Hawthorn's bright red fruits caught my eye this past weekend when I was leading a foraging tour. Sometimes snubbed because of its mealy texture, hawthorn fruit makes spectacular liqueurs, jellies, fruit sauce, and chutney.While you're enjoying the rosy color and gentle sweetness of this late summer and early fall fruit, you may also be getting some health benefits: hawthorn has a long history of use as an herbal medicine for the heart, especially for arrhythmia. It is useful for both high and low blood pressure, acting as a balancing tonic.
Hawthorns are small trees with leaves that are 1-2 inches long and usually lobed. The leaves can have different shapes from one tree to the next, but are always alternate with toothed margins.The lovely white to pale pink flowers look like clusters of apple or cherry blossoms and bloom in mid-spring.
Hawthorn fruits look like little apples, usually red but sometimes closer to purple. You might think you've found an apple or a crabapple tree...until you notice the wickedly long, stout, and sharp thorns. Those thorns are your ID clincher. Also, apples always have 5 seeds per fruit in a pentacle pattern, whereas the number of seeds in hawthorn fruit can vary from 1 to 5.
Look for hawthorn on open hillsides, near pastures and stream banks. It is also widely planted as an ornamental in city parks.
Poking around around hawthorn's spiky branches is no fun, and the fruit that has already fallen to the ground quickly becomes bug-infested. Instead, wait until the fruit has started falling from the tree. Lay down a drop cloth and carefully (watch out for those thorns) shake the reachable branches. The ripe fruit will fall onto your drop cloth.
Go for recipes that skip the tedious work of removing hawthorn's seeds, while making the most of the lovely color the fruit's skin imparts. Hawthorn-infused vodka or brandy, hawthorn jelly, hawthorn syrup...you get the idea. You can also run the fruit, unpeeled, through a food mill to remove the stems and then use the pulp to make hawthorn sauce (similar to apple sauce).
When guests ask what's in their blush-colored digestif, I joke with them that it's strictly for medicinal purposes. But the truth is that although my heart may benefit from hawthorn's tonic properties, I simply enjoy the taste.
Wash ripe hawthorn fruits. Lightly smash each fruit with the bottom of a mason jar or a potato masher. Put the smashed fruit into a clean glass jar and cover it with brandy or vodka. Put the lid on the jar and let the hawthorn steep for one month. Strain out the fruit and add honey to taste (I like just a teaspoon per cup of hawthorn extract, but you may want it sweeter).
Leda Meredith is the author of Northeast Foraging: 120 Wild and Flavorful Edibles from Beach Plums to Wineberries. You can watch her foraging and food preservation videos, and find her food preservation recipes and tips. Her latest book is Preserving Everything: Can, Culture, Pickle, Freeze, Ferment, Dehydrate, Salt, Smoke...and More.