As I was walking out the door today, I was struck by the beautiful colour of the Crampbark leaves in the fall. The deep pinkish red hue is a nice contrast to the yellow and green colours that most of the leaves in my garden have right now. The red colour, though not exactly the colour of blood, is a small reminder of Viburnum’s best known medicinal use – to help treat menstrual cramps.
I purchased several of these bushes for my garden under the impression that they were Viburnum trilobum, American Highbush Cranberry, sometimes listed as Viburnum opulus var. americanum, which is native to Ontario. No wonder my Botanical Medicine students are confused by Latin names. The American and European varieties of the plant are very difficult to tell apart. Even the nurseries often mix up the identification of the two species. The biggest difference is in the gland petioles. The other major difference is in the taste of the berries. The American species tastes a lot like cranberries, whereas the European one is bitter and rather unpleasant.
The European variety, commonly known as Crampbark, has a long history of use in Europe, especially in the Ukraine, where it is known as Kalyna. Crampbark features prominently in Ukrainian embroidery, songs, and other forms of art. The red of the berries symbolize blood and immortality. They have been used ceremoniously to stop bleeding, as well as in rituals of brotherhood. They have also been used to symbolize blood spilt during battle.
The flower blossoms represent a young woman’s beauty and her coming of age, when she is said to be “blossoming like a Kalyna.” Kalyna, also associated with the birth of the universe, has traditionally been used at times of birth and death. Midwives used it in the ritual washing and purifying of infants and their mothers after birth. Newlyweds practiced a ritual called “breaking the Kalyna,” proof that the couple had consummated their marriage. Crampbark is also one of the most common plantings at grave sites, where it may help the dead into their new world just as it helps newborn babies and newlyweds into theirs. In Ukrainian mythology, Crampbark serves as an intermediary between worlds, helping in the transitions between childhood and adulthood, between life and death.
Varieties of Crampbark native to North America were used by the Iroquois to prevent hemorrhage after childbirth. The Ojibwa, Chippewa, Cherokee, and Menominee were all noted to have used the bark of the plant for cramps. The use of Crampbark, and other species of Viburnum, for menstrual cramps, is how it is best known today.
I often use Crampbark in combination formulas for menstrual cramps, with herbs like Valerian, Ginger, Yarrow, Black Cohosh, and Jamaican Dogwood. It’s an excellent antispasmodic herb, with an affinity for the smooth muscle organs in the lower abdomen and pelvis. Much like the homeopathic remedy made from Crampbark, it is especially great when menstrual cramps start in the lower back and wrap around to the front, ending in cramps in the uterus. Although no clinical studies have been done to evaluate its effectiveness, in vitro studies show that Viburnum’s main plant constituents do indeed act as antispasmodics.
According to herbalist Lisa Allen, Crampbark flower essence is for people who feel pressured to do more than they want, and then feel taken for granted. Certainly many women have expressed both a desire for alone time during their menses, along with feeling unappreciated for their contributions to work or to families. Crampbark, in its herbal, homeopathic, and/or flower essence form, is a great herb for resolving menstrual cramps.
For other herbs that help with menstrual cramps, endometriosis and fibroids, see my book “The Essential Guide to Women’s Herbal Medicine“.