Hawthorn | 山楂

Common Chinese Name: 山楂 (Shan Zha)

Common English Name: Chinese hawthorn fruit

Scientific Name: Crataegus pinnatifida 

Common Form: Bright red berries the size of the thumb, dotted with white. Usually sliced and dried into thick disks. 

TCM Five Flavors: Sour, sweet

TCM Energetics: Mildly warming

Meridian Affiliation: Liver, Spleen, Stomach

Nutrition Information:

60% starch, 4% fat. Contains vitamin K, thiamin vitamin B1, riboflavin vitamin B2, vitamin B6, niacin vitamin B3, pantothenic acid, biotin, carotenoids.

TCM Benefits:

  • Relieves Food Stagnation
  • Improves Digestion
  • Dispels Blood Stasis

Functions:

  • Relieves food stagnation and improves digestion: Allieves abdominal distension, pain and diarrhea due to overconsumption of heavy meats or greasy foods
  • Dispels blood stasis: Aid in inducing labor, allieves postpartum abdominal pain, severe abdominal pain from amenorrhea, angina, coronary artery disease, and elevated serum cholesterol. 
  • Lowers blood pressure: Alleviates hypertension.

Cooking Suggestions:

  • Average serving size: 9-15g. 
  • Steep in hot water for 10-15 min and add brown sugar to balance flavor. Steep with dried orange peel to soothe coughs or with jujube dates and goji to replenish Qi and blood.

Notes and Safety:

  • Generally safe for consumption. It has a very long history of culinary and medicinal use. 

Background and History:

There are over 100 different species of hawthorn trees growing all over the world, with seventeen varieties native to China and dozens of species native to the American east coast. However, only one species bears the edible red hawthorn fruit used in TCM, and this is the species most cultivated in China.

Hawthorn berries are a staple in modern Chinese herbology and cuisine, but they have been known to the Chinese since at least the Zhou Dynasty. The berries are described in the Book of Rights and were pronounced edible, though their medicinal benefits were not documented until the Tang Dynasty.

Famed Ming Dynasty physician Li Shizhen wrote in his authoritative Compendium of Materia Medica (Ben Cao Gang Mu) that once there was a child in his village who often suffered from indigestion. His face would take on a yellow hue, and his stomach would bloat out like a drum after eating. Once, when he was putting his sheep out to graze, he came to rest beneath a hawthorn tree and ate the berries until he had filled up on them. As a result of this happy accident, all his symptoms were relieved. 

Candied hawthorn berries (similar to caramel apples) are a traditional Chinese street snack during the winter months, especially in the days around the Lunar New Year. Hawthorn berries are pan-fried and coated in melted rock sugar, then threaded on skewers, allowing the sugar to harden into a clear golden casing. These skewers are colloquially called "candy gourds" (bing tang hu lu) for their gourd-like shape.

Candy gourds are said to have originated as a palace remedy during the Southern Song Dynasty. Legend has it that the favourite concubine of Emperor Song Guangzong suddenly became very ill. She completely lost her appetite, becoming emaciated, and her face grew sunken and yellow.

The imperial doctors tried all they could, employing a plethora of rare and previous medicines, but nothing worked, and the concubine grew thinner and sicker by the day.

In desperation, the emperor posted notices all across China, looking for a cure. An itinerant wandering doctor answered the posting. Arriving at the palace on his straw sandals and gnarled walking stick, he took the pulse of the concubine, then said,

"Pan-fry fresh hawthorn berries with brown sugar. Have Her Highness eat five to ten berries before every meal, and I promise she will be completely cured in fifteen days."

The imperial doctors complied, and sure enough, before long the concubine was healthy once more, her beauty and figure restored.

Later, this remedy spread from the palace to the nobility, then to the common folk. And no wonder. Biting into a berry, the sugar crust crackles and melts on the tongue, and the mouth is flooded with flagrantly tart hawthorn juice mellowed by the rich sweetness of toasted sugar.

Almost a millennium later, there are few things more cheering (or mouth-watering) than seeing vendors pedalling candy gourds on the street corner in winter, the glistening ruby berries bright against the snow and gray.



Written by Five Seasons TCM