Cooling the Raging Fires

(Part 1 of a 2 part series of musings on Hawthorn.)

There is still snow on the ground here in western Maine, but something inside me is waiting to catch the scent of Hawthorn flowers on the wind.

In my ancestors’ Irish homeland, the Hawthorn blooms in early May, the month of Bealtaine, signaling the beginning of the bright half of the year, the season of leaf and flower that will give way to the season of fruit and then the season of grains. When the last fruits have fallen to the ground or dried on the trees, Samhain will arrive at the beginning of November, ushering us into the season of darkness.

Hawthorn stands at the boundaries of darkness and light, death and rebirth, fear and ecstasy, this world and the Otherworld. In Ireland it grows along the edges of the last remnants of ancient Oak and Yew forests, beside sacred wells, and atop the “Hollow Hills” beneath which the Daoine Sidhe, the faery people, sleep.

In this season of pandemic, it brings profound medicine.

Hawthorn’s medicine is cool and dark, like the rich soil of an Apple orchard.

I love to tincture the leaf, flower, and berry together in a good Irish whiskey with a touch of honey – and include a single thorn. I will mix a little of the tincture with heavy cream when making offerings to the tree, my Irish ancestors, or the Daoine Sidhe... but more about them in my next essay, for now let’s talk a bit about Hawthorn’s physical medicine.

I learned from Matthew Wood that Hawthorn is specific for reducing “heat and irritation in the capillaries.”

This explains the medicine’s well known ability to mitigate cardiovascular disease, and also relates to its other uses for managing inflammation in the respiratory and digestive tracts – and its possible relevance in helping to manage the body’s response to COVID-19 infection.

Hawthorn wasn’t used for cardiovascular issues in the West until the early twentieth century, but it was widely used in medieval Europe to aid in the digestion of meat. Similarly, Hawthorn is used in Chinese medicine to treat indigestion.

In the 1990’s, Dr. Deborah Frances pioneered the use of Hawthorn in the treatment of acute asthma attacks marked by “constriction and tightness in the chest.” I’ve found it especially useful for asthma attacks brought on by emotional triggers and often preceded by heat in the cheeks an the ear lobes.

I am wary of making leaps from the conclusions of in vitro and animal studies of plant constituents to practical use of an herb with people, but when they line up with traditional knowledge about a plant and my own empirical experience, the three sets of evidence support and confirm each other. So it is with the research around Hawthorn and inflammation. I’ve included citations for several studies of how various Hawthorn polyphenols mediate inflammation in the digestive tract, the blood vessels, and the respiratory tract at the end of this piece. I will just go into the basics here.

Hawthorn reduces inflammation in the epithelial cells of the lining of the respiratory tract and the walls of the blood vessels by preventing pro-inflammatory cytokines from recruiting white blood cells to the area. One Hawthorn constituent, vitexin, has been shown to act in a similar way to mediate inflammation in the respiratory tract. Excess inflammatory cytokines lead to an overly aggressive immune response which can damage tissues.

One of the biggest dangers people face with COVID-19 is that in an effort to fight off the virus, the body can produce too many inflammatory cytokines, destroying otherwise healthy tissues most commonly in the lungs but also in the heart, the kidneys, and the nervous system. The extreme end of this phenomenon, the “cytokine storm,” is life threatening and requires hospitalization. But I would definitely use Hawthorn, ideally in combination with Baikal Skullcap and Reishi, to try to control inflammation in the early stages of a COVID-19 infection while keeping in regular touch with a health care practitioner.

Some polyphenols from Hawthorn also appear to inhibit ACE -- Angiotensin Converting Enzyme, thereby weakening the action of angiotensin, a hormone that signals the body to constrict the blood vessels. Constricting blood vessels raises blood pressure an also can increase local inflammation by impeding healthy circulation. ACE converts raw angiotensin 1 into the active form of antiotensin, angiotensin 2.

ACE has a counterpart, ACE2 which deactivates angiotensin 2, relaxing and opening the blood vessels.

COVID-19 attaches itself to ACE2 receptors, initially in the lung, which interferes with the action of ACE2, thus increasing the action of angiotensin 2, causing blood vessels to constrict, spiking blood pressure, and causing tissue damage up to and including respiratory failure, scarring of the lung tissue, myocarditis, and kidney failure. Researchers are exploring whether flooding the body with ACE2 might be an effective way of treating COVID-19.

