Cramp bark

Cramp bark, Viburnum opulus
Cramp bark, Viburnum opulus

Cramp bark’s antispasmodic effect on smooth muscle contractions, especially uterine walls, relieves cramping of muscles, also general muscular pain of the back and arthritis. The bark is boiled and simmered in a decoction for at least 20 minutes, or steeped in alcohol to create a tincture.

Most barks are harvested in early spring when the sap is flowing through the bark, before the flowering and leafing of tree or shrub. You either need a great memory for the location of plants you plan to harvest, or to be able to recognize them out of season. Cramp bark can also be harvested in flower, making it a little unusual. 

Cramp bark, V. opulus var. americanum

Identifying cramp bark in the wild (or in someone’s ornamental garden):
There are two varieties of cramp bark, European (Viburnum opulus var. opulus),and American (V. opulus var. americana, also known as V. trilobum).  Warning! One has more delicious berries than the other. American cramp bark berries taste like cranberries, so much so that it is commonly called American highbush cranberry, even though it is unrelated to true cranberry= lowbush cranberry (a Vaccinium species more closely related to blueberry bushes). American cramp bark berries are tart and plentiful in Vitamin C, and can be added to jams and jellies, or made into a sauce for a meat dish. European cramp bark berries, on the other hand, have a more acrid taste, far less appealing to eat fresh, so if it tastes strong, it’s the European variety. They are often confused or mislabeled in nurseries, but a taste test is one way to tell them apart.

Don’t let phony identification cramp your style! Cramp bark is also hard to tell apart from small maple trees, and historically this led to a lot of shenanigans, mostly attempts to swap maple bark or other viburnums for the valuable cramp bark in order to make a killer profit.  Widespread adulteration almost ended cramp bark’s recognition as part of the official US pharmacopeia, and diluted its effectiveness in the eye of the public for many years.  Viburnums have opposite leaves, branches and leaf buds, so maples and ashes are the only group you are likely to confuse them with. You wouldn’t be the first!

Viburnums are bushes 3-12 feet tall, with opposite leaves, and cranberry viburnums have lobed leaves with hairy undersides and spiky things (stipules) at the base of the leaf stem (petioles). If there aren’t any stipules, it’s a maple. Acer spicatum has historically been the most commonly mistaken lookalike, and was a common adulterant, knowingly or unknowingly substituted or mixed into true cramp bark by harvesters or middlemen.

Cramp bark viburnums, American and European can be recognized in winter by their bud scales, a skill we cover in my classes on winter bud identification in March. Their buds have one bud scale in winter, which develops into a pair of bud scales that meet at the edges before they leaf out in spring.

You can tell cramp bark apart from maples by the stipules, and from other viburnums by the leaf shape (with three lobes), and you can tell the variety based on the bumps or glands on located on the petiole (the European variety V. opulus var. opulus has concave glands, the American variety V. opulus var. americanum has convex glands). Not sure it’s a viburnum? Follow this excellent guide from Cornell extension.

European cramp bark is best known in Ukraine as kalyna, the most beautiful flower and symbol of the nation and a woman’s beauty, an important icon found in national imagery. Ukraine at least has never forgotten cramp bark’s significant medicinal value.

Image credit: “Viburnum 01” by Lestat (Jan Mehlich) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons 

in it for the culture

After the LONGEST month of the year do you need a pick me up?
Do you miss fresh foods?
Lots of friends?
TONS of Vitamin C?
Is your diet lacking in fiber (both kinds) and greens?
Sulfur, Iron, and Vitamin K?
What would you say if I told you there’s a recipe you can make with things you already have in your kitchen, that packs all this goodness into one tasty dish? Would you be shocked if I told you it has only TWO ingredients?
It’s Sauerkraut!

Once you know about the benefits of this dish, AND how to make it fresh and season it to your personal taste, you’ll never relegate it to the category of hot dog condiment again (hot dogs, really?).
Read on for some fun facts and a recipe!

“But you’re an herbalist, why are we talking about food?”

The best medicine is food that your body can readily digest, and there aren’t any herbs that will make lasting improvement if we don’t also address the root cause of an illness. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, was the first to say “all disease begins in the gut” and if there is a problem with digestion underlying a current condition of yours then digestive health will be one of the first things we focus on improving. Fermented foods made to traditional recipes, including sauerkraut, are part of the whole foods nutritional approach I use as a foundation of my practice. If you want some answers about digestion or any other issue, or if you’re ready to try a new approach to your health, make an appointment!

