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Chinese hawthorn is a shrub or small tree species in the rose family that is widespread throughout the western world and Asia. Within the genus Crataegus, there are 280 to over 1,000 species of hawthorns recognized around the world, but Chinese hawthorn, Crataegus pinnatifida, is one of the most widely-cultivated species within the group. It is grown as an herb or ornamental tree and shrub that produces white, pink, or red flowers that usually have a foul smell, but are an important source of nectar for butterflies and other insects. The fruit of the shrub is used by many animals in nature and is a staple of Chinese cooking, and has been made into everything from candy to jams and alcoholic beverages. The fruit also has several medicinal properties in traditional Chinese medicine applications since at least 659 AD, and is increasingly recognized by modern science for many forms of treatment.
The Chinese name for the species is shan zha, which literally is translated as “mountain hawthorn.” Caring for hawthorn requires giving each bush at least 15 feet (4.6 meters) of space to spread out in an open location, though the plant grows easily in most types of soil and both wet and dry environments. The Chinese hawthorn is also drought tolerant and, if grown in full sun, it can reach a height of 20 feet (6.1 meters) when mature.
Closely-related species of Chinese hawthorn have also been used for medicinal purposes by Native American tribes in the US and Mexico. This includes Crataegus chrysocarpa used by the midwestern Potawatomi and Ojibwa Indians, and the Crataegus douglasii used by the western Thompson and Kwakiutl Indian tribes. The Cherokee, Winnebago, and Omaha-Ponca Indian tribes have also had a traditional practice of eating the fruit of various hawthorn species for digestive ailments and as a food in times of famine.
Throughout Europe, two hawthorn species have predominated over that of Chinese hawthorn. These are the Crataegus laevigata and Crataegus monogyna species. Clinical trials have shown that many hawthorn fruits such as these two species produce have cardiac and digestive benefits, as well as potentially being an effective preventative against skin cancer. The fruit is also known to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, as well as suppress appetite, which makes it an effective diet aid as an ingredient in many weight loss pills. The leaves of the plant are also edible and can be used in salads along with the fruit, which Oriental medicine recommends for pregnant women dealing with post-partum abdominal pain after childbirth.
Among the unique uses for various types of hawthorn include the South Korean practice of making it into a liquor called sansachun. French legend states that the thorn of crowns Christ wore during crucifixion was made from hawthorn branches, and this has created British and Irish superstitions that it is bad luck to uproot a hawthorn tree. Serbian folklore also states that Chinese hawthorn wood, which is a tough, dark brown wood, was the wood of choice to create stakes for impaling vampires that lived in eastern Europe in centuries past.