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Exploring Cramp Bark and the Viburnums

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Exploring Cramp Bark and the Viburnums

Cramp Bark is certainly one of our most useful medicinal herbs.  Cramp Bark is a member of the Viburnum genus, which is a very large family of plants.  At least 40 of the Viburnums are useful medicinally, but we are specifically interested in Viburnum opulus, or Guelder Rose, and any that may substitute for it.  Four Viburnums are native to my region: Viburnum cassinoides (Withe-rod), Viburnum nudum (Possumhaw Viburnum), Viburnum prunifolium (Blackhaw), Viburnum rufidulum (Rusty Blackhaw)

Viburnums are not only among the most useful plants in Herbal Medicine.  They are also among the most varied in their appearance and growth habits.  They may be bushes, or trees, “cranberries”, “haws” or simply shrubs with ornamental with flowers much like hydrangea.

Mrs. Grieves writes of the Guelder Rose, the most popular of the Viburnums, often called Cramp Bark:

The bark, known as Cramp Bark, is employed in herbal medicine. It used formerly to be included in the United States Pharmacopoeia, but is now omitted though it has been introduced into the National Formulary in the form of a Fluid Extract, Compound Tincture and Compound Elixir, for use as a nerve sedative and anti-spasmodic in asthma and hysteria.

In herbal practice in this country, its administration in decoction and infusion, as well as the fluid extract and compound tincture is recommended. It has been employed with benefit in all nervous complaints and debility and used with success in cramps and spasms of all kinds, in convulsions, fits and lockjaw, and also in palpitation, heart disease and rheumatism.

The decoction (1/2 oz. to a pint of water) is given in tablespoon doses.

The bark is collected chiefly in northern Europe and appears in commerce in thin strips, sometimes in quills, 1/20 to 1/12 inch thick, greyish-brown externally, with scattered brownish warts, faintly cracked longitudinally. It has a strong, characteristic odour and its taste is mildly astringent and decidedly bitter.

Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests sates:

BLACK HAW, (Viburnum prrumfolium, L) Fruit edible. Dr. Phares, of Newtonia, Miss., calls attention in the Atlanta Med. and Surg. Journ. (1847) to the medical properties of this plant. He regards it as a nervine, anti-spasmodic, astringent, diuretic and tonic, and claims that in the nervous disorders of pregnancy and uterine diseases, it is a valuable remedial agent.  He says : "It is particularly valuable in preventing abortion and miscarriage, whether habitual or otherwise ; whether threatened from accidental cause or criminal drugging." The editor of the same journal adds his testimony in favor of the same remedy, and details several cases when threatened miscarriage was promptly arrested by its use. It is given in the form of in- fusion or decoction of the bark, in doses of from one to two ounces, repeated every two or three hours, until the pains cease; then lessen the dose and lengthen the interval according to circumstances. Where there is a tendency to abortion, it may be used as a preventive three or four times daily, for a great length of time. (Richmond Med. J.Jan., 1868, p. 77.) See Hamamelis Virginica, for which the same virtues are claimed. The Black Haw may probably contain viburnic acid, which was thought to be yielded by the Elder, which is closely related to it.

King's American Dispensatory, 1898 tells us:

Viburnum Opulus (U. S. P.)—Viburnum Opulus

Action, Medical Uses, and Dosage.—High cranberry bark is a powerful antispasmodic, and, in consequence of this property, it is more generally known among American practitioners by the name of Cramp bark. It is very effective in relaxing cramps and spasms of all kinds, as asthma, hysteria, cramps of the limbs or other parts in females, especially during pregnancy, and it is said to be highly beneficial to those who are subject to convulsions during pregnancy, or at the time of parturition, preventing the attacks entirely, if used daily for the last 2 months of gestation. Like Viburnum prunifolium, it is a remedy for the prevention of abortion, and to prepare the way for the process of parturition. It allays uterine irritation with a tendency to terminate in hysteria, while in the neuralgic and spasmodic forms of dysmenorrhoea, it is a favorite remedy with many physicians. It has been used in spasmodic contraction of the bladder, and in spasmodic stricture. The doses employed are from a fraction of a drop to 20 drops of specific viburnum. The action of this agent closely resembles that of the black haw, and there is reason to believe that they are often used interchangedly for similar purposes (see Viburnum Prunifolium). The following forms an excellent preparation for the relief of spasmodic attacks, viz.: Take of cramp bark, 2 ounces; scullcap, skunk-cabbage, of each, 1 ounce; cloves, ½ ounce; capsicum, 2 drachms. Have all in powder, coarsely bruised, and add to them 2 quarts of good sherry or native wine. Dose, 1 or 2 fluid ounces, 2 or 3 times a day. Dose, of the decoction or vinous tincture of cramp bark, 2 fluid ounces, 2 or 3 times a day; specific viburnum, 1/10 to 30 drops. "It may be proper to remark here that I have found a poultice of low cranberries very efficient in indolent and malignant ulcers; and, applied round the throat in the inflammation and swelling attending scarlatina maligna, and other diseases, it gives prompt and marked relief. Probably the high cranberries will effect the same results" (J. King). (See Vaccinium Macrocarpum and Cataplasma Oxycocci.)

Specific Indications and Uses.—Cramps; uterine pain, with spasmodic action; pain in thighs and back; bearing down, expulsive pains; neuralgic or spasmodic dysmenorrhoea. As an antiabortive.

Viburnum Prunifolium (U. S. P.)—Black Haw

Action, Medical Uses, and Dosage.—Of the physiological action of this agent little is known. To the taste it is bitter, and slightly aromatic. Large doses sometimes produce nausea and vomiting, and by some observers is said to produce contraction of the uterine muscular tissue. That it has a decided affinity for the female reproductive organs is well established. By Dr. D. L. Phares, of Mississippi, who brought the remedy forward, it was described as having nervine, antispasmodic, tonic, astringent, and diuretic properties. To these Prof. King adds alterative. Decoctions of the drug were formerly used as a gargle in aphthae, as a wash in indolent ulcers, and in various ophthalmic disorders. By its astringency it has proved of value in diarrhoea and dysentery. It has been recommended in jaundice, but we have a better agent in chionanthus. Palpitation of the heart is said to have been relieved by it. Such cases are sympathetic disturbances, generally near the menstrual period. Its principal use at the present day is in disorders of the female organs of reproduction. As a uterine tonic it is unquestionably of great utility. It restores normal innervation, improves the circulation, and corrects impaired nutrition of these organs. In the hyperaesthetic, or irritable condition of the uterus incident to highly nervous women, or as the result of overwork, it will be found an admirable agent. It is called for in weakened conditions of the body, with feeble performance of the uterine functions. In dysmenorrhoea, with deficient menses, uterine colic, and in those cases where there are severe lumbar and bearing-down pains, it will prove an efficient drug. Helonias is also an excellent agent in the latter condition. It is specifically indicated in cramp-like menstrual pains—pains decidedly expulsive and intermittent in character and in the various painful contractions of the pelvic muscles, so common to disorders of women. Uterine congestion and chronic uterine inflammation are often greatly relieved by specific black haw. It acts promptly in spasmodic dysmenorrhoea, especially with excessive flow. Menorrhagia due to malaria is promptly met with Viburnum prunifolium. It is a good remedy for uterine hemorrhage, attending the menopause. In amenorrhoea in pale, bloodless subjects, the menses are restored by it. Cramps of limbs attending pregnancy yield to both black haw and cramp bark. It is considered almost specific for cramp in the legs, not dependent on pregnancy, especially when occurring at night. The condition for which black haw is most valued is that of threatened abortion. It is the most prompt drug in the materia medica to check abortion, provided the membranes have not ruptured. In all cases of habitual abortion it should be given in small doses for a considerable length of time. The abundant testimony as to its value in this condition alone gives it a high place among drugs. By its quieting effects upon the irritable womb, women who have previously been unable to go to full term have been aided by this drug to pass through the pregnancy without mishaps which would otherwise have proven disastrous to both child and mother. Small doses of the specific black haw should be administered throughout the dangerous period, and may be continued with good results until parturition. Dr. Phares, who introduced it as all antiabortive, states that it will prevent abortion, whether habitual or otherwise-whether threatened from accidental cause or criminal drugging. He considered it to completely neutralize the effect of the cotton bark when this is used for the purpose of causing abortion. It was for a long time customary for planters to compel their female slaves "to drink an infusion of black haw daily whilst pregnant to prevent abortion, from taking the cottonroot" (Scudder, Spec. Med., 266). It has been used to control postpartum hemorrhage, but is less effective than ergot and cinnamon. It assists in reducing the size of the womb in subinvolution of that organ. Viburnum is of some value in nervous disorders, and has been advised in chorea, hysteria, hystero-epilepsy, petit mal, and paralysis agitans. It is of service only when these troubles are associated with menstrual wrongs. Viburnum Opulus resembles this agent very closely in its effects, and may be used in the above-named conditions, for which the black haw is useful.

