Crataegus (Hawthorn) 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 hawthorn was originally applied to the species native to northern Europe, especially the Common Hawthorn C. monogyna, and the unmodified name is often so used in Britain and Ireland. However the name is now also applied to the entire genus, and also to the related Asian genus Rhaphiolepis.
They are shrubs and small trees growing to 5-15 m tall, characterized by their small pome fruit and thorny branches. Hawthorns provide food and shelter for many species of birds and mammals, and the flowers are important for many nectar-feeding insects. Hawthorns are also used as food plants by the larvae of a large number of Lepidoptera species.
The dried fruits of Crataegus pinnatifida are used in naturopathic medicine and traditional Chinese medicine, primarily as a digestive aid. A closely related species, Crataegus cuneata is used in a similar manner. Other species (especially Crataegus laevigata) are used in Western herbal medicine, where the plant is believed to strengthen cardiovascular function. In recent years, this use has been noted and adopted by Chinese herbalists as well. Hawthorn is also used as an aid to lower blood pressure, and treat some heart related diseases.
The reputation of crataegus is that it promotes the digestion of meat and fatty foods. The presumed mechanism of action is to stimulate the production or activities of enzymes (such as proteases and lipases) that digest these food substances and/or stimulate production of bile, which especially assists the digestion of fats. The fruit contains small amounts of lipase and one of the fruit constituents, crataegolic acid, is reported to increase the activity of proteolytic enzymes. However, it is unclear whether there is sufficient content of these compounds to significantly enhance digestion of fats and proteins and the mechanism of action may rely on other active ingredients.
In Western herbalism, crataegus fruit, leaf, and flower have all had a long history of use for treating cardiac weakness, and this has become a focus on modern research efforts. Controlled clinical trials are in the early stages, but evidence to date indicates that crataegus is an aid to persons with chronic heart failure. It appears to improve the left ventricular function and, as a result, improve exercise capacity and tolerance. In addition, crataegus provides many of the benefits attributed to Chinese herbs that are "blood vitalizers:" reducing blood lipids, improving blood circulation, and alleviating hypertension (via vasodilatation). These effects may be attributed primarily to the flavonoids of crataegus.
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