Identification: A medium-sized to large-sized ornamental shrub growing up to 10 feet tall and 10 feet wide. The leaves are medium to dark green, opposite, ovate, trilobed, and deeply incised, about 3″ long and 3″ wide. They resemble maple leaves. The flowers are white, blooming in late May and early June, are up to 3″ in diameter, composed of an outer ring of white sterile flowers that open first, followed by the inner disc of creamy fertile flowers. The immature fruits are green while the ripe clusters of bright cherry-red fruits in late August are persistent and attractive throughout Autumn, then shriveling and fading in Winter, and remaining into the following Spring as droopy raisins (if not consumed by wildlife, primarily the birds).
Habitat: Found in bogs, low woods; Eastern United States, but found in most North American states. More abundant in Connecticut to Florida; Texas to eastern Kansas. Native to Eurasia and North Africa.
Family: Caprifoliaceae (Honeysuckle family)
Other Names: Guelder Rose, May Rose, Whitsun Rose, Whitsun Bosses, Snowball Tree, King’s Crown, High Cranberry, Silver Bells, Rose Elder, Water Elder, Dog Rowan Tree
Flowers: Late May – Early June
Parts Used: The bark from both the stem and the root of is collected and dried after the leaves fall in the autumn or before new leaves appear in the spring. Cramp bark not only has a distinctive smell that has been described as resembling rotten fruit, it also has a characteristically bitter flavor.
History: Originating in North America, cramp bark was used by native people as a diuretic and a sedative. Cramp bark plants grow as bushy trees that may reach as much as 12 feet in height. Occasionally, cramp bark is planted as hedges due to its ornamental flowers and foliage. In the summer, the plants produce large white flowers quickly followed by bunches of red berries. The maple-shaped leaves of cramp bark bushes change from dark green to a dark red or purple color in the fall. Although they are attractive to wildlife, cramp bark berries are bitter; therefore they are seldom used as human food. In Scandinavia, however, they are popular when cooked into preserves and in Canada they may substitute for cranberries. In some parts of Europe and Asia, they have been fermented to make an alcoholic drink. Fresh berries have also been used to make a red dye, while dark ink has been made from dried berries.
Constituents: Hydroquinones; arbutin, methylarbutin and traces of free hydroquinone; also viopudial.
Coumarins, such as scopoletin and scopoline.
Tannins; mainly catechins.
Properties: Anti-spasmodic, anti-inflammatory, nervine, hypotensive, astringent, emmenagogue.
Main Uses: Cramp Bark has a reputation as a relaxer of muscular tension and spasm. It has two main areas of use. Firstly in muscular cramps and secondly in ovarian and uterine muscle problems. Cramp Bark will relax the uterus and so relieve painful cramps associated with periods (dysmenorrhoea). In a similar way it may be used to protect from threatened miscarriage. Its astringent action gives it a role in the treatment of excessive blood loss in periods and especially bleeding associated with the menopause.The compounds in the bark that relieve muscle spasms are similar to, but less potent than those in Black Haw, another member of the Viburnum family.
Preparation & Dosages:
Cramp bark is available individually as capsules, tablets, and extracts, which are concentrated liquid preparations usually made by soaking chopped or mashed plant parts in a liquid such as alcohol, and then straining out the solid parts. It is also commonly included in combination products with other herbals including black cohosh, dong quoi, and chaste tree that also have antispasmodic or muscle relaxing effects. Directions for use vary according to the product being used and the condition being treated. The instructions on the package that is purchased should be followed.
To make a tea, about 2 teaspoons of dried, shredded cramp bark may be added to 8 ounces of cold water. The water is then simmered for about 10 minutes and the solid particles are removed before the tea is consumed up to three times a day.
Tincture: [1:5, 50% alcohol] 30 to 90 drops up to 3 times a day.
Cautions:Use only the bark of the plant; the fresh berries are poisonous. When taken as recommended, the bark poses no known risks.
Do not take Cramp Bark if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.