zero experience in herbal medicine can often pick up on the essence and purpose of a plant without even knowing its name. I think it’s partly intuition, partly the plant spirit communicating with us, and partly the age-old DNA connection that humans have with medicinal plants which has aided our survival for millennia.
Back to our story–when I first tasted the tincture, I was instantly transported back to my childhood. The taste of the berries alone was reminiscent of cough medicine I’d had as a child–sweet and comforting. On another level, Hawthorn was a bittersweet medicine that made me feel my heart very deeply, including its wounds.
I began to spontaneously recall instances from my childhood that were painful in some way: the time my brother tricked me by saying we could play hide and seek, only to leave me hiding by myself outside for a long time while he went back inside; the times when I had nobody to play with at school recess and sat by myself on the jungle gym; the time I skinned my knee and cried in the bathroom until my brother came in to say, “Everyone knows you’re just doing this for attention.”
Before I knew it, tears were streaming down my face. I felt embarrassed to be crying in front of my classmates, but the memories and associated feelings were so powerful that I simply had to surrender to them or get up and leave. Up until that point, I’d rarely (if ever) wept in front of a group. This too was a tendency held over from childhood–people in my family rarely express their feelings openly. Yet there I was, bawling like a child in front of everyone. I was uncomfortable and vulnerable, but determined not to miss out on the experience.
When the teacher ended our session, we all took turns sharing our experiences. I could hardly even speak. Afterwards, everyone went back inside to get ready for bed. I only went in for a moment to gather supplies before heading out to my tent for the night. I asked around to see what had happened to the Hawthorn tinctures, because I wanted another dose before bed. To my surprise, nobody knew where they had gone. When I returned to the Hawthorn tree, I discovered that both of the bottles had been left on the ground. And this wasn’t done by a single person, either, as they lay in different areas of the circle.
This seemed, to me, like a clear metaphor for how easy it is to forget about the heart. It was then that I recalled my own Hawthorn berries sitting in my cupboard, unused. Having just had a powerful experience with the plant, I now understood how much value I had completely overlooked. Those berries had been a gift from the Universe that I had ignored. Hawthorn wasn’t just about keeping the physical heart healthy. It wasn’t something that only people with heart disease needed–it was something that everyone needed.
Feeling rather humbled, I took a larger dose of the medicine and headed for my tent. As I lay in my sleeping bag, the memories continued. I relived more moments from my childhood, which eventually gave way to more recent painful memories of lost or broken relationships. It was a huge catharsis, like a tidal wave of pent-up emotion finally having an outlet for release.
More importantly, Hawthorn began to show me patterns. I could see how the times when I felt a lack of love as a child had translated into patterns of grasping and insecurity as an adult. Even more painful, I was shown how some of my actions–based on pain, fear, and lack–had in turn caused pain for others. It was a cycle in my life, repeating itself over and over again through my various relationships. I got very little sleep that night, but I received a teaching that would last for a lifetime.
Flowers and Thorns
This experience had lasting effects on my life. Within six months of returning home from the internship, I ended an unhealthy partnership. After gaining some distance from that situation, I was able to see how the four major romances of my life had all mirrored the dynamics of my relationships with the four people in my immediate family. It was kind of eerie, really, with patterns and similarities so striking that I couldn’t believe I had been blind to them all these years.
Plus, I am now more open about shedding tears in front of others, even in public, when something moves me. Though I still sometimes feel embarrassed depending on the circumstances, it’s become a lot easier for me to open up to people and groups in general. It’s as if all along, I’d unconsciously feared that having an open heart would make me weak. But on the contrary, it’s made me stronger.
The Hawthorn tree is a member of the Rose family, and both of these plants reflect the connection between joy and sorrow. Roses are a classic symbol of love and the ever-opening heart. And yet their stems contain wicked thorns, so that if you hold on too tightly to the experience of love, you will draw blood. Our earthly existence is temporary, and so we know that everyone and everything we love will eventually pass. Often, what we love most in life breaks our hearts the most as well.
Hawthorn also has thorns covering its trunk and branches. I see these thorns acting as acupuncture needles which, when stuck in the right places, can release long-held pain. Hawthorn finds your heart’s tender spots, even the places you’ve forgotten about. When she sticks her needles in, the pain intensifies. But when it’s over, you feel much lighter, healthier, and perhaps a bit wiser.
I see the spirit of Hawthorn as a grandmotherly figure who delivers just the right dose of medicine at the right time. Her lessons can be stern, but they are always fair, and she never gives you more than you handle. She won’t spoil you, but is able to show you the kind of tough love necessary for the healthy growth of strong children. Grandmother Hawthorn can open your eyes to issues you’ve been hiding from yourself, and unconscious patterns of action and reaction that wreak havoc on your relationships.
This is why I say that everyone needs this medicine. Even those like myself who were blessed with great parents and a healthy upbringing can still point to painful childhood memories. Nobody is perfect, and so nobody makes a perfect parent or sibling. And yet, injuries of a familial origin are often what linger within us into adulthood. As psychologists know, our primordial relationships with immediate family members form the basis of our tendencies as adults. With the lens of truth offered by Hawthorn, you are more able to protect yourself and your loved ones from unnecessary sorrow.
From the Heart
If we truly acted from our hearts, imagine how the world might be different. Would people still spray chemicals on their food, eat meat that came from suffering animals, dump trash into the ocean, or go to war?
And yet, it is very easy to forget all about the heart. In fact, I believe that our culture teaches us to shut down our heart centers. Rather than being taught to feel and process our emotions, we’re expected to hide and neglect them in order to succeed in our jobs and our lives. Even in the realm of romance, people tend to jump from one relationship to another without allowing themselves the time to grieve, much less change the pattern that manifested a non-functional relationship to begin with. I’ve done this myself, only to find that while I had changed the name and face of the person whom I was with, the patterns stayed much the same (and actually worsened).
Until we face our fear of vulnerability that comes along with opening our hearts, this won’t change–not on the personal level, and not on the global level. I know it’s scary, but I promise you that it will be okay. While I sat tearful under the Hawthorn tree, nobody laughed at me or shunned me. In fact, the more I open up, the more surprised I am at just how kind people can be.
Working with the Hawthorn spirit can dislodge emotional blockages in order for you to start pumping love more freely through your veins. Under her care, you are able to handle all of life’s bittersweet ebbs and flows, its joys and sorrows. If you open yourself to the wisdom of Grandmother Hawthorn, you will receive a mighty reward—nothing less than a greater depth of feeling and a higher capacity to love.