Here’s why sauerkraut is awesome for nearly everyone:

  • Friends you eat! Sauerkraut, raw, unpasteurized and homemade, contains lactic acid and a living culture of probiotics, which if you’ve never heard the term means beneficial bacteria. Humans have evolved to live with 100 trillion bacteria in the intestines alone– that’s ten times the number of cells in the human body. By taking up the real estate, your gut flora keep unwelcome pathogens from moving into the neighborhood. These friends do a lot for us, producing vitamin B12, Vitamin K and butyric acid, which is so important it is used by our intestinal lining as a main form of energy for absorption! These beneficial bacteria keep you from getting sick and help you absorb food. Eat your friends!
  • Sauerkraut contains a lot of Vitamin C—a third of your daily C in a single cup of sauerkraut. Sailors would bring barrels of sauerkraut with them on long sea voyages to avoid getting scurvy. You can do the same! Winter can seem like a long sea voyage, monotonous and stormy by turns while you wait for fresh greens and fruit to become available in season again and give the questionable produce from Bolivia the shifty eye in the grocery store.  Good thing that Lactobacillus bacteria digest cabbage in a way that makes Vitamin C available for humans to absorb! You need Vitamin C for things like making collagen, making neurotransmitters, turning cholesterol into bile, supporting immune function, so, just a few things.
  • Sulfur, an important trace element for collagen synthesis, is found in the brassica family of vegetables, including cabbage. Collagen makes up the structure of your body, in bones, muscles, tendons, cartilage, organs, skin and hair. Fermenting cabbage makes the sulfur more bioavailable, breaking down glucosinolates into a form the body can absorb. These compounds are antioxidants as well, fighting cancer and aging at the cellular level. So young looking skin is the least important reason to include sulfur in your diet in the form of sauerkraut!
  • Vitamin K is a factor responsible for blood clotting, and vitamin K2, the form found in cabbage and sauerkraut, has many other jobs including distributing calcium to the bones, preventing heart disease, forming strong bones, healthy skin and supporting growth, development and brain function. I have nothing funny to say about Vitamin K.
  • Fiber is not created equal! Cabbage is high in insoluble fiber, the rough and indigestible substance that acts like a pipe cleaner: scraping your intestines and speeding up transit time.  Fermenting cabbage into sauerkraut increases the amount of soluble fiber present, which acts more like a gel, coating the intestines, delaying digestion and allowing more absorption to occur along the way. Soluble fiber is the preferred food of our beneficial bacteria and is called “prebiotic” because without their favorite food, all the probiotics in the world won’t restore flourishing gut bacteria for long. Instead of buying expensive supplements whose results are short-lived, ferment your own raw sauerkraut and keep your existing work crew happy!

Not every body is alike, and some people have an intolerance even to the fibers present in sauerkraut (FODMAP intolerance). If this is you, don’t worry! Look forward to an upcoming post on bitters, and request an appointment. We’ll discuss other dietary and herbal strategies for getting your digestion back on track.

I used to love keeping “pets” or “science projects” growing in the fridge, nameless jars of goo that my mother would eventually throw out. (Not all of them were supposed to be alive.) Get in touch with your inner mad scientist by brewing up a jar of fermented food. It’s wacky fun, and will make you want to practice your evil laugh.
Sauerkraut Recipe:

Start with: 1 head of organic cabbage and 2 Tbsp unrefined sea salt, a cutting board, knife, bowl, two wide-mouth mason jars, two smaller jars that fit inside the wide mouths.  Fill them with heavy weights like change.

1. Clean everything. You want only beneficial bacteria to grow in your culture, so give your ferment a head start by cleaning every surface and utensil well with hot water, and rinsing all soap residue completely off.

2. Remove and discard the two outermost cabbage leaves, saving a piece of one to cover your finished kraut. Chop your cabbage finely, in the thinnest slices you can to maximize surface area. Discard the core of the cabbage.

3. Add the salt to your cabbage and mix evenly, squeezing or massaging the vegetable matter for 5 to 10 minutes. It will squeak or crunch as you break it down further, releasing moisture.

4. (optional) You may mix in other shredded or sliced vegetables, fruits, herbs, or spices at this point. I added shredded carrot and ginger with dulse seaweed flakes.

