Tuesday 30 September 2014

Crampbark, native or not?

Before the new owners of the farm next to my parents moved in, they decided to plant several acres of woodland. As the first triangle of arable field was transformed, I stopped to chat with the foresters’ foreman. He reeled off a list of “native English woodland trees” including hawthorn, blackthorn, wild cherry and Guelder rose (vibernum opulum).

“You’ll be able to come and harvest here if you like,” he offered but I told him I already had access to all his varieties on my own land. 

I took it for granted that his idea of native woodlands species really were indigenous plants. Guelder rose is one of my favourite Sanctuary trees. I was first introduced to it during a tour of a Birmingham herbalist’s garden back in the 1990s.

“Do you know crampbark?” she asked me and when I told her I had read about it, she remarked what a useful herb it was. “The bark is amazing,” she said. “When you tincture it, the maceration turns red.” She showed me the bark pigment and said no herbalist should be without it.

The following year I included a small crampbark bush in my order from Poyntzfield Herb Nursery in Scotland. It was quite small and delicate but grew well enough. The following year I was searching for short leave lime and spindle trees. The nearest nursery was in Northern Derbyshire so I added another crampbark and two red currant bushes to my collection. This bush, although the same age as my original, was twice the size and the branches were twice as thick, although everything else was the same.

They both flowered well in springtime. It was at this point I gathered the bark since I’d read that crampbark was the only tree where you harvested bark when the tree was flowering rather than during their dormant period. As my friend had promised, the tincture was deep red and proved very effective in reducing nocturnal leg cramps. In subsequent years I harvested bark in winter and there was no noticeable difference in the efficacy of the tincture.

My final Guelder rose came from a tree nursery in Kent and lives in the hedge in my Solihull garden. It is completely overshadowed by hawthorn trees above and gets a minimum of light but it is still growing albeit slowly. After two seasons it has yet to produce flowers or berries but I live in hope. The other two trees took several years before flowering but now they are prolific in both flowers and the bitter, crimson berries which appear to be eschewed by the local bird population as there were still berries left from 2013 when the flowers came out this spring.

If Guelder rose were indeed a native English species, its herbal use should be well documented. I decided to start my investigation with Culpepper but he was strangely silent. Anne MacIntyre only talked about Native American uses, which seemed strange if the tree had been growing in England for many centuries.

When I finally looked at the history of Guelder Rose, I discovered it was introduced to England from Dutch province of Guelderland, possibly in the sixteenth century when John Parkinson was writing his herbal encyclopedia. England was closely allied with Holland at this time as the nearest Protestant kingdom in Europe and new species of plants and trees were being introduced to aristocratic gardens from both Europe and the new world. Horse chestnuts were also imported during this century and both trees have been integrated into the British flora.

Bartram gives the keynote of the Guelder rose as cramp. He notes the actions as antispasmodic, astringent, nerve and muscle relaxant and sedative. He lists the uses as muscular cramps, pains in abdomen, womb, ovaries, back, stomach, intestines, bladder. Convulsions in children. Epididymitis. Painful menstruation, flooding menses of menopause. Polymyalgia. Nervous irritability, angina, intermittent claudication, arteritis, palpitation. Earache. Acute bronchitis, asthma. Muscular rheumatism. Bedwetting.

Anne MacIntyre tells us that crampbark’s active constituents are coumarins, catechin, epicatechin, bitters (Viburnin) arbutin, valeric acid, salicylates, tannins and resin. She also warns that raw berries are poisonous but can be eaten if cooked and any plant extract should be avoided if you take anticoagulant drugs.

Bartram’s list of crampbark uses are impressive Annie makes them more understandable by breaking them down into parts of the body. She also expands their uses based on Native American and other cultures.

Digestion: Relaxes tension and spasm. Relieves stress related disorders such as colic, nausea, wind, abdominal cramps and IBS.

These uses mirror that of chamomile and it makes me wonder whether early English herbalists would have used chamomile where Native Americans would use crampbark because each were easily available in their locality. I’m currently about to purchase my copy of John Parkinson’s Encyclopaedia and I’m hoping to discover what he wrote about the tree.

Circulation: Dilates the arteries, reduces blood pressure. Used for palpitations and angina. Releases tension in arteries, relieves leg cramps, helpful in Reynaud’s syndrome.

This makes me wonder how motherwort and crampbark would work together to alleviate the palpitations felt by menopausal women.

Musculoskeletal system: Used as a general music relaxant for voluntary and involuntary muscular cramp and tension. Used for tension headaches.

These uses encourage me to try making a crampbark oil this winter. After the success of the St John’s wort and agrimony salve for relieving arm muscle tension, knee pain and period pain, I’m wondering if the addition of crampbark or even a crampbark salve on its own would be even more effective. This might be really helpful for children and adults with problems of limb spasticity where tremors and spasms are a constant challenge.

Reproductive system: This was the major use for Native American and pioneer women. Crampbark can be used as a both a uterine sedative and tonic. Annie writes that aesculetin and scopoletin have a powerful antispasmodic action relieving cramps. Salicin is also a good pain reliever but should be avoided by anyone who is allergic to aspirin. Crampbark can be used in spasmodic dysmenorrhea for bearing-down pain, back and thigh pain, heavy bleeding, endometriosis, threatened/repeated miscarriage and to prepare for labour. It helps to prevent uterine irritability, over-strong contractions, false labour pains and afterpains. It also prevents excessive flow during menopause.

Crampbark is also used as an antispasmodic for benign prostatic hypertrophy. Its astringent actions is also helpful in prolapse.

Respiratory system: Crampbark relaxes spasm in bronchi and can be useful for soothing harsh irritating coughs and asthma as an adjuvant/aid to other medication.

My crampbark trees are currently providing a glorious autumn feast of colour in the Cotswolds.  I had cause to be grateful to them back in the early summer when I inadvertently stepped into a rabbit hole whilst picking elderflowers. I thought I must have been electrocuted from the searing pain at the top of my calf but I guess that’s what it feels like if you hyper-extend a muscle without warning. When it became almost impossible to walk, I set about collecting some crampbark leaves and flowers and made myself a tea. I drank half and put a fomentation around my leg. I repeated both several times during the evening.

The next morning I was able to move slowly and the pain had diminished. By the afternoon I was able to stand and dig. The following day I was walking normally. This, to me, seemed like a miraculous recovery due entirely to the crampbark. Now I know so much more about this plant I shall be using it in many different situations.