Are hawthorn berries poisonous to humans?

Hawthorn berries are the fruit of the hawthorn tree, which belongs to the rose family. Also known as thornapples or haw berries, they look like mini apples and range in color from yellow to deep red to black. Hawthorn trees and shrubs are native to temperate regions around the world, including Europe, Asia, North America, and northern Africa. Approximately 1,000 species exist within the hawthorn genus.

These berries have an extensive history of use in traditional herbal medicine. They’re perhaps best known for their use in treating cardiovascular conditions. However, hawthorn berry preparations may also have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anticancer effects.

Still, if you happen upon hawthorn berries in the wild, you may wonder if it’s safe to eat them. This article provides everything you need to know about hawthorn berry poisoning risks, uses, side effects, and more.

Are hawthorn berries poisonous?

The short answer is no, hawthorn berries are not poisonous to humans. In fact, people have consumed these tart red berries for centuries as food and medicine. However, some precautions are necessary.

Unripe hawthorn berries contain a compound called amygdalin, which can break down into cyanide when digested. Eating large quantities of unripe berries could make you ill. Once the berries ripen, amygdalin levels decline and they are safe to eat.

Additionally, hawthorn seeds contain a compound called amygdalin that can release cyanide. While small quantities are not dangerous, it’s best to avoid consuming the seeds.

It’s also important to confirm the berries you have are indeed hawthorn berries. Several toxic berry look-alikes exist, including chokecherries, nightshade berries, and buckthorn berries. Consume any wild berries with caution.

When enjoyed ripe and in moderation, hawthorn berries provide benefits with minimal risks. If you experience side effects like nausea, dizziness, or stomach pain after eating them, discontinue use.

Edible Varieties of Hawthorn Berries

There are numerous hawthorn species that produce edible berries, including:

Downy Hawthorn

Also known as Crataegus mollis, downy hawthorn is native to eastern North America. Its berries ripen in late summer to fall and range from dark red to black in color. The berries have thick, creamy flesh and a sweet, apple-like flavor.

English Hawthorn

Crataegus laevigata, also called midland hawthorn or woodland hawthorn, is native to Europe and North Africa. Its red berries have a similar taste and appearance to downy hawthorn. They contain one large seed each.

Chinese Hawthorn

Native to eastern Asia, Crataegus pinnatifida goes by Chinese hawthorn or mountain hawthorn. Its bright red, pea-sized berries are tart with notes of apple, cranberry, and cherry. Chinese hawthorn berries are arguably the most palatable of the species.

One-Seed Hawthorn

As the name suggests, Crataegus monogyna yields berries with just one seed each. Also known as common hawthorn, May tree, or single-seeded hawthorn, it grows across Europe, western Asia, and northern Africa. The fruits are red when immature, darkening to black with ripeness.

Azarole Hawthorn

Crataegus azarolus is commonly called azarole hawthorn. Native to southern Europe and parts of Asia, its yellowish berries resemble mini apples in appearance and flavor. The fruits contain three large seeds.

River Hawthorn

Crataegus rivularis goes by river hawthorn or gilt-edged hawthorn. It’s native to areas of North America. The egg-shaped berries lose bitterness and gain sweetness as they redden.

Species Common Names Native Region Berry Description
Crataegus mollis Downy hawthorn Eastern North America Dark red to black, thick and creamy
Crataegus laevigata English hawthorn, midland hawthorn, woodland hawthorn Europe, North Africa Red, apple-like, one large seed
Crataegus pinnatifida Chinese hawthorn, mountain hawthorn Eastern Asia Bright red, small, tart yet sweet
Crataegus monogyna Common hawthorn, May tree, single-seeded hawthorn Europe, western Asia, northern Africa Red then black with ripeness, one seed
Crataegus azarolus Azarole hawthorn Southern Europe, parts of Asia Yellow, apple-like, three large seeds
Crataegus rivularis River hawthorn, gilt-edged hawthorn North America Egg-shaped, sweeten as they redden

As you can see, numerous hawthorn species bear edible berries that are safe for human consumption when ripe. Avoid eating unripe, bitter fruits or intact seeds.

