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Category: Medicines - plant based



Introduction and description


Crataegus  commonly called hawthorn, May-tree, whitethorn, or hawberry, is a large genus of shrubs and trees in the family Rosaceae, native to temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere in Europe, Asia and North America.

The name haw, originally an Old English term for hedge, applies to the fruit. 

There are thought to be up to 1,000 species of Hawthorn worldwide, the two most common in the UK are are Crataegus monogyna and Crataegus laevigata.

In this section we are going to home in on these two, since there is more research available.  There does seem to be an indication that other ‘hawthorns’ share chemicals and activity.


The two Crataegus species Crataegus monogyna and Crataegus laevigata are shrubs or small trees, mostly growing to around 5 metres tall. They are very common trees in the UK and the rest of Europe, when it is used as a hedge plant. During the British Agricultural Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, hawthorn saplings were mass propagated in nurseries to create the new field boundaries required by the Enclosure Acts.

hawthorn tree on white scar Ingleton Yorkshire

Hawthorns are an incredibly hardy plant and appear to be able to grow in some of the harshest climates the UK, for example, can offer.  As the wind whips across the North of England, across the moors and bleak landscapes of the Pennines, hawthorns can be found growing as shrubs or small distorted trees in the protected shelter of a rock or cliff face.  Their long very sharp thorns protect them from foraging by sheep or cattle.

The most common type of bark is smooth grey in young individuals, developing shallow longitudinal fissures with narrow ridges in older trees. The thorns are small sharp-tipped branches that arise either from other branches or from the trunk, and are typically 1–3 cm long (recorded as up to 11.5 centimetres (4.5 in) in one case.  As a purely trivial added extra, they have been found by my husband to be very good for clearing the fuel pipe of an old Austin 7.


The leaves grow spirally arranged on long shoots, and in clusters on spur shoots on the branches or twigs. The leaves of most species have lobed or serrate margins and are somewhat variable in shape.

The fruit, sometimes known as a "haw", is berry-like but structurally a pome containing from 1 to 5 pyrenes that resemble the "stones" of plums, peaches, etc., which are drupaceous fruit in the same subfamily.

Hawthorns provide food and shelter for many species of birds and mammals, and the flowers are important for many nectar-feeding insects. The plant effectively encourages predation of its berries, in order that its young [seeds] are spread far and wide and offer no competition to the mother bush, a somewhat important factor in the sort of terrain occupied.  Haws are important for wildlife in winter, particularly thrushes and waxwings; these birds eat the haws and disperse the seeds in their droppings.

The flowers are usually white, but the blossoms may also be a light or deep pink.


Hawthorn has been common in Britain for millennia, pollen counts show it was in the UK before 6,000 BC.
From Celtic ceremony, to Arthurian myth, to Christian legend, the Hawthorn has its place in all the stories that shape our land and our hearts.
In pagan spirituality, the Hawthorn was a symbol of fertility, youth and sexuality and was considered sacred to the Goddess. It is believed that in Celtic times, most marriages took place at this time of year, usually at Beltaine, the cross quarter festival marking the mid-point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. Hawthorn would have been in full bloom, bringing abundant blessings to the newly weds.
Today, it’s historical symbolism and it’s affinity with the heart have resulted in it being considered the tree of love.


It has to be said that in pagan spirituality, any tree  was a symbol of fertility, youth and sexuality, as it provided a good excuse to practise a bit of fertility worship, whenever you passed one, or two, or three....... 

The rather heady scent given off by the Hawthorn in May is disliked by some and loved by others.  The science says that the chemical given off is  ‘triethylamine’, one of the first chemicals produced from dead tissue!  In effect, the scent is intended to attract flies as pollinators.  But to me the smell is not at all unpleasant.  It also invokes happy memories, as I drove through the Edale valley when it was full of the smell of the May hedges there, with my father in the front of the car entranced and in his 80s and my Mum [also in her eighties] oohing and aaah ing from the back .