5. Begin packing your sauerkraut tightly into each mason jar, taking care to press evenly to squeeze out all air pockets and press more liquids out of the mixture. Add kraut slowly, packing it tightly until the level is no less than 3 inches from the top of the jar and packing releases enough liquid to cover the top of the jar.

6. Cover the packed kraut with a small piece of discarded cabbage leaf as a lid, and press down on top of this with the smaller jar weighted with change or pebbles. The liquid level should rise above the cabbage leaf lid. As long as the liquid covers the sauerkraut your beneficial bacteria will outgrow their competitors, but if the vegetable matter is exposed to air unwanted bacteria will grow.

7. Cover your jar with a towel to keep out unwanted particles and let stand in a cool dry place for 5 to 10 days. Every day, press down on the jar and push out any air bubbles that form.

8. Start tasting your sauerkraut on Day 3, and keep tasting it until you like the flavor and consistency. Remove the weighted jar and discard the cabbage leaf on top, then seal the lid and keep your finished jar of sauerkraut in the fridge for up to two weeks.

9. Experiment with adding ingredients to see what flavors you like best. I like caraway seeds and juniper berries. Try mixing red and white cabbage, or adding shredded beet for a bright pink color. Pear slices with rosehips and elderberries, radish or turnip, can all be excellent additions. You can add dried nettles for even more protein and mineral content. Kimchi flavorings include spicy pepper, garlic, ginger, and anchovies ground into a paste and thoroughly blended.


my first experience of an herbal formula

Herbalism is the way you approach health and the way you experience it in your own body, this includes your experience with plants and how they work and how they change the way you feel. It requires you to get really clear about what those sensations are, to use your taste buds and to train yourself to be aware of injured or sick parts of your body with greater clarity, your throat, your liver, your kidneys, your joints, and how those sensations are changing over time as you take herbs and make other lifestyle interventions. This way of knowing is referred to as organoleptic, knowing through the sense organs. Wine tasters are organoleptic experts, and so are herbalists. Herbalism requires you to be really honest with yourself and acknowledge your agency in the healing process, that your actions can influence how quickly and how well your body repairs itself.

I thought the first herbal formula I ever made was simply a complicated and delicious recipe. It was a Tanzanian chai (spiced tea blend) recipe that a friend’s mother brought back with her from the Peace Corps. When I was over at her house in the winter a saucepan of the chai would be on the wood stove cooking all day, spices simmering, and it smelled heavenly. I had a cup of it one day when I was sick with a cold and I had this visceral reaction to drinking the tea: my (at that time, chronically poor) digestion improved, with a lot of gas dispersing, my extremities (usually cold) warmed, my stuffed nose cleared and I could breathe a little easier, and I started sweating, at which point it felt like my whole body woke up and said: Get me some more of that.  I drank so much of the tea that this woman sent me home with the recipe for my first herbal formula.

Let’s unpack this aromatic spice formula that’s full of herbs you can find in your kitchen:

Every herb in the formula is carminative, these are digestive herbs that dispel gas and reduce nausea: ginger, fennel, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, peppercorns and cayenne.

circulatory stimulants like ginger, peppercorns, and cayenne increase blood flow, oxygenating the body, delivering nutrients to cells and removing waste from cells, all important actions in cold and sluggish bodies inactive in the winter.

diaphoretics promote sweating, release of toxins and open the periphery of the body, allowing heat to escape the body, as in a fever breaking, or allowing warmth into the body after prolonged cold has closed the pores: cayenne, ginger are both stimulating diaphoretics.

antispasmodic: cardamom is relaxing for both stomach cramps associated with indigestion and IBS and for spasmodic coughing and bronchitis.

expectorant: cardamom thins stuck mucus and its warming and drying properties make it useful in cases of congested colds and bronchitis, allowing mucus to be coughed up.

  • fresh ginger, crushed with a knife, – 1 or 2 inches
  • fennel seed,- ½ cup
  • cardamom pods,- 5, crushed with a knife
  • cinnamon stick – 1
  • whole cloves – 5
  • black peppercorns– 5
  • cayenne powder- a dash or two

Boil a quart of water on the stove, add all spices and simmer for 20 minutes up to an hour on low heat, adding water if necessary. The longer you simmer the stronger your results, since I like strong herb tastes I brew it longer for myself than for herb newbies.