Traditional Medicinal Uses

In addition to eating the berries as food, traditional medicine has prized hawthorn fruit, leaves, and flowers for their health benefits for centuries.

Hawthorn preparations are best known for strengthening heart function. Across Europe and Asia, people have enjoyed hawthorn tea and tinctures to support cardiovascular health.

The berries, leaves, and flowers contain an array of bioactive plant compounds. These include flavonoids like hyperoside and rutin, phenolic acids like chlorogenic acid and caffeic acid, anthocyanins, procyanidins, and triterpene acids like oleanolic acid and ursolic acid.

This chemical profile gives hawthorn preparations the following traditional uses:

Treating Heart Failure

Hawthorn preparations have traditionally been used to treat mild stages of heart failure. Heart failure is a condition where the heart cannot pump adequate blood to meet the body’s needs. Congestive heart failure is the most common type.

Hawthorn preparations may strengthen heart contractions, widen blood vessels to improve blood flow, and regulate heart rhythm.

According to traditional use, it’s best to take hawthorn preparations alongside prescription heart medications. Speak to your healthcare provider before using hawthorn if you have heart problems.

Lowering High Blood Pressure

The vasodilating effects of hawthorn may help lower high blood pressure by relaxing blood vessels. A vasodilator is a substance that widens blood vessels, increasing blood flow and reducing pressure.

Some proponents claim hawthorn interacts with receptors for angiotensin II, a hormone that narrows blood vessels. By blocking angiotensin II, hawthorn teas and tinctures may lower blood pressure. However, clinical research is limited in this area.

Improving Poor Circulation

Poor circulation restricts blood flow, usually to the extremities like the hands and feet. It causes symptoms like coldness, numbness, pain, cramps, and fatigue in affected areas.

Hawthorn is traditionally used to open blood vessels and increase circulation. It may improve blood flow to the peripheries. Clinical studies support this use, but more research is needed.

Protecting Against Heart Disease

Some traditional practitioners recommend hawthorn to protect against atherosclerosis, chest pain (angina), irregular heart beat (arrhythmia), and heart attack.

The berries and flowers contain antioxidants that combat artery damage by reactive molecules called free radicals. Hawthorn preparations may also dilate blood vessels, lower cholesterol, and calm heart rhythm.

However, clinical evidence does not yet confirm these protective benefits. Talk to your doctor about proven steps like diet, exercise, and medication to prevent heart disease.

Modern Scientific Research

An increasing number of scientific studies over the past few decades have examined the potential health benefits of hawthorn preparations.

Here’s a look at some of the current research:

Treating Chronic Heart Failure

Multiple clinical studies suggest hawthorn preparations benefit people with chronic heart failure.

In one study, 78 people with heart failure took either hawthorn leaf and flower or placebo for 8 weeks. Those taking hawthorn experienced significant improvements in heart function and exercise capacity without any serious side effects.

A review study evaluated 10 controlled trials with 855 heart failure patients. Overall, hawthorn preparations improved heart pumping capacity and exercise tolerance while decreasing shortness of breath and fatigue.

Authors concluded that hawthorn shows great promise as an adjunctive treatment for mild-to-moderate chronic heart failure. However, larger studies are needed to confirm benefits.

Protecting Blood Vessels

Research indicates compounds in hawthorn like flavonoids and phenolic acids promote healthy blood vessels.

For instance, test tube studies demonstrate hawthorn preparations:

– Relax blood vessels
– Suppress inflammation
– Inhibit release plaque-building LDL cholesterol by arteries
– Prevent white blood cells from sticking to vessel walls
– Reduce oxidation and damage to LDL cholesterol

One animal study gave mice hawthorn for 4 weeks before induced artery injury. The hawthorn group experienced significantly less vessel damage than control mice.

More studies are necessary, but these vascular benefits may underlie the heart health effects of hawthorn preparations.

Regulating Blood Pressure

A review of four clinical studies with 264 high blood pressure patients found promising results for hawthorn preparations.

People who took hawthorn extracts experienced greater reductions in systolic and diastolic blood pressure than control groups. The largest study found greater benefits at higher hawthorn doses.

Researchers concluded hawthorn shows potential for regulating mild high blood pressure. However, larger and longer studies are required to confirm effects.