From Myths and Legends of the Hawthorn


In Celtic lore the fairies had an affinity for the hawthorn which was one of the Three Sacred Trees, along with Oak & Ash. To this day in Ireland & Wales there are those who make hawthorn wreaths to leave out either for the fairies or for angels.  The number of superstitions & traditions attached to hawthorns are legion. For example, a thorn from a hawthorn can be kept in one's pouch while fishing to guarantee a good catch.
In Arabic erotic literature, hawthorn is regarded as an aphrodisiac because the flowers presumedly smell like aroused women. This is also why the hawthorn was sacred to Hymen or Hymenaeus, the Greek God of the marriage chamber. Hawthorn was additionally sacred to the Greek Goddess Maia (Roman Flora). For this reason boughs were long used for luck & for protection in Greek & Roman households, & remained symbolic of hope well into the Christian era.
But in Teutonic ritual it was used for funeral pyres because smoke of the hawthorn bore souls into the afterlife. The Hawthorn's association with death gave rise to many frightful superstitions about this tree.
On the witches' holiday of Beltane (May Day), witches were supposed to be able turn themselves into Hawthorns. The greatest of all goddess-witches, Nimue, had her great victory over Merlin when she snared him eternally in the thorny branches of a hawthorn.
Modern wiccans & neo-druids keep some of the traditions about hawthorn alive, notably a very old peasant practice from England of hanging ribbons on hawthorns during their May bloom.

The saying "Ne'er cast a cloot til Mey's oot" conveys a warning not to shed any cloots (clothes) before the summer has fully arrived and the may flowers (hawthorn blossoms) are in full bloom.

Medicinal uses

It was a somewhat difficult decision whether to treat Hawthorn as a food or a medicine, and in the end its medicinal value won, but Hawthorn does have considerable value as a food too, as it contains a number of vitamins and minerals.  The fruit has possibly the greatest number of vitamins and minerals, but the leaves contain important vitamins such as Vitamin C too.



If you glance at Dr Duke’s list of chemicals in the plant, [see observations] you will see that the leaves are especially interesting and an often over looked source of activity.  Just like the fruit, they offer healing potential for various heart problems – high blood pressure, arrythmias, etc – but there is more.  They act as a relaxant invoking the parasympathetic nervous system, so help with things like anxiety or sleep problems.  And they also have pain killing – analgesic – activity.

The leaves contain caffeic acid and chlorogenic acid which have not only extensive and important anti-viral activity – including flu, EBV, polio, herpes and HIV – but also metal chelating activity, important if the cause of an illness is heavy metals.

The leaves also have other antiviral [eg vaccinia] and antibacterial activity, against some very unpleasant bacteria, for example, staphylococcus.  A number of medicinal plants also have such activity but cannot be ingested, the leaves of Hawthorn can, which makes them especially valuable and perhaps not fully exploited at the moment in healing.

The leaves can be used in a tea made simply from the fresh leaves, or used in a salad when the leaves are young.  



The fruit contains vitamins and minerals such as Vitamin C, Beta-Carotene, Calcium, Chromium [which acts as an antidote to heavy metal poisoning], Cobalt, Guanine, Iron, Linoleic acid, magnesium, manganese, niacin, phosphorus, potassium, riboflavin, selenium, silicon, sodium, thiamine and zinc.  Thus the fruit is rich in minerals and has a number of important vitamins.

The fruit also contains chemicals such as Esculin which is an anti-inflammatory; Catechin, which is an antibacterial and antiviral against flu, and herpes;  Choline, which has relaxant effects;  Citric acid, which helps against leishmania;  Hyperoside, which is an analgesic and has antiviral activity against flu;  Lauric acid – an Antibacterial; Procyanidin which has Antibacterial, Antibiotic, and important antiviral activity against HIV;

It also contains Tyramine which on the plus side is a blood thinner, but on the negative side a stimulant causing  Hypertension and Vasoconstriction.

And it contains oxalic acid.  At the sort of levels one is likely to eat any berry derived products, the oxalic acid is not going to be a problem, but at too high a level oxalic acid is “CNS-Paralytic; Fatal; Hemostatic; Irritant; and Renotoxic”.  And you cannot get more final than ‘fatal’.  Thus the reason hawthorn berries were not eaten in vast quantities in the olden days but treated with some respect, is that if eat too many, gorge on them, you are a gonner.



