To forage for hawthorns, I traveled to Tsfat again last week.
In spring, I’ve picked the pungently sweet white flowers and made wine of them – have eaten the tender new leaves raw. But you have to wait till autumn to pick the little red berries, so like tiny rosehips. Right after Sukkot is the best time to harvest them, but although it was late in the season, there were still plenty when I arrived.
My field guide tells me that there are four varieties of hawthorn in Israel. Some bear big berries, some bear small. Although most have red fruit, one variety’s berries are yellow. The ones I know and from which I’ve made jam, wine, and medicine, are Craetegus azarolus, which grow in the wadi around Tsfat and in the surrounding Meron hills.
There are several entrances to the wadi. I chose this one because just beyond it grow two hawthorn trees I know well.
You have to go through the cow gate. There’s a herd of semi-feral cows that roam the wadi and outskirts of town.They’re peaceful enough, but if they can get into town, they will. Believe me, I’ve almost jumped out of my skin a few times, coming upon them in a dark street.
Just a few meters away stand the hawthorn trees. Their leaves were getting dried out, but the berries were still plump and sweet. Someone had been picking already, I could see, for the lower branches were bare. I think I know who it was.
Not many care about hawthorn berries, but my friend Leah does. We used to go out foraging together. I’m sure she got there before me this time. How can I be so sure? Well, she’s quite short. Although the upper branches were still loaded, all the berries from the lower ones were gone. So it must have been Leah. Or maybe it was the cows: a few fresh cowpats on the ground proved that they’d been visiting.
That wasn’t a problem. What you have to do is pull an upper branch down with one hand and strip the berries off the twigs with the other. Of course, you have to have a third hand to hold the bag you’re going to put the berries into. Lacking that, you hang the bag on a handy branch and get to work.
How lovely the late afternoon was, in the waning light. The birds were already settling down, peacefully twittering their evening signals. A few pine needles underfoot sent up a fresh, sharp smell as I trod them. The familiar trees were there – my heart expanded as I approached them and memories of the time I lived in Tsfat came rushing in. I stood still, breathing deeply. Autumn. I filled my mind with impressions to store up, for the wadi is a little different each time I visit.
So I pulled a branch towards me and started to pick, smiling to think of Leah who had been there before me and wondering if she had thought of me. Every once in a while, I polished the dust off one or two berries and popped them into my mouth.
The berries detach from their stems easily, and if a few leaves go with them, never mind, the leaves are good for you too. They slither through your fingers in a second if you’re not careful, though, and all your straining to hold a branch down will go for nothing. I made myself work slowly, but in twenty minutes my plastic bag was heavy with berries, about three cups full.
Hawthorn’s most important medicinal property is that it is a tonic for heart muscle. Herbalists recommend the tincture or extract of it to people suffering from mild heart disease. Eating the fresh berries works too.
There are other pleasant things about hawthorn. I’ve found it calms down palpitations coming from nerves or a hormonal surge. It restores a feeling of calm after a shock. It’s also helpful to take a dropperful of the tincture if you wake up in the small hours and can’t get back to sleep. In a little while you can return to bed and drop off again.
Most of the berries I picked, I gave to another friend. I have lots of hawthorn tincture from previous years, don’t need to make more. I even have a bottle of hawthorn flower wine that I’ve been keeping. I’ll dry the handful I kept and infuse a few berries into tea every day over the winter. Like all the rose family, they are high in flavinoids and vitamin C – and they taste good. Sweet, with an undertone of sour to balance it, like apples. Hmm…like many things.