I don’t know of any herbs that boost ACE2 levels, but in Hawthorn (and in Reishi) we have herbs that could theoretically help tilt the balance slightly in the right direction in the body by inhibiting ACE and thus reducing levels of angiotensin 2 and thus somewhat reducing the need for ACE2. We also have other herbs that we know are vasodilators like Black Cohosh and Yarrow and Lobelia that combine beautifully with Hawthorn. Vasodilating herbs have the added benefit of being diaphoretics, herbs that allow the body to disperse heat, aiding in a healthy balancing of the fever process.

By itself, none of this would be adequate to address the worst symptoms in severe cases of COVID-19 infection, and I do not have case reports from people using any of these herbs except Lobelia and Black Cohosh with people with confirmed or likely cases of COVID-19, but given that I know Hawthorn can be beneficial in other acute inflammatory respiratory conditions, I would be likely to use Hawthorn myself if I contracted the virus, especially in the early stages that tend to be marked by a dry cough and minimal phlegm. In later stages, with thick phlegm present, I would likely balance Hawthorn with warming expectorants like Grindelia, Elecampane, Skunk Cabbage, or Onion.

What happens with our breath effects our heart rate. What happens with the rhythm of the physical heart effects the emotional heart. This is not a metaphor.

The heart generates the body’s largest electromagnetic field and the nature of that field is determined by the beating of the heart. Like all electromagnetic fields, this field alters and is altered by the electromagnetic fields it encounters. Neurons in the heart register those changes and send information about them via the vagus nerve to the amygdala and then to the right frontal cortex of the brain where we process that sensory data as emotion. Stephen Harrod Buhner lays this all out brilliantly in The Secret Teachings of Plants. We, of course, have the most significant responses to changes in our electromagnetic fields that our bodies recognize as related to the presence of other living things, especially the people, animals, and plants we love.

(Before we go on I will say, yes, I do think there is a significant possibility that electromagnetic fields generated by human technology alter our experience of the world. In fact, I would say they almost certainly do. Being the particular kind of Autistic person I am, if I spend a week off the grid, I can’t sleep when I come home because I am overwhelmed by the hum of electricity in the walls and it takes me days to reacclimate to it. But I do not think that there is any meaningful relationship between 5G technology and increased severity of COVID-19 symptoms. There are many, many places without 5G technology that are facing severe outbreaks of the disease and I have read no plausible suggestions of a mechanism by which the presence of 5G technology would directly exacerbate any of the known symptoms of the infection.)

It is easy for the emotional heart to get overwhelmed in a time of fear, loss, and grief such as ours. I have been tending to my on emotional heart by taking Hawthorn and Black Cohosh to relax the blood vessels throughout my body, Lobelia to activate the ventral branch of the vagus nerve and restore heart rate variability while relaxing the muscles throughout my body, and a touch of Osha to spark my heart fire. Osha is dug by bears in spring in mountainous western parts of North America to waken their bodies and their senses. (Here in New England the bears use Skunk Cabbage for that purpose.) Bears gorge on Hawthorn in autumn before they go to sleep listening to the root songs of the plants underground.

Keeping a clear heart is necessary as we stand at the gate of transformation this pandemic brings us to -- a gate not unlike the gate between life and death, dark and light that Hawthorn guards

(In my next essay, I will speak of the mythic and transformational dimensions of Hawthorn’s medicine.)

DO YOU WANT TO LEARN MORE? The Matthew Wood Institute of Herbalism (where I am on the faculty) has some great free resources available at

DO YOU NEED TO TALK WITH AN HERBALIST? I have always had an unspoken policy of never turning away someone for an herbal consultation because they could not pay the rate I was asking. In these times, I want to make that explicit. As long as we are dealing with this pandemic, I am willing to have people pay whatever they can afford to pay for a phone consultation with me. In the part of Western Maine where I live, the internet bandwidth is too small to support Zoom or Skype calls and my phone plan only allows me to call people in the US, but I am willing to work with people anywhere if they can call me. I am not able to supply herbs to people, but the herbal dispensary I send my clients to for custom formulae remains open and able to ship herbs right now. As much as possible, I will try to help you work with herbs that you have on hand or can easily access. Email me at


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