Friday, 21 September 2018

5 Facts About: Cramp Bark

Article & Photo: Debs Cook
Cramp Bark (Viburnum opulus) is a deciduous shrub which is native to Europe and North America; it grows to a height of 2–5 metres. The leaves grow 5-10cm in length; and are a mid-green in colour, opposite, 3-lobed and smooth on the upper surface. The inflorescences are hermaphrodite, creamy-white in colour and form ‘balls’ of individual 5-petaled flowers - hence one of cramp bark’s folk names the Snowball tree - the flower balls can be 4–11cm diameter and occur at the top of the stems. The berries form bright red drupes approximately 7–10mm in diameter each berry contains a single seed.

Other names that Cramp bark is known as include: - Guelder Rose, King's Crown, High Cranberry, Red Elder, Rose Elder, May Rose, Marsh Gueldres-Rose, Whitsun Rose, Whitsun Bosses, Gaitre Berries, Kalyna, Water Elder, European Cranberry Bush, Snowball Tree, Whitten Tree, Squaw Bush, Pimbina, Schneeball Rinde and Obier. In the Victorian language of flowers, cramp bark is referred to by its common name of guelder rose and is used to symbolise winter. In the Ukraine, cramp bark is known by the name Kalyna and is a national symbol of the country. According to a legend Kalyna was associated with the birth of the Universe, the so-called Fire Trinity: the Sun, the Moon, and the Star.

Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century wrote about cramp bark under its then common name of the Gaitre-berry tree, saying that the berries were edible, which is true but they are rather bitter, they were more palatable cooked and used to make preserves, other sources state that the herb was known as the ‘Goitre’ tree. John Gerard in the 16th century referred to the herb as Rose Elder and wrote how it was ‘used as a sedative in the treatment of cramp, particularly uterine dysfunctions’, whilst John Parkinson called it the ‘Gelder Rose’ and made the observation that the 16th century naturalist Conrad Gessner referred to the plant by the Latin name Sambucus palustris vel aquatic and believed that some ancient European herbal texts referred to the herb by the name ‘Chamaeplatanus’, yet despite describing at great lengths the different names for the Guelder rose, Parkinson gave no uses for it.

Early 20th century German Naturopath Otto Mausert in his book ‘Herbs for Health’ first published in 1932 wrote “as its name indicates, this bark is very effective in relieving cramps and spasms of all kinds. As it exerts a decided influence upon the generative organs, it is especially useful in menstrual cramps and pains, giving tone and energy to the uterus.” R. C. Wren a herbalist who inherited Potter’s Herbals in the 1930’s included Cramp Bark in “Potter’s Cyclopaedia of Botanical Drugs & Preparations” citing it as being “effectual in cases of cramp, convulsions and spasms of all kinds.” Wren wrote that cramp bark was primarily used in tincture form, but said it may be given as a decoction when made up at the rate of ½ ounce of cramp bark to 1 pint of water.

1) Cramp bark has antispasmodic, astringent, hypotensive, nervine, sedative and tonic properties, it helps with muscle pains and cramps, hence the name. Native American Indian tribes such as the Meskwaki and Penobscot tribes used cramp bark as a means of alleviating muscle cramps, spasms and pains, they taught the use of the herb to the European settlers.

By the 19th century cramp bark were being used by the America Eclectic doctors to treat cases of mumps and swollen glands, and conditions such as goitre [an abnormal swelling of the thyroid gland that causes a lump to form in the neck] which is possibly the reason for calling cramp bark by the alternate name goitre tree? The bark was also used by the American eclectic herbalists to treat cases of biliary colic [linked to gall stones] and renal colic [linked to kidney stones].

2) A 100g dry weight of cramp bark contains 354 calories and 34g of dietary fibre, plus the following vitamins and minerals: -

• Calcium – 70.2mg
• Chromium – 2,354mg
• Cobalt – 2.1mg
• Iron – 11.5mg
• Magnesium - 88mg
• Manganese – 311mg
• Phosphorus – 4.9mg
• Potassium – 65mg
• Selenium – 8.6mg
• Silicon – 2.3mg
• Sodium – 9.9mg
• Zinc – 1.8mg

3) Cramp bark contains: - Bitter glycosides including viburnine and verbenalin, the later has a soporific (sleep inducing) property. Flavonoids are also present these include astragalin, catechin, quercetin and paeoniside, quercetin has both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions. There are a number of hydroquinones found in cramp bark, chiefly arbutin and methylarbutin, the former appeared in a study on the analogues in dermatology of hydroquinone published by the German Institute of Food Research in Potsdam in 2006 concluded that intestinal bacteria can transform arbutin into hydroquinone under certain conditions.

Polyphenolic acids including baldrianic, capric, chlorogenic, cinnamic, and valerianic are present, studies are currently being carried out on the potential antihypertensive effect that may be exhibited by chlorogenic acid. Valerianic acid is one of the constituents that give cramp bark its antispasmodic and relaxant properties.

Coumarins including aesculetin and scopoletin can be found in cramp bark, aesculetin is a natural lactone that can have an anticoagulant effect, and thus taking cramp bark should be avoided by people taking anticoagulant drugs like warfarin. Cramp bark also contains tannins these tannins give cramp bark its astringent action which enable the bark to help in cases of heavy menstrual bleeding.

4) An old remedy for cramping during a woman’s menses popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a tea known as ‘Wildwood Tea’ which was an infusion of Cramp Bark, Senna Leaves, Eastern Skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis), German Cheese Plant aka cleavers (Galium aparine), Colic Root aka Button Snake Root (Liatris spicata), Horsetail Grass aka Horsetail and Chicory Root, the tea was prescribed for its antispasmodic properties. Other 20th century medical botanists such as Harold Ward prescribed cramp bark for use as a nervine as well as an antispasmodic, to ease cramps he prescribed a decoction of cramp bark at the rate of “1 ounce to 1 pint of watered (simmered from 1½ pints)” the resulting decoction was to be administered in “1-2 tablespoon doses”.

Another old remedy that used cramp bark as its primary ingredient to ease cramping involved soaking the root of Cramp Bark with Skullcap and Skunk Cabbage to which a little bruised ginger and cloves were added, all the ingredients were macerated in a base of sherry or madeira wine, a small wineglass full was drunk 3 times a day to bring relief from the cramps.

5) The berries of cramp bark are high in Vitamins C and K and contain anthocyanins which gives them an antimicrobial property, these anthocyanins are water-soluble vacuolar pigments, the particular pigments in cramp bark berries can be used to make a red dye, and in fact early Native American Indians used them to make red ink. Hilda Leyel in her book Compassionate Herbs writes that “the berries were often used as a substitute for cranberries in Canada.” They were also often used to make a poultice to ease minor throat irritations.

Disclaimer: Whilst every effort has been made to source the most up to date and accurate information, we cannot guarantee that remedies in our articles are effective, when in doubt, consult your GP or a qualified Medicinal Herbalist. Remember also that herbal remedies can be dangerous under certain circumstances therefore you should always seek medical advice before self-treating with a homemade remedy, especially if you are pregnant, breast feeding or suffer from any known illness which could be adversely affected by self-treatment.