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Common Name: Black Haw | Scientific Name: Viburnum Prunifolium

Family Name: Caprifoliaceae


Fact Sheet
Chapter from “Back Yard Medicine Chest”

Fact Sheet

Part Used: Bark

Remember This: Cramp Killer

Reasonable uses: menstrual cramps, stomach cramps, bowel cramps, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, leg cramps, neck cramps, tension headache, tension related constipation.

History and Traditional Uses
Black haw’s reputation as an herbal aid for preventing miscarriage goes back to the time of early Native Americans and pioneers. It was said to stop the cramps that caused the loss of the pregnancy.

Native Americans and Colonials alike used it to stop the cramps of women, especially those associated with menstruation. In time, doctors found that any cramp could be quelled with the bark of this native American shrub, regardless of which muscle was cramping.

Scientific Back Up
Black haw bark contains salicin, the compound that is responsible for aspirin’s pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory abilities. Other chemical components of this herb include scopoletin, which is known as a powerful uterine relaxant, and valerianic acid, which is a muscle relaxant. Finally, black haw is rich in steroidal saponins, steroids with a natural anti-inflammatory activity. This combination of pain killer(salicin), muscle relaxant(valerianic acid) and anti-inflammatory(steroid ) make it a powerful tool against muscle pain.

Herbalists Use It To…

Melt menstrual cramps
Black haw is a muscle relaxant that soothes painful spasms. This is especially true if the cramp is in the uterus. Doctors of the last century found it had a specific action on that sort of cramp and contemporary herbalists have confirmed this report. The fact that it contains a pain killer as well as muscle relaxant may explain why it is useful in pain menstrual cramps!

Pacify an irritable bowel
When we get stressed our muscles often go into cramps. Some people get neck cramps, other back cramps, and still other bowel cramps. When the bowels seize up, blockages, or log jams for lack of a better term, are created. Things that should be moving don’t. Constipation sets in. Eventually they body must move things on along and diarrhea follows. Some bowels are more sensitive or irritable than others! IBS sufferers avoid the cycle by using black haw to keep their innards cramp free.

Neutralize neckache and headache
Just like the bowels, in times of stress the neck muscles can go into spasm and cause pain. Moreover, the blood vessels that serve the brain are lined with muscle. When this vascular muscle goes into spasm blood vessels constrict and stop delivering blood to the brain. End result; headache. Neckache and headache can be relieved with black haw. Remember, black haw packs muscle relaxants and an aspirin like compound. Two for the price of one!

Shopping Tips
Dried black haw bark can be purchased from mail-order sources and some health food shops. Tinctures are available at health food stores. Avoid products containing herbs other than black haw.

Because black haw contains oxalates, which can cause kidney stones, individuals with a history of kidney stones should avoid this herb.

Chapter from “Back Yard Medicine Chest”

Is there something alive down there?

The menstruation story is fairly simple. The body prepares itself for conception by lining the uterus with nutritive matter that could nourish a would be fetus soon after fertilization. When conception doesn’t occur the uterus has to get rid of this lining covering the uterus. The body works to expel this matter and they way it does this is by cramping. The monthly shake, rattle, and roll starts and doesn’t stop until all the uterine matter is gone. This expulsion causes discomfort, for some more than others. It is during this phase of menstruation that everybody grabs for the pain killers and its not a bad idea. Some uterus’s shake the effete material off with a minimum of shaking, others go a little crazy in an effort to be thorough! The plant in our medicine chest for these cramps is called black Haw or Viburnum prunifolium and it will make the pain go away and quick!

Black haw, or American sloe as is sometimes known, is an American tree closely related to another viburnum we will meet later on, Viburnum opulis. Both plants are used for cramping, black haw is used very specifically for cramping that is associated with menstruation. The smallish tree or biggish shrub can be found growing in the wild all over the Eastern and Central United states .

