Women's Health and Herbal Medicine
My hawthorne berries are growing plump and ruby at the top of this 5000 foot mountain, and I am still in the bottom lowlands, a mere 3000 feet or so in elevation, strapping thick hiking boots to my feet and pulling on canvas gloves in the pre-dawn dew.
The day for harvest has finally come, and Burdock the Bernese mountain dog knows it as much as I do. Last year around the hawthorne harvest time, I caught him sneaking low-hanging fruit from the tree as I was harvesting. I thought, “What an excellent example of zoopharmacognosy!” because firstly, it’s a wonderful word to think aloud to oneself, and secondly, because truly, he as an animal has this vital canine instinct about what’s good for him. With a purebred mountain dog father, he has a genetic predisposition to heart troubles, the very thing that hawthorne remedies so reliably. And did he know this, when poking his long furry snout unperturbed into the brambly thicket and nibbling on the berries? I think so.
We climb steadily up towards the ridge where the hawthornes reign, Burdock with his backpack and me with mine, both of us stopping to drink from one of the seven springs we cross along the way. Both of us in various states of bedragglement the higher we climb, accumulating hundreds of tickseeds and agrimony burrs, he in his tail and me in my mane, both of us avoiding the falling buckeyes and sweating a bit in the cool September climate.
We have been watching the hawthornes all year. The tree of May, they bloom bursts of white delight in the late spring, beneath which fairies are said to dream in the old Gaelic traditions. When they were in full blossom I gently cut away some of the rosy flowers and leaves, which would be made into sweet, flavonoid-rich tincture for needy capillaries and wanting vessels.
Hawthorne is in the rose and apple family, and it’s obvious: the flowers mimic creamy mini ornamental roses while the seeds hold the same toxic Snow-White compound as their fruity cousins: cyanide. In my understanding, it’s about as big of a deal to consume a hawthorne as it is to eat an apple. Strain out or spit out the seeds, and you’re fine.
Their medicine is sweet, tonic, and red, astringent and life-filled, bioavailable to the cardiovascular system and generous in antioxidants. Compounds from hawthorne are used to create some pharmaceutical heart medicines and have been touted for their safety, effectiveness and lack of herb-drug contraindications. They are considered an adaptogen for the heart, with that mystical phyto-ability to lower blood pressure or raise it as needed, and to aid the cardiac area of the body to do its best job pumping, distributing, and nourishing the blood.
The berries are early this year, and so I must be, too. Hawthorne does not wait around for insignificant wildcrafters to come and take their pick, and neither do the black bears that roam this acreage, and neither do the dark-eyed juncos fluttering to nab the topmost berries that gleam scarlet in the light. Hawthorne does not mind if I have orders to fill and eager berry buyers 3000 feet below its roots and a city and a world away.
Hawthorne lives here, actually lives here, has been born and watered and winded and pollinated and grown up and old and gnarly and reproduced one million berry children here. And hawthorne will continue to live here so long as the mountain keeps kind to it, and the harvesters pluck only what their baskets can carry, and never more.
We pick for hours in that close, high-elevation September sun, so much nearer than than normal, and the basket begins to fold and creak beneath its slowly growing weight. Or, I pick, and Burdock sturdily guards us from bears, or, more likely, sinister chipmunks and dragonflies. The thorns guarding the haws are nothing less than formidable and no match for tender human hands, some of them growing more than two inches in length, jagged reminders that this is the wild of blood-red berries, not merely pricked fingers from a fairytale.
We tumble down the mountain, sliding through rocky creeks and dodging leafy banks, 10 pounds heavier at least, laden but far from burdened. The bears can return to their sweet feast in privacy, now, and I can return to the ear-popping lowlands from whence I came.
But not before a deluge of black Jerseys decides to take interest in our cause. Burdock and I descend upon a pleasantly mooing field of Madison County cows, who turned quickly into an aggressively stomping and MOOING field of Madison County cows as we trundled through their territory. They seemed to be showing far too much interest in my wildcrafted goods than I deemed appropriate for cows, dodging towards either me or the oddly cow-colored dog and then leering backwards with a noise like a tortured primate.
I wonder at this point if cows have some obscure fondness for hawthorne berries that perhaps I wasn’t aware of, and begin to hold my precious bag of loot a bit further away from my side, just in case I needed to toss it to my bovine predators and run like the wind. Surely none of these were bulls, were they? The grab-the-bull-by-the-horns expression came to mind and I was conveniently reminded that none of these cows indeed had horns, so surely they wouldn’t be in hot pursuit of a redhead with a red bag full to the brim with bright red…no! Surely not!
Nevertheless, we weren’t going to risk it. We dart around the herd, running and scattering a few berries in our wake, Hansel and Gretel breadcrumbs style, under barbed wire fences and over fallen hemlocks and safely clattering three miles down the mountain.
The day for harvest is over for another year. We will keep watching the hawthornes through the winter, we will go and visit them again when their branches are bare and they look dead and grey, and we will approach them in the spring again, asking once more what heart fruits they will hold for us come autumn.
by Jackie Dobrinska
Lion heart (Leonurus cardiaca) is the botanical name for Motherwort, a mint with a reputed big heart who likes to impact the hearts of others.
A common “weed” found in most city lots and almost any disturbed area, Motherwort has a square stem and opposite leaves. The palmately lobed leaves have serrated margins with petioles. They are hairy, dull green on top, pale below and have an intensely bitter taste. On the upper portion of the plant, the small, pink to lilac colored flowers whirl and often have a furry lower lip. They bloom between June and August. Like the abundant mother who always have a gift to give without attachments, Motherwort self-sows very freely but doesn’t spread by her roots.
Wort is an Old English word often employed before the 17th century to refer to a plant with medicinal qualities. Mother, simply refers to her place as one of the triple goddesses – Chickweed (Maiden), Motherwort (Mother), Mugwort (Crone.)
The Japanese, who made Motherwort into a wine, drank her for longevity – illustrated in an old tale about a town whose water source is a stream flowing through banks of Motherwort. Many of the townspeople lived to be 130 years old and one reportedly lived to 300 years.
In Europe, Motherwort first became known for “hysterical” conditions and “meloncholy” (since she can make you feel like you’re sitting in a mother’s lap). Colonists introduced Motherwort into North America and the 19th century Eclectics recommended it as a menstruation promoter and aid to expelling the afterbirth. The Cherokees used the herb as a sedative for nervous afflictions, and the Victorian Language of Flowers says it symbolizes concealed love.
Today, Motherwort is primarily used by herbalists as a heart tonic, studies showing that it can decrease muscle spasms and temporarily lower blood pressure. Susun Weed calls it “a bypass in a bottle.”
Susun also recommends it to frenzied children, menopausal & premenstrual women, and pretty much any one who is feeling crazed. It is one of her favorite calmatives and she says, “Whatever your pain–lower back pain, menstrual cramps, emotional child hood trauma, heart ache, gas pain, toothache — motherwort can relieve it.” A brief note though: many herbalists recommend avoiding it during pregnancy.
Motherwort reminds us to trust ourselves and have confidence that the ultimate outcome will be best for all involved in the fullness of time. This message in itself is calming to the heart and to any of our inner pain. Her ability to calm and nourish very much feels like the balm of a loving mother.