Hawthorn trees are similar to crabapple trees. Both produce white or pink flowers in the spring and a dark red fruit in the fall. The fruit of both trees tends to stay on the branches until the following spring, and both provide good food for wintering birds.
One big difference between hawthorn and crabapple is that the fruit from the hawthorn tree is a commonly used herb in Chinese medicine, while crabapple is not. Hawthorn fruit, or Shan Zha is used to treat something called food stagnation, which is when food is not being processed properly, moving slowly or not at all through your digestive tract.
The herb Shan Zha helps you digest, absorb and guide food out, especially rich meats or greasy foods. It works by stimulating gastrointestinal secretions, promoting peristalsis (movement within your gut) and by helping your body produce helpful digestive enzymes.
Shan Zha can be used when your digestive issues are caused by heat—caused by having a high temperature or through constraint from stress or an emotional upset. Symptoms of this kind of stagnation include gas, bloating, bad breath and a preference for cold or hot foods. In addition, Shan Zha can also treat food stagnation caused by cold, caused by eating too many cold and frozen foods, a sluggish metabolism or living in a cold environment. Cold stagnation can produce a thick or swampy feeling in your throat, nausea, abdominal distention, wanting to eat warm foods and avoiding cold ones.
What are the benefits of hawthorn fruit?
In Chinese medicine, hawthorn fruit may also be added to a formula to help treat chronic diarrhea or to relieve post-partum abdominal pain. As beneficial as hawthorn fruit is for digestive problems, scientists are finding that it has many more uses:
- Hawthorn may improve heart function in people with heart failure (the inability to pump sufficient blood to the rest of the body). Researchers found that hawthorn significantly improved heart function, decreased symptoms of the disease and improved study subjects’ ability to exercise.
- Early research also suggests that hawthorn is helpful in treating chest pain (called angina) caused by poor flow of blood to the heart. In one study, research subjects who received hawthorn extract for three weeks had better blood flow to their heart and could exercise for longer without experiencing chest pain than those subjects who received a placebo.
- Hawthorn fruit is also loaded with antioxidants called polyphenols. Antioxidants are compounds that help reduce the effect of free radicals, which at high levels promote inflammation and increase your risk for a number of health conditions.
- In Chinese medicine, hawthorn is recommended as a food to help treat high blood pressure, and research studies are backing this up. Studies on animals have shown hawthorn to be a vasodilator, a substance that helps open up constricted blood vessels. And some early research on humans has found that hawthorn can be helpful in lowering high blood pressure.
- In some animal studies, hawthorn has been found to decrease both cholesterol and triglycerides. While more research is needed to understand the effects of hawthorn on normalizing blood fats in humans, these findings are promising.
The good news is that even though hawthorn is a Chinese herb, you can eat it, too! The fruits are red and look like small crabapples. They have a sweet and tart flavor and can be eaten raw, taken in tea, made into jam or used as an ingredient in desserts or wine. Furthermore, hawthorn is so popular in China and other parts of Asia, because it’s also a candy, called Haw Flakes. Haw Flakes are round and flat candies about the size of a quarter and come in rolls that are wrapped up to look like fireworks. The candies are hard in the package, but become soft and chewy in your mouth. They contain sugar (they’re candy, after all!), but also have the tartness of the fruit. The flakes retain the properties of the hawthorn herb, so many people take Haw Flakes as a digestive aid or for their health benefits.
The bottom line is that hawthorn is an incredibly beneficial Chinese herb. It’s been used for treating digestive issues for centuries and its effectiveness in treating modern diseases continues to be studied. At BodaHealth, our practitioners of Chinese medicine are passionate about integrating the ancient heritage of the herbs we prescribe with the current evidence and research as to their usefulness in treating modern illnesses. We understand that Chinese herbal medicine is both an art and a science! If you’d like to explore how herbal therapy can enhance your health, please contact us.
Dr. Jeda Boughton is a Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Registered Acupuncturist in Vancouver. She is also a Registered Herbologist and the founder of BodaHealth.