The extract prepared from hawthorn (Crataegus fruit) was examined for its relaxant effect in rat isolated mesenteric arteries. Hawthorn extract induced concentration-dependent relaxation of the U46619-precontracted artery with an IC50 of 0.22 +/- 0.02 mg/ml. Removal of the functional endothelium reduced by approximately 85% the maximum relaxant response to hawthorn extract. Pretreatment of the arterial tissues with N(G)-nitro-L-arginine methyl ester (3-10 microM) or methylene blue (3-10 microM) inhibited the relaxation induced by hawthorn extract, while indomethacin (10 microM) had no effect. L-arginine (3 mM) did not affect the relaxation induced by hawthorn extract but partially reversed the effect of 10 microM N(G)-nitro-L-arginine methyl ester. Iberiotoxin (100 nM) slightly but significantly inhibited the relaxant effect of hawthorn extract whilst glibenclamide (3 microM) was ineffective. Glibenclamide at 3 microM reversed the relaxation induced by pinacidil. N(G)-nitro-L-arginine methyl ester and methylene blue markedly inhibited acetylcholine-induced relaxation in endothelium-intact arteries. Hawthorn extract also reduced the contraction induced by phenylephrine (1 microM) or high Ki (60 mM) with respective IC50 values of 0.13 +/- 0.01 mg/ml and 0.11 +/- 0.01 mg/ml. In high K+-contracted arteries, hawthorn extract induced only 55% of relaxation while it caused a complete inhibition of the U46619- or phenylephrine-induced contraction. These results suggest that hawthorn contains active components which cause vasorelaxation in rat isolated mesenteric arteries. Nitric oxide but not other endothelium-derived vasoactive factors was probably involved in the relaxation induced by hawthorn extract.