Haws should be picked late in the season (October and November are ideal), when they are as ripe as possible. Although hawthorn berries come off the tree easily, they often bring with them lots of stems which should be removed before cooking – a slightly time consuming process. On their own, haw berries aren’t anything exciting – they’re mostly pip and taste a bit like a dry, under ripe apple. They really need to be cooked to get anything useful out of them.

None of the following recipes are going to result in you overdosing on oxalic acid, as they produce jellies, wines and sauces that are used as an accompaniment to a main meal, or a drink you are unlikely to drink in vast quantities at one sitting.

Hawthorn jelly


1.5lbs of hawthorn berries (haws). This will make 1 jar of hawthorn jelly.



Juice of 1 Lemon

Remove the stalks.  Wash haws and drain.
Put the haws into a heavy saucepan, and cover with 1.5 cups of water.
Bring to the boil and simmer for 1 hour.
Mash the berries with a potato masher every 20 minutes.
Strain the mixture over night using a jelly bag.
For every 1 pint of juice measure out 1lb of sugar.
Put sugar and lemon juice into a heavy saucepan along with the hawthorn juice.
Bring the mixture to the boil, stirring continuously until the sugar has dissolved.
Boil rapidly for 10 minutes until the jelly has reached setting point.
Skim off any foam from the top of the jelly liquid.
Pour into sterilised, warm jars and screw on the lids.



Spiced hawthorn brandy

1 bottle inexpensive brandy

Hawthorns free of all wood

1 grated nutmeg

1 cinnamon stick broken up into smaller pieces

Chopped peel of one orange

4 cloves

1 cup full of sugar or honey



Place all ingredients in a demi-john; make sure sugar or honey is dissolved by stirring contents round.
The demi-john can be sealed using a cotton wool plug or a bung.

Place in a warm, dark place for 8 weeks shaking regularly.

Then strain and pour into a sterile bottle.
Seal the bottle with a screw top lid or cork and leave in a cold dark place to mature for as long as possible (at least two years).


Pam Corbin’s Haw-sin sauce.

This recipe was originally in Pam Corbin’s preserves book, but has since been popularised by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who dubbed it haw-sin sauce on River Cottage. It benefits from having quite a generous helping of spice in it and you can ring the changes by adding garlic pepper, for example, or even five spice powder to it, making it really very oriental.  Apple cider vinegar also works well in this recipe.

Use it like a ketchup, or a dipping sauce, or add to a stir-fry. Makes one 330ml bottle.

500g haw berries
300ml cider vinegar
170g granulated sugar [or honey]
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


Wash a bottle and a vinegar-proof screwtop or stopper in hot water, then put them in a low oven to dry out and heat up.

Wash the berries and remove any stalks and leaves. Put them in a pan with the vinegar and 300ml water. Bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer for 30 minutes, by which time the berries will have turned a dull brown and their skins will have split to reveal their yellow flesh.

Tip into a sieve over a clean pan and rub the fruit through with a wooden spoon, leaving the skins and pips behind. Add the sugar to the purée in the pan and heat gently, stirring, until it dissolves. Bring to a boil and simmer for five minutes, stirring often to ensure it doesn't catch. Funnel the hot sauce into the hot, clean bottle and seal straight away. This sauce improves with age, so if you can leave it for a few weeks before opening. Use within a year and refrigerate once open.



Hawthorn Blossom wine

1 quart fresh hawthorn blossoms, pink or white, free from leaf, calix and twig and lightly pressed down

1 pint white grape juice

Juice of one lemon

2 llbs white sugar

½ tsp tannin

Yeast [wine yeast]

Water to one gallon


Pour 2 quarts boiling water onto flowers, macerate with a wooden spoon, stir daily for 4 days.

Dissolve sugar in 1 quart boiling water, when cooled add lemon juice.

Strain flower water onto the cooled syrup, add grape juice, tannin and yeast

Put in demi-johns and bung tightly

Ferment and finish sweet.

Related observations