Black haw is said to be of value in sterility. Some cases of spermatorrhoea are benefited by it. False pains of pregnancy are readily controlled, and for after-pains it is nearly as valuable as macrotys, or actaea. Black haw promptly allays ovarian irritation. The late Prof. Howe considered it one of the very best uterine tonics, and incorporated it with wild cherry and aromatics in his Black Haw Cordial. This he recommended to allay the pangs of dysmenorrhoea; to arrest leucorrhoea, and to alleviate pelvic discomfort; and as a remedy of value in chlorosis and the debility of the second climacteric. Prof. Howe compounded the cordial to meet the wants of the alcoholic tippler. It allays the gnawing sensations in the stomach, and relieves the faucial discomfort met with in the inebriate. Specific black haw, in drop doses, is a valuable drug in obstinate singultus. The black haw is steadily growing in favor with all schools of medicine. The usual prescription is: Rx Specific black haw, ʒss to ʒi, aqua ℥iv. Mix. Sig. Teaspoonful every 1 to 4 hours, according to case under treatment. The infusion may be given in ½- fluid-ounce doses, several times a day; or the tincture in doses of 1 fluid drachm, 4 or 5 times a day. The powder may be given in ½ or 1-drachm doses; specific black haw, 1/10 to 30 drops; Howe's black haw cordial, 1 to 2 fluid drachms.

Specific Indications and Uses.—Uterine irritability, and hyperaesthesia; threatened abortion; uterine colic; dysmenorrhoea, with deficient menses; severe lumbar and bearing-down pains; cramp-like, expulsive menstrual pain; intermittent, painful contractions of the pelvic tissues; after-pains and false pains of pregnancy; obstinate hiccough.

Plants for A Future states:

Medicinal use of Guelder Rose: Guelder rose is a powerful antispasmodic and is much used in the treatment of asthma, cramps and other conditions such as colic or painful menstruation. It is also used as a sedative remedy for nervous conditions. The bark is antispasmodic, astringent and sedative. The bark contains "scopoletin", a coumarin that has a sedative affect on the uterus. A tea is used internally to relieve all types of spasms, including menstrual cramps, spasms after childbirth and threatened miscarriage. It is also used in the treatment of nervous complaints and debility. The bark is harvested in the autumn before the leaves change colour, or in the spring before the leaf buds open. It is dried for later use. The leaves and fruits are antiscorbutic, emetic and laxative. A homeopathic remedy is made from the fresh bark. It is used in the treatment of menstrual pain and spasms after childbirth.

