Alaena Charlotte Diamon
Buckthorn, Glossy (Rhamnus cathartica, R. frangula)
Name: Family of Rhamnaceae, other members include cascara sagrada. The botanical name catharticus gives an indication of its laxative or purging properties.
Common Names: Hart's-horn or the Purging Buckthorn.
Parts Used: Berries, bark.
Description: Hardiness Zones, 3 to 7. Annual Growth Rate: 12 to 18 inches; Common Buckthorn is a deciduous shrub or small tree that grows up to 20 feet in height with straggling branches trailing here and there on the ground. Dull green leaves are oval, edged with fine teeth, and one to two inches long. The leaves have several pairs of distinct veins that are curved toward the leaf tip. Leaf arrangement on the stem is alternate to nearly opposite. Twigs may be tipped with sharp, stout thorns. Small clusters of fragrant greenish-yellow flowers, each with four petals, grow from among the leaves. It can readily be distinguished from Common Buckthorn by several obvious characteristics. Glossy Buckthorn has similarly shaped leaves, but they are glossy or shiny and lack teeth on their margins. Flowers are also similar, but Glossy Buckthorn has five petals. Plants of both species reach seed-bearing age quickly, and both produce drupes (berries). Care should be taken not to mistake the native alder-leaved Buckthorn for these non-natives. Alder-leaved Buckthorn can be distinguished from Common Buckthorn by the lack of thorns at the end of its twigs, and it can be distinguished from Glossy Buckthorn by the presence of small teeth on its leaves. Flowers late spring, early summer.
Habitat: Potential habitats of Common Buckthorn are diverse and include open woods, thickets on exposed rocky sites, hedgerows, pastures, and roadsides. It grows in well-drained sand, clay, or poorly drained calcareous soils, but prefers neutral or alkaline soils. It is less vigorous in dense shade. Glossy Buckthorn typically inhabits wetter, less shaded sites than Common Buckthorn. It grows in soils of any texture. Habitats include alder thickets and calcareous or limestone-influenced wetlands. Although seedlings of both types of Buckthorn invade apparently stable habitats, they grow most successfully where there is ample light and exposed soil. These buckthorns have long growing seasons and rapid growth rates, and resprout vigorously after being topped. In North America, both species leaf out prior to most woody deciduous plants, and can retain their leaves well into autumn. Buckthorns rapidly form dense, even-aged thickets. The large leaves and continuous canopy create dense shade. Even-aged thickets are common in both wetlands and in woodland understories. Common buckthorn invasion is greatest in thinned or grazed woods, along woodland edges, and in openings created by windfalls. Common Buckthorn's tolerance of moist, dry, or heavy clay soils increases its success in many types of habitats. Glossy Buckthorn sometimes invades similar woodland habitats but more often invades wetlands that are comparable to its European wetland habitats. North American wetlands invaded by Glossy Buckthorn include wet prairies, marshes, calcareous fens, sedge meadows, sphagnum bogs, and tamarack swamps. Natural community composition, especially of upland deciduous woods and of wetlands, may be altered due to invasion of Common Buckthorn and Glossy Buckthorn. These species can cause habitat degradation, shade out rare species, and give rise to declines in native species diversity. Both Buckthorns have become widespread in North America due to various disturbances, such as drainage, lack of fire, and woodland grazing and cutting, which have created ideal habitat for seedling establishment.
Cultivation: Common and glossy buckthorn were introduced to North America as ornamental shrubs, for fence rows and for wildlife habitat. They are considered a threat to the environment at this time, and it is not advised to cultivate them.
Propagation and Reproduction: Dispersal is accelerated by the birds and mammals that feed on the fruit of these species.
Constituents: Buckthorn contains chemicals (anthraquinones) that are too dramatic for most people, and should be considered only a last-resort treatment for constipation.Uses: Buckthorn is a potent laxative, so powerful that authorities advise using it only as a last resort when other, gentler laxatives have failed. Buckthorn became popular in herbal healing in Europe around the 13th century. At the time, they had few effective medicines to offer. And they believed the key to curing disease lay in purging the body. Not surprisingly, powerful laxatives were widely prescribed. Buckthorn was a favorite because it produced quick, reliable and dramatic results. It didn't cure any disease, but it did leave people with intestinal cramps. Through the ages, herbalists have also recommended Buckthorn for jaundice, hemorrhoids, gout, arthritis, and menstruation promotion. Buckthorn also has a long history as a cancer treatment. In America it was an ingredient in the popular but highly controversial Hoxsey Cancer Formula. Buckthorn doesn't treat jaundice or arthritis, and it's more likely to aggravate hemorrhoids than help them. Its laxative action is so powerful, it's considered a purgative. It's an ingredient in the over-the-counter laxative Movicol. Before resorting to Buckthorn, eat a diet high in fiber, drink more fluids, and exercise more. If that doesn't provide relief, try a bulk-forming laxative such as psyllium, and if that doesn't help, try a gentler relative of Buckthorn, Cascara Sagrada. Buckthorn does have an anti-tumor effect, according to research published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, but further studies must be conducted before the herb can be used to treat cancer. The leaves, bruised and applied to a wound, will stop the bleeding. The juice of the berries is used to make Buckthorn syrup, a powerful laxative. This medicine was official until 1867 but has fallen into disuse because its action is so severe. It is still used as a laxative for animals. Purging is not a method employed by modern medical herbalists; however, a homeopathic medicine made from Rhamnus catharticus is available. Buckthorn can still be used as an ointment to treat warts and pruritus.
Miscellaneous: In Germany, physicians prescribe an infusion containing 1/2 teaspoon each of dried buckthorn bark, fennel seed, and chamomile flowers steeped in 1 cup of boiling water for 10 minutes. Drink before bedtime. You'll find the taste initially sweet, then bitter. Bark is used for dye after aging for one year. Cultural controls that have been used for management include cutting, mowing, girdling, excavation, burning, and "underplanting." Repeated cutting reduces plant vigor. Mowing maintains open areas by preventing seedling establishment. Glossy buckthorn girdled with a two- to three-centimeter-wide saw-cut, completely through the bark at the base, does not resprout. Girdling may be done at any time of the year. A five-second flame torch application around the stem kills stems less than 4.5 centimeters in diameter. Seedlings or small plants may be hand-pulled or removed with a grubbing hoe. Larger plants may be pulled out with heavy equipment. Excavation often disturbs roots of adjacent plants, or creates open soil readily colonized by new seedlings. This technique may be most useful to control invasion at low densities, or along trails, roads and woodland edges. Buckthorn is said to be under the dominion of Saturn.
Caution: Dangerous to eat; cathartic. If you use Buckthorn, be sure it's dried for at least one year, and do not use for more than 2 weeks at a time, as the bowel may become dependent on it.