Family: Caprifolicaeae (Honeysuckle)
Synonyms and Common names: Cramp Bark. Snowball Tree. King's Crown. High Cranberry. Red Elder. Rose Elder. Water Elder. May Rose. Whitsun Rose. Dog Rowan Tree. Silver Bells. Whitsun Bosses. Gaitre Berries. Black Haw
Description and Habitat: Cramp Bark is a shrub growing 5 to 10 feet high, and belonging to the same family as the Elder, it can be found in copses and hedgerows throughout England, though it is rare in Scotland. Cramp bark flowers from late spring to early summer. Its flowers are hermaphrodite (having both male and female organs) and are white in colour. Flowers are followed by bunches of small, bright red, fleshy fruit. The plant is deciduous with attractive three-lobed, dark green foliage that turns red in autumn.
It is commonly grown as an ornamental plant for its flowers and berries, growing best on moist, moderately alkaline soils, though tolerating most soil types well. Propagation is done easily by seed or winter cuttings. The layering of lower branches also works well.
There are two forms of the shrub, fertile and infertile, the sterile being a white-headed blossom more often known as snowball, or snowball tree. The fertile form is more commonly known as guelder rose. The infertile snowball tree has the Latin name of Viburnum opulus Roseum, take care when buying Cramp Bark that the Latin name is Viburnum opulus and is not the sterile (or infertile) plant.
Parts used: Dried bark
Collection and preparation: The stem bark is stripped before the herb flowers, cut into pieces and dried
Constituents: The active principle of Cramp Bark is the bitter glucoside Viburnine; it also contains tannin, resin, coumarins and valerianic acid.
Actions: Antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory, nervine, hypotensive, astringent, emmenagogue, muscle relaxant, cardiac tonic, uterine relaxant.
Indications and Therapeutics: Cramp Bark is one of the best-known relaxers 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. Cramp Bark has been used in all nervous complaints and cramps and spasms of all kinds, in convulsions, fits and lockjaw, and also in palpitation, heart disease and rheumatism.
In some cases of arthritis, where joint weakness and pain have caused muscles to contract until they are almost rigid, Cramp Bark can bring remarkable relief. As the muscles relax, blood flow to the area improves, waste products such as lactic acid are removed, and normal function can return. For the relief of cramp, it may be combined with prickly ash and wild yam. For uterine and ovarian pains or threatened miscarriage, it may be used with black haw and valerian.
Contraindications: Pregnant women should not use Cramp Bark unless directed by a physician. Those who are allergic to aspirin may be sensitive to Cramp Bark because of its salicin content. Cramp bark should not be taken with blood-thinning medication because of the coumarin constituents in the plant and may cause bleeding. Cramp Bark may cause hypotension in large doses or even in average doses if given to previously hypotensive individuals. The bitter principle, viburnine, may cause gastroenteritis.
Preparation and dosage:
Decoction: put 2 teaspoonfuls of the dried bark into a cup of water and bring to the boil.
Simmer gently for l0-l5 minutes. This should be drunk hot three times a day.
Tincture: take 4-8 ml of the tincture three times a day.
Folklore and additional comments: Cramp Bark is perhaps the most ornamental of our wild fruits, the tree presenting a very beautiful appearance in August, when they are ripe, especially as the leaves assume a rich purple hue before falling. But although edible when cooked, the berries are too bitter to be eaten fresh off the trees, and when crushed, smell somewhat disagreeable, though birds appreciate them.
In Siberia, the berries used to be, and probably still are, fermented with flour and a spirit distilled from them. They have been used in Norway and Sweden to flavour a paste of honey and flour.
The berries should never be eaten raw. Like the leaves, they contain (mildly) poisonous principles. However, cooking destroys these principles and the berries have been used in jellies, preserves, etc. They make a very good cranberry substitute.
Cramp bark was used by Native Americans for mumps and other swellings. The name Guelder comes from the Dutch province of Gelderland, where the tree was first cultivated. The berries turn black on drying and have been used for making ink.
Native Americans have been known to smoke the bark of Viburnum and occasionally add it to their kinnikkinnik mixture. (kinnikkinnik is a Cree word for ‘mixture’, it is usually tobacco and herbs combined)
Cramp bark bush folklore roots can be traced to Slavic folk tales; it was associated with the birth of the universe, to the Fire Trinity of the Sun the Moon and the Star. Its berries symbolise blood and the undying tracing of family toots. Cramp Bark or Guelda Rose can be found in Ukrainian embroidery, on shirts and blouses. It also represents the beauty of the maiden, as reviewed by numerous Ukrainian folklorist such as Nikolay Kostomarov.
There seems to be little British folklore associated with this herb, although its various folk names link this useful herb to the spring when its flowers can be likened to a white bouquet of Beltaine celebrations, May Queen and King and the maiden, and through its berries to the celebration of Samhain and the deep blood red of its berries.