Like many of the native American plant black haw was introduced into world medicine via the school of hard knocks. The Native American women had used black haw for a dose of the cramps for an unrecorded period of time. When white women arrived on the scene with monthly cramps the “squaws” happily shared what they knew would do the trick. After the white women had picked up on this local remedy the medical community got savvy and started prescribing it for their patients.

In the old days American pioneer women went out to the woods to gather their medicines. Black haw was pulled from the soil with a shovel, lock stock, and barrel in the fall after the leaves had fallen and before hard winter set in. The bark of the roots, trunk, and branches were pulled from the plant and carefully dried in the shade to be stored for use when ever needed. Obviously this maneuver kills the plant but at that time people were less concerned with conservation and more concerned with survival. Making through the night was the most important feature of life. Talk about a drag! Imagine driving a horse pulled wagon filled with kids, poultry, and all your worldly goods and having cramps to boot. Nightmare. At the time nothing stopped because you didn’t feel up to snuff and to make matters worse if you wanted some medicine you had to go dig it yourself. Its a wonder the colonial thing came off.

The good news about black haw bark was that , as with all other barks, it stores very well and will last several years in a well sealed container. The chemicals contained in barks tend to be more stable than chemicals contained in leaves, flowers, and stems, so you once you had a supply of the bark you didn’t have to worry about it going off. This was perhaps the only good news when it came to having cramps during the pioneer days, you didn’t have to go collect your black haw too often.

Actually the medical community got on the band wagon early on with black haw and its ability to quiet menstrual cramps. In fact its uterine relaxation was considered to be so great it could stop the cramps proceeding a miscarriage. Texts dating from the last part of the last century are filled with glowing reports on black haw.

In fact here happens to be such a quote. “it is particularly valuable in preventing abortion and miscarriage, whether habitual or otherwise;whether threatened from accidental cause, or criminal drugging. It tones up the system, preventing or removing those harassing nervous symptoms that so often torment and wear out the pregnant women. It enables the system to resist the deleterious influence of drugs so often used for the purpose of producing abortions.. black haw was largely employed in slavery times as a preventative of abortion, and to counteract the effects of cotton root taken with criminal intent by the Egresses. In dysmenorrhea (profuse menstrual discharge) by its sedative and anodyne influences, enables the uterus to bear the burden cast on it with much less suffering. In neuralgia it is a valuable addition to the other antispasmodics indicated. ” Canadian pharmacopeia, 1882.

So by 1882 black haw had been accepted by the doctors to the extent it was listed in the official book of drugs in both Canada and the United states . In this quote we see another interesting note, black haw was used to stop abortions induced by midwives. Pms isn’t new and either is abortion. Women have always controlled their reproductive health and from the looks of this quote men have always interfered. The quote was of course written by a man. Do you think a woman having gone out to have an abortion would call the doctor in to stop it? The note on the egresses and cotton bark is quite true. The slave woman knew of cotton bark inducing abortions from life in Africa and when they decided they weren’t going to produce any new property for the “master”, they didn’t. You cant blame them for not wanting to bring additional children into the horror that was their life. It seems the slave owners got wind of this practice and kept black haw around to stop the slave women from aborting their “property”.

Isn’t herbal medicine interesting? Its filled with social commentary from days gone by. Pick up an old herbal I think you will be surprised with all the little gems you come across. This aside the important feature in the quote is that black haw able to stop uterine cramps, even when they are caused by chemicals intended to cause violent cramping like cotton bark. One of the most useful records of herbal medicine, Kings Dispensatory, had something to say about black haws ability to quell cramps and the pain that attend them.

“That is has a decided affinity for the female reproductive organs is well established. 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. In the hyperesthetic, or irritable condition of the uterus incident to highly nervous women, or as the result of overwork, it will be found an admirable agent. 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. 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 black haw. It acts promptly in spasmodic dysmenorrhoea, especially with excessive flow. 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 a specific for cramp in the legs, not dependent on pregnancy, especially when occurring at night.