Other Potential Benefits

Here’s a look at other possible benefits of hawthorn being investigated:

– Reducing chest pain caused by heart disease (angina)
– Improving irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia)
– Lowering cholesterol levels
– Enhancing circulation
– Protecting liver health
– Lowering blood sugar levels
– Reducing anxiety
– Boosting digestion

However, research remains preliminary for these potential uses. Much more study is needed before hawthorn can be recommended for these conditions.

Overall, modern research suggests hawthorn preparations may offer valid cardiovascular benefits. But high quality clinical trials on large populations over extended periods are still lacking.

Are Hawthorn Berries Safe?

When used appropriately, hawthorn berry preparations are likely safe for most people. However, side effects are possible, and safety precautions are important.

Side Effects

Relatively few side effects are reported with moderate hawthorn consumption. Potential adverse reactions can include:

– Nausea, digestive upset, diarrhea
– Dizziness, vertigo, fatigue, faintness
– Sweating
– Headaches
– Skin reactions (with topical use)
– Insomnia
– Heart palpitations

In most cases, side effects are mild and temporary. Lower your dosage or stop taking hawthorn products if reactions persist or worsen.

Precautions

The following precautions apply when using hawthorn preparations:

– Avoid use during pregnancy and breastfeeding, as effects are unknown.
– Do not give hawthorn preparations to infants or young children.
– Check with your doctor before use if you take any prescription medications, as interactions are possible.
– Speak with your healthcare provider before taking hawthorn products if you have a heart condition or take heart medications like blood thinners.
– Stop taking hawthorn at least 2 weeks before any scheduled surgery, as it may interfere with anesthesia.

Additionally, only consume any wild hawthorn berries with caution and in moderate portions to avoid toxicity from unripe fruits.

Recommended Dosages

There are no official guidelines for hawthorn berry dosages. Traditional sources recommend:

– Dried berries or berry powder: 2–3 grams per day
– Liquid extract (1:1): 2–4 mL three times per day
– Tea: Steep crushed berries or leaves in hot water for 5–10 minutes and drink 3 times daily

For heart health, studies have used dosages ranging from 160–1,800 mg per day of standardized hawthorn extract over 10–24 week periods.

Work with an experienced practitioner to find the optimal dosage for your individual health needs. Take hawthorn preparations with food to minimize stomach upset.

Choosing Hawthorn Supplements

You can find hawthorn preparations at natural health shops and online stores in various forms:

– Dried berries or capsules
– Powdered berries or leaves
– Liquid tinctures or extracts
– Teas

When shopping for hawthorn supplements, look for products standardized to at least 2% flavonoids or 18% oligomeric procyanidins. Standardized extracts provide a consistent dosage of active compounds.

For heart conditions, choose products made from hawthorn leaf and flower instead of the berries. Research shows greater cardiac benefits from the leaves and blooms.

Opt for organic hawthorn preparations whenever possible. Avoid products with added ingredients like fillers, preservatives, and artificial additives.

Talk to a knowledgeable practitioner to find high quality hawthorn preparations for your health goals.

Putting It All Together — Should You Eat Hawthorn Berries?

In summary, hawthorn berries are not poisonous and are safe for consumption when fully ripe. Enjoying a few raw hawthorn berries or a tea made from the dried fruits poses little risk for most people.

However, ingesting the seeds whole or eating large amounts of unripe berries may cause digestive illness. Monitor children closely if foraging for hawthorn berries to prevent overconsumption of unripe fruits.

While hawthorn berry products are not proven treatments, they show promise in traditional medicine and scientific research for:

– Strengthening cardiovascular function
– Lowering mild high blood pressure
– Improving poor circulation and related conditions
– Possibly protecting blood vessels and heart health

When taken sensibly, hawthorn preparations likely carry minimal risk of side effects for healthy adults. But check with your doctor first if taking medications or have a health condition.

So in moderation, most people can safely enjoy the tart, apple-like flavor of ripe hawthorn berries from nontoxic varieties. Identify berries with certainty before ingesting. And as with any medicinal herb, use hawthorn products cautiously under professional guidance for optimal safety and therapeutic benefit.

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