On my trip to the Northeast of China this past autumn, which I mentioned in the first post of this blog, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to drive across many small roads–stopping often to look at plants. One of the most common plants I saw during my trip was Hawthorn (Crataegus pinnatifida 山楂). Now, some of you more savvy botany folks will say, “Are you sure about the species?: You see, for those who don’t know, this is a difficult genus to key out (identify using a botanical “key,” i.e. identification book). However, after reviewing all the species in the Flora of China I am 99% sure I have the species correct. What is interesting about this, is that if you look at the picture you might notice the fruits are very small. This was the first stumbling block I ran into when I trying to key out this plant because I automatically discarded the thought that it could be C. pinnatifida, the most common species used in Chinese medicine. However, what I learned is that this species has been under cultivation for more than 1000 years and over that time period the fruit has been selected for size and what we get today is several times larger than its wild relative.
The genus (Crataegus) is large, about 300-1000 species (depending on which botanist you talk to and how they assess the make-up of the genus), found in northern temperate areas around the world, with a particular concentration in North America–there are 18 species in China and 10 endemic species. In Europe (and also in North America), Crataegus monogyna (native to Western Europe and North Africa), is widely cultivated and used for not only medicine but also as a hedgerow in landscaping, a single tree as a specimen for its white flowers in the spring and its red berries in the late summer and autumn. Really, over-all an excellent landscape plant. The fruits of this plant are also harvested and made into myriad of culinary delights including jams, jellies, and various alcoholic drinks, not to mention its famed use as a medicinal, primarily for the cardiovascular system.
In China the cultivated Hawthorn is used for medicine differently than in the West, but it is also juiced, bottled, and commonly sold in stores. It is also processed into candy and a few other products. In the autumn the fruit is common in markets in Beijing (and I assume other cities) sold fresh for consumption as any other fruit. This larger cultivated variety is quite pleasant to eat being sour and slightly sweet. Chinese hawthorn is primarily used for digestive complaints, but recent research has found that it may also be useful for the cardiovascular system.