Black haw is one of the most important of eclectic medicines. To the taste it is aromatic and bitter. In large doses it may cause nausea or vomiting, and it is said to produce uterine contractions. It is decidedly antispasmodic, nervine, and tonic, and is also astringent and somewhat diuretic. Its most positive and valuable action is upon the female reproductive apparatus. In decoction it has proved serviceable in aphthae, diarrhea, and dysentery, though its astringent powers, and on account of its antispasmodic effects it has given fair results in some forms of hysteria, chorea, hyster-epilepsy, petit-mal, an paralysis agitans. It is one of the best uterine sedatives and tonics we posses, and will be found an admirable agent to relieve that hyperesthetic and irritable condition of the womb often experienced by highly nervous women. For the relief of dysmenorrhea it may be given when the flow is scanty, or when the flow is profuse and pain spasmodic , and there are bearing down pains and pain in the back, or cramp-like expulsive and intermittent pains. It is a remedy for uterine colic, and for uterine congestion, chronic uterine inflammation, menorrhagia due to malaria, uterine hemorrhage at the menopause., and post partum hemorrhage, though far less effective in the later than ergot and cinnamon. It also restores the menses in pale, anemic subjects suffering from amenorrhea, and sometimes relives palpitation of the heart when due to menstrual irregularities. Like cramp bark it receives cramps in the limbs, whether due to pregnancy or not, and especially when nocturnal.”

I couldn’t have described the plants action on the female reproductive tract any better myself so I didn’t even try. You may have noticed that Dr.King went beyond saying that black haw would take care of cramps, but went onto say that it was indeed a uterine tonic. The Eclectics noticed that women formerly with chronic gynecological complaints had few too none after using black haw for a period of time. The conclusion from the doctors that knew it best was that it would take care of menstrual discomfort in the short term but also improve the general reproductive health in the long term. Though it was used during pregnancy in the days of the Ecletics the current thought its better to avoid all drugs during pregnancy.

Chemically black haw contains a number of chemicals proved to work as uterine anti-spasmodics or relaxants. Namely scopoletin(7-hydroxy-6-me thoxy-coumarin) contained in the plant is said to be the leader of the pack when it comes to relieving pain associated with menstruation. Additionally the plant contains malic, citric, oxalic, and valeric acid, tannins, bitter resins, 1-methyl-2,3-dibutyl hemimellitate, acids, tannins, and volatile oils. The plants ability to kill cramps as well as its non-toxic nature has been well established and you can use it with the utmost confidence. Even the American FDA says its safe enough to be put in commercially produced food which oddly enough it is.
The ecletics suggested using cramp bark whenever cramps struck and modern herbalists suggest the same.

Getting your supply:
1. Buy the dried bark from a health food store.
2. Collect the bark from the wild with the help of a field guide. Black haw grows over much of the United States and can be easily collected from woodland locations. If you have a friend that is big into woodsy things ask him or her to help you locate some black haw and bring your shovel and saw. The root bark is also used so you might as well take that while you are there.
3. Plant yourself a few black Haw bushes. If you are interested in adding a few smallish trees to your landscape, why not add some that can be used to make your cramps vanish? The plant is reasonable available from garden centers, if you cant find it at your local stores, consult one of the mail order gardening books that list mail order suppliers of native plants. Once you have located a grower and have the plant in your hot little hands they can be planted just like any other tree. Try to select a sunny location and as with all trees and shrubs go heavy on the water for the first couple of years! As soon as the plant has produced branches big enough to cut off you will have your own cramp medicine in the back yard. The bark is stripped off the wood and dried in the sun, packed into a brown paper bag and that’s it!

Disclaimer: The author makes no guarantees as to the the curative effect of any herb or tonic on this website, and no visitor should attempt to use any of the information herein provided as treatment for any illness, weakness, or disease without first consulting a physician or health care provider. Pregnant women should always consult first with a health care professional before taking any treatment.