What is Viburnum Prunifolium?

N. Phipps

Viburnum prunifolium, commonly known as black haw or sloe, is a small shrub native to southern parts of North America. The plant has pale-colored flowers that eventually give way to bluish-black berries. Of the nearly eighty species of Viburnum found worldwide, this particular variety is considered to be one of the most valuable. It has a long history of medicinal use among Native Americans and was also commonly employed by pioneer women in early America during the 19th century.

Viburnum prunifolium has been used to treat menstrual cramps.
Viburnum prunifolium has been used to treat menstrual cramps.

While various parts of the plant may be used, it is the bark which is most commonly utilized. The dried bark is pulverized into a reddish powder or made into a decoction by boiling the bark and then ingesting. A tea can be prepared from the leaves, and the plant is also used to make a tincture. Both the decoction and tea are slightly bitter tasting. Tinctures and other preparations of Viburnum prunifolium are commercially available from herbalists or health food stores.

People allergic to aspirin should not use black haw.
People allergic to aspirin should not use black haw.

Similar to its cousin cramp bark (V. opulus), black haw is well known for its reputation as a strong muscle relaxer. Traditionally, the Native Americans used decoctions of Viburnum prunifolium for the treatment of common gynecological conditions like menstrual cramps, childbirth, and menopause. In addition, they would use the berries in various food applications, especially for making jams. The Indians also made use of the stems for basket weaving.

Early American colonists made similar use of Viburnum prunifolium. In addition to menstrual cramps and menopause symptoms, the decoction was oftentimes given to women to prevent miscarriage and ease pain. In fact, this became a common practice among slaveholders in an effort to prevent abortions. A woman’s fertility was also thought to be increased by the use of black haw, increasing the chances to bear children.

There were other uses for Viburnum prunifolium as well. Gargles of the plant helped treat mouth sores and ulcers. It was used to aid those suffering from diarrhea. Black haw has also been used with other herbal mixture to treat asthma and heart palpitations. As with any herbal remedy, the advice of an experienced homeopathic practitioner should be sought before use.

Some precautionary measures should be taken with the use of Viburnum prunifolium. Large doses can spawn nausea and vomiting and increase the risk of bleeding. People who are allergic to aspirin should not use black haw. The plant contains a chemical called salicin, which is closely related to aspirin and may trigger the same allergic response in those that are sensitive.

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