Got Muscle Pain? Plant Crampbark

From back pain to arthritis, this native plant helps alleviate what makes you ache.

by Dawn Combs
Got Muscle Pain? Plant Crampbark - Photo by Dawn Combs (
Photo by Dawn Combs

I love to research native plants. I keep a running list of plants that I like to use in my apothecary but know little about how to grow. Recently, I needed to prepare a talk for a local festival and my eye fell on our local crampbark (Viburnum trilobum). It was the perfect excuse to get to know an old friend in a different way.

There are actually two varieties of crampbark you can use in herbal medicine: the native crampbark (Viburnum trilobum) and the European crampbark (Viburnum opulus). Viburnum opulus is also known as guelder rose and has quite a bit of folklore attached to it. Both of them are known to my younger self as “snowball bush.” My neighbor had one in his front yard, and I never knew how much I would grow to love this plant later in life—not just for its fluffy, white blossoms but for its healing prowess.

European Crampbark
Geulder rose is a beloved shrub of the Ukraine. Woven into their cultural identity, it stands for the fire at the beginning of the world, fealty among men, and the purity and beauty of young girls. It’s literally woven into many tapestries and represented by its distinctive maple-like leaves just as often as by its bright-red berry clusters. The berries have been used fresh around the world to make a red dye and dried to make black ink. In Russia, they’re used to support heart health and to regulate blood pressure.

Native Crampbark
The berries are where the similarities between guelder rose and our native crampbark diverge. Our native crampbark’s berries are sour, whereas those of guelder rose are acrid. They can both be added with much success to drinks and jams. In Canada, they’re so often used as fruits that the name “highbush cranberry” originated there.

Viburnum trilobum is the crampbark that the Native Americans used. It grows mainly in lowlands and on forest edges. These shrubs are relatives of another favorite native, the elder, and seem to like some of the same growing conditions. It doesn’t like to be kept in wet soils, but isn’t too choosy otherwise. It will grow in part shade or full sun. On our farm it grows in a hedge on the edge of our property in full sun. It is cheery around this time of year to look over at the beautiful leaves crowned with the bright, shiny red berries.

Healing with Crampbark
When purchasing crampbark, you’ll often the bark of both shrubs intermixed. The bark is collected in the early spring or late fall and dried in pieces or immediately tinctured. Crampbark is known best for its antispasmodic effect on muscle groups. It has a special affinity for the uterus and is therefore often given for menstrual cramps, to prevent miscarriage or to alleviate afterbirth pains. It can be equally effective for arthritis, asthma or back pain for both men and women.

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For some time, I have been creating several tinctures with native crampbark for our and our customers’ use. This year, I believe I will pick some berries and add them to a mixed berry jelly. We will enjoy their beneficial goodness to the heart in the middle of winter, when we can all use a lift and remember the fun of learning new things about old friends.

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