Now, chai just means tea, and the original recipe does include a teaspoon of black tea for every cup of water (probably 2 cups once you’ve reduced it) which I find I can’t tolerate when I come home and the house is chilly and I want to pile on sweaters and guzzle a gallon of this tea. If you’re like me and one cup of caffeine will have you zooming around the walls, feel free to leave it out, but if you’re going to include black tea do it once you’ve finished simmering the spices.

The other thing that is essential to chai is milk, and as I’m saving my discussion of dairy for another day, let’s just say here that the best dairy substitute you can use is full fat coconut milk, which doesn’t separate like soy and will still froth up when you heat it. Coconut, almond or other milk is added once you’ve finished simmering the spices, and then you bring the pot to a rolling boil until the milk froths. The froth indicates that it has blended correctly, the one thing Starbucks got right about their chai!

A spoonful of honey is a nice addition to make this tea a lovely experience for someone.  We want to steer clear of too much sugar for optimum immune function, but a little honey can soothe and moisten a dry cough, and if adding some honey increases compliance, it’s better than a perfectly balanced cold formula that no one will drink twice because it tastes bad.  Another note: this formula is very warming and drying, great if your cold is boggy with the drippiest nose, but if you have a dry sore throat, it might be too drying for you.  Reduce the amount of pepper and add some more moistening herbs like cinnamon and licorice, wild cherry too. You can substitute any of the carminatives, diaphoretics and circulatory stimulants for spices you have available in your kitchen, anise seed, lemongrass, coriander, star anise, and lemon or orange peel make nice additions. I most often stick with this recipe.  There is more fennel than anything else, as you might notice, half a cup is a lot of fennel, so you may want to cut that down and add more of your favorite ingredient.  

I like to drink this tea in the winter when I feel a little run down, and filling the house with the smell of it cooking on the stove and anticipating a delicious cup of tea certainly help me get more enjoyment out of cold season!

Elderberry Syrup for the Flu Season Blues

Now that flu season is upon us, I’m taking requests for homemade elderberry syrup. Last year I made elderberry syrup for busy teacher friends, and it is one of my favorite medicines because it tastes delicious and can be taken before or during a cold or flu to prevent or reduce the duration of symptoms.


Need some science?  Sambucus nigra, or Elder berry, has demonstrated antiviral activity against influenza, supported by in vitro and in vivo studies, clinical use in Europe as well as documented traditional use. Clinical trial studies are linked here and here, for the inquisitive mind. I have summarized the findings for you below.

  • Elderberry extract stimulates production of cytokine immune cells, and inhibits replication of viruses in cells.
  • Elderberry extract kills certain types of Streptococcus bacteria as well as viruses in a petri dish (making it truly antibacterial and antiviral- some plants to which this label is inappropriately applied more indirectly raise host defense through other means).
  • Elderberry’s mechanism of action is to deactivate hemagglutinin spikes on the virus coat, without which the virus is unable to pierce and enter cell walls in order to replicate.
  • Elderberry syrup has been shown to reduce the duration of flu symptoms by 3 to 4 days in double-blind placebo-controlled studies.
  • Because all influenza strains have these hemagglutinin spikes, elderberry is a broad spectrum preventive medicine for flu, unlike flu vaccines which must match the strain closely to be effective.

There is a commercial supplement available called Sambucol, which doctors in Europe commonly prescribe for flu. While Sambucol is standardized and lab tested for active ingredients, it is easy to make a tasty and effective syrup of your own for way less than the cost of the supplement.

I make my elderberry syrup, based on a Mountain Rose Herb recipe, with:

1 cup of elderberries

1 cup of rose hips (incredibly high Vitamin C content)

1 cinnamon stick

3 whole cloves

1 Tbsp ginger (for taste)

I simmer these on the stove with a quart of water, reducing it to a single cup of liquid over the course of half an hour.

*(A side note here, Monty Python fans will remember the insult“your father smelled of elderberries;” dried elderberries smell like old socks to some people, and this smell comes out strongly while they are cooking. Fortunately the smell dissipates once the berries are fully cooked, and does not affect the taste at all.)

I let the syrup cool, strain it, then add 1 cup of honey, and if it is not going to be drunk immediately or put directly into a fridge I add a half cup of brandy to preserve it. It is best to store the syrup in a cool dry place, or in the refrigerator if you plan to keep it for more than a few months.

A dose for an adult is 1 tablespoon of syrup daily for preventive care, and 1 tablespoon every 2-3 hours while flu symptoms are present.

It is the tastiest way to keep cold and flu away. As I said, I am taking requests. Say the word if you would like me to set some aside for you!