Growing up, it was the ‘Snowball’ tree that always indicated, more beautifully than a calendar, that my birthday was approaching. In hindsight, the snowball tree was responding to spring, more so than my October birthday, but to a kid it was really quite magical.
On a good year, the snowball tree flowered for my birthday. I don’t even remember picking the flowers, just thinking that they were amazing. (Looking at my eight year old son, I don’t think a snowball tree would survive quite so well in our family now!)
When the snowball tree died, probably in one of our droughts, mum re-planted it and off we went again.
Now, I’ve loved plants and gardening since I was quite small. I’m sure most Naturopath’s do. So when a client asked me what plant Cramp Bark came from, I was surprisingly stumped!
I knew Cramp Bark’s amazing properties, dosages and contraindications off the top of my head, but I couldn’t picture it.
A quick google ensued and… you’ve guessed where this is going… my snowball tree popped up! The name of my snowball tree is Viburnum opulus, or commonly the Guelder-rose.
Cramp bark is famously used as a relaxant, particularly on muscle tissue. You might not be surprised to hear that it’s the bark of the plant that is used.
Medicinal plants usually look like they could be medicinal… to me anyway. So my question is this. Who picked a branch of the snowball tree, started chewing it, and realised their leg cramps felt better? Did they see birds chewing the twigs and noticed that they looked particularly relaxed? How in the world did someone discover that the bark of Virburnum opulus is excellent as a relaxant?
Well, I went investigating! Cramp Bark is native to Europe and naturalised in North America. The name Guelder-rose is after the Dutch city of Gueldersland where the plant is thought to be from and Cramp Bark is the national symbol of the Ukraine. While the bark is used medicinally, the berries are dried to make dye and ink.
All information you needed!
While I couldn’t find any dates, the first info on Cramp Bark being used medicinally that I could find came from the Native American Tribes. The Meskwaki, Penobscot and Iroquois tribes particualy used this amazing plant for arthritis, menstrual cramps, back pain, and of course, muscle cramps. It was finally made official in the U.S. Pharmacopeia in 1894.
It has amazingly anti-inflammatory active ingredients like coumarins and contains menthyl salicylate which is a weak acting precurser to the salicylic acid used in aspirin, but is much kinder to gut mucosa!
All I can think is: thank goodness someone worked out the medicinal uses for Cramp Bark! It’s one of my most used herbs… from muscle pain, to rheumatoid arthritis, menstrual issues and nerve pain. And if it were left to me, I would only ever have been impressed that it flowered for my birthday and never worked out how medicinally wonderful it really was!