Medicinal use of Withe Rod: The bark and root bark is antispasmodic, diaphoretic, febrifuge and tonic. An infusion has been used to treat recurrent spasms, fevers, smallpox and ague. The infusion has also been used as a wash for a sore tongue.

Medicinal use of Smooth Withe Rod (Possumhaw): A tea made from the bark is antispasmodic, diuretic, tonic and uterine sedative.

Medicinal use of Stagberry (Blackhaw): Stagberry was used by the North American Indians to treat dysentery and to arrest haemorrhage of the uterus. It is now considered to be a specific treatment for the relief of menstrual pain - the bark contains "scopoletin", a coumarin that has a sedative affect on the uterus and salicin, a painkiller that is used in making aspirin. The bark of the root and stems is abortifacient, anodyne, antispasmodic, astringent, nervine and sedative. A tea is used internally in the treatment of painful or heavy menstruation, prolapse of the uterus, morning sickness, to prevent miscarriage and to relieve spasms after childbirth. It is also used to treat convulsive disorders, colic and other cramping pains that affect the bile ducts, hysteria, asthma and palpitations of a nervous origin. The stem bark is harvested in the autumn before the leaves change colour, or in the spring before the leaf buds open. The root bark is only harvested in the autumn. Both barks can be dried for later use.

Medicinal use of Southern Black Haw (Rusty Blackhaw): The bark is antispasmodic and has been used in the treatment of cramps and colic.

The Physicians Desk Reference for Herbal Medicine tells us:

Blackhaw: Effects. The drug has a spasmolytic and to date, undefined effect on the uterus. Unproven uses: black haw is used for complaints of dysmenorrhea. No health hazards or side effects are known in conjunction with the proper administration of designated therapeutic dosage.

In closing, I hope that I have made it clear that the Viburnums have a long history of use, but also that there are several varieties that may be used.  While the Guelder Rose will grow in my higher elevation region of the Appalachian Mountains, the Black Haw is native and far more common in throughout the South.  Antispasmodic herbs are very important, especially in out era, because they may be used as a substitute for many of the prescription drugs that have caused an epidemic of addiction and overdose in recent years.  I would encourage you to explore the Viburnums in your region.

Author: Judson Carroll.  Judson Carroll is an Herbalist from the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. His weekly articles may be read at http://southernappalachianherbs.blogspot.com/

His weekly podcast may be heard at: Southern Appalachian Herbs (spreaker.com)

He offers free, weekly herb classes: Herbal Medicine 101 (rumble.com)

Judson is the co-author of an important new book based on the 1937 edition of Herbs and Weeds by Fr. Johannes Künzle. This new translation, entitled The Herbs and Weeds of Fr. Johannes Künzle, with commentary by modern herbalists explores and expands on the work of one of the most important herbalists of the 20th century.  Click here to read more about The Herbs and Weeds of Fr. Johannes Künzle: Southern Appalachian Herbs: Announcing a New Book, The Herbs and Weeds of Fr. Johannes Künzle

To buy The Herbs and Weeds of Fr. Johannes Künzle, click here: https://py.pl/V0HDe


The information on this site is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease or condition. Nothing on this site has been evaluated or approved by the FDA. I am not a doctor. The US government does not recognize the practice of herbal medicine and their is no governing body regulating herbalists. Therefore, I'm just a guy who studies herbs. I am not offering any advice. I won't even claim that anything I write is accurate or true! I can tell you what herbs have "traditionally been used for." I can tell you my own experience and if I believe an herb helped me. I cannot, nor would I tell you to do the same. If you use any herb I, or anyone else, mentions you are treating yourself. You take full responsibility for your health. Humans are individuals and no two are identical. What works for me may not work for you. You may have an allergy, sensitivity or underlying condition that no one else shares and you don't even know about. Be careful with your health. By continuing to read my blog you agree to be responsible for yourself, do your own research, make your own choices and not to blame me for anything, ever.

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