If you are familiar with hawthorn, your initial associations may not be as a supplement for neurodivergent folks. In Celtic mythology, hawthorn trees are known as ‘fairy trees,’ and as recently as 1999 a highway was moved so that one of these fairy trees would not have to be removed. Doing so, it was believed, would bring about bad luck and misfortune. And so they moved the highway instead.
Medicinally speaking, hawthorn is most commonly known as a heart medicine, and it certainly is a well-suited supplement for things like congestive heart failure.
But as a full spectrum heart medicine, it can also help with heart palpitations, a racing heart, or calming the emotional heart. And it is in that context that you may start to see how it could be a supportive ally for a neurodivergent individual presenting with symptoms like an overexcited nervous system, anxiety, agitation and hypersensitivity.
Herbalist David Winston, one of the founders of the American Herbalists Guild, finds hawthorn helpful for a restless or unfocused mind, and was one of the first to use hawthorn clinically for ADD and ADHD both in children and in adults.
Scott Kloos, founder of The School of Forest Medicine, also mentions it as being used by some for ADHD, and specifically mentions its ability to calm the nervous system to reduce anxiety, agitation, excitability and hypersensitivity.
Like many neurodivergent individuals, I tend to have an overactive mind and have a harder time accessing and navigating my heart space (realm of the emotions). I am also prone to heart palpitations, and if that happens at night, it can keep me awake for hours on end. I have found hawthorn to be a helpful tonic in regulating my heart energy.
While it is not native to the Pacific Northwest where I live, hawthorn grows so abundantly here that it is considered invasive. So it is a tree that I freely gather flowers from in spring and berries from after the first frost in autumn. You do not have to worry about over harvesting. I blend it with a few other herbs I collect throughout the year (self-heal, yarrow and sometimes others) and drink it daily. I call this my ‘Sensitivity Blend.’
In my experience, it has been best worked with as an ongoing preventative supplement (as opposed to a rescue remedy). Hawthorn is a pretty low dose supplement (Kloos recommends just 10-15 drops of tincture daily), and if you take too much it can actually cause some agitation. So it is not an herb you would take extra of if you were having a panic attack—although you could certainly add a small amount of it to a rescue blend that you prepare ahead of time for those acute situations.
Another reason hawthorn can be such a powerful ally for the neurodivergent is its protective properties. Hawthorn trees have some pretty intense thorns (it’s actually a member of the rose family). Katja Swift, co-founder of the CommonWealth Center for Holistic Herbalism, talks about how those thorns actually evolved to protect the tree from the giant four-ton sloths that would have otherwise devoured the tree.
There’s an image for you! I have heard that some wildcrafters will gather just the thorns from the tree and make a potent protective tincture from it, and I can definitely see the appeal of doing so.
Extra protection is something I think a lot of us with heightened sensitivity could use. The outside world can feel so intrusive—so much input coming in constantly, the intensity of the sounds, the lights, etc. And during the holidays, especially, we have to work so hard to protect our quiet space, to have time that is restful and healing and not just a constant, overwhelming drain on our energy. I love the thought of being nestled in the crook of an old hawthorn tree, its thorns keeping all the giant sloths of our time at bay.
And what a perfect tree to take refuge in! Hawthorn is a literal refuge for hundreds of other species. Both the flowers and berries are rich food sources at opposite ends of the year for moths, bees and numerous insects, and it provides excellent shelter for many a nesting bird. Hawthorn is like the great, protective mother nourishing and watching over her children. She has so much to offer.
Katja Swift sums up the protective power of those thorns beautifully: “When you feel raw and wounded, when you’re feeling like everyone can see you struggling and certainly they are all judging you for it – when you wish you could just enclose yourself in a nest of protective barbed wire that will keep the world out and let you be small and safe inside for a while: this is a time for (rose and) hawthorn.”
So now I want to circle back to the idea of the Hawthorn as a fairy tree. I actually think it has relevance. In Ireland, fairies are not cute little Tinkerbells fluttering around. They are an otherworldly race thought to live underground, and were thought to be the first inhabitants of Ireland.
The fairy folk—or Sidhe—can be mistaken for humans and their worlds do intersect at times—a Hawthorn tree, for example, might mark the entrance into the fairy realm.
In general, the Irish felt very uneasy about the Sidhe and did whatever they could to stay clear of them. Going back to the 17th Century, there are written accounts of changelings, which were described as fairy substitutions for human children. A human infant might be stolen by the Sidhe, and they would leave a changeling in its place.
The changeling behaved in ways that were deemed unnatural by the parents, and by claiming the child was not human, abuse and even infanticide could follow.
This is a hard historical reality to process.
But why is this important now? Recently there has been some discussion about whether these ‘changeling’ children were actually autistic and/or had other disabilities. As you read about changelings, “They are characterized by their poor response, resistance to physical affection, obstinacy, inability to express emotions, unexplainable crying and some physical changes such as rigidity and deformity. Some are unable to speak. Some characteristics of these stories, such as the initial health and beauty of the human child, the change after some period of “normalcy” and the specific behaviors of the changelings correspond to the symptoms in some presentations of autism.”
If someone was unusually gifted in one way or another, that could also be a sign of a changeling, and could arouse intense suspicion.
Is it possible that changelings were a concept that evolved in order to explain the mysterious differences in autistic children and those with other disabilities? It certainly looks that way. We did not have a word for autism until the 20th century, and it is well known that things like seizures were long associated with demon possession and the like. Before science, our mythologies provided a cultural framework to make sense of things we didn’t understand. Even today, we still commonly use the metaphor as the autistic mind being ‘alien’ to the neurotypical experience. We are the ‘Others.’
I find it fascinating that the very tree that is most emblematic of the Sidhe is now recognized as a tree with a strong affinity for the neurodivergent. The ‘Others’ by a different name. I suspect there is a much longer history of the Hawthorn tree being linked with neurodivergence than we will ever know. Perhaps we were taking shelter under hawthorn trees thousands of years ago, and that is how the tree came to be associated with the ‘Others.’ Who knows…
Whatever the story may be, the reality remains. Hawthorn can be a powerful ally for the neurodivergent. Its medicine will not be for everyone, but you will not know for sure until you spend some time with it and discover what it has to offer.
MY PLANT PERSPECTIVE: This is not medical advice. Plant medicine and wildcrafting have been my biggest helpers for emotional regulation and physical well being as an autistic woman. I am a serious plant lover, but I am not a doctor of licensed herbalist. Plants are complex, so do your own research (especially if you take pharmaceutical drugs as there can be possible interactions). Like people, even if plants check all the right boxes for you, you may not have chemistry with that plant so be willing to experiment. I’d love to hear from you in the comments below if you have discovered your own Neurodivergent Plant Helpers and are open to sharing your experience. Thanks for reading.
Kloos, Scott. (2017). Pacific Northwest Medicinal Plants. Timber Press, Inc.