Cascara Sagrada (Rhamnus purshiana)

Family: Rhamnaceae (Buckthorn family)
Habitat: Sides and bottoms of canyons from the
Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, extending north into British America.It is a species of buckthorn native to western North America from southern British Columbia south to central California, and inland to western Montana.

Other Names: Cascara sagrada, sacred bark, Purshiana bark, persian bark, chittem bark, California buchthorn, cascara, bearberry-tree, bearwood.Rhamnus purshiana (Cascara Buckthorn, Cascara, Bearberry, and in the Chinook Jargon, Chittam or Chitticum; syn. Frangula purshiana, Rhamnus purshianus)

Parts Used: The bark collected during the summer. The collecting season opens about the end of May and closes before the rainy season sets in, as bark collected after exposure to wet weather is difficult to cure properly. The strips of bark after removal from the trees are dried in such a way that the inner surface is not exposed to the sunlight, in order to retain its yellow color. Cascara bark must be aged at least one year before it is used.

Description: It is the largest species of buckthorn, occasionally growing up to 15 m tall, though more commonly a large shrub or small tree 5-10 m tall, with a trunk 20-50 cm in diameter. The bark is brownish to silver-grey with light splotching. The leaves are deciduous, alternate, clustered near the ends of twigs; they are oval, 5-15 cm long and 2-5 cm broad with a 0.6-2 cm petiole, dark shiny green on top, fuzzy and paler green below.The rather thin leaves are somewhat hairy on the lower surface and rather prominently veined. The small, insignificant greenish flowers are produced in clusters and are followed by black, 3-seeded berries of a somewhat insipid taste. The bark has a somewhat aromatic odor and an extremely bitter taste The flowers are tiny, 4-5 mm diameter, with five greenish yellow petals; the flowering season is brief, disappearing by early summer. The fruit is a berry 6-10 mm diameter, bright red at first, quickly maturing deep purple or black, and containing three seeds.

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It grows in moist, acidic soils in the shady side of clearings or in the marginal forest understory, near the edges of mixed deciduous-coniferous forests. It typically grows as a second-generation tree after alders have colonized a barren plot of land.

History: Cascara sagrada is a natural laxative made from the reddish-brown bark of a tree (Rhamnus purshiana) native to the Pacific Northwest. It was used by various Native American tribes, who also passed their “sacred bark” on to Spanish explorers (cascara sagrada means sacred bark in Spanish).
Other European settlers were also quick to adopt this traditional remedy for constipation and other discomforts. But it was not formally used in western medicine until 1877, when the pharmaceutical producer Eli Lilly & Company introduced “Elixir Purgans,” a popular product containing cascara as well as several other laxative herbs.

Today, numerous over-the-counter laxatives feature cascara sagrada as a key ingredient. Because it’s so mild, the herb is frequently combined with stronger laxatives, such as aloe vera latex. To work properly, the bark must be carefully prepared–cured for at least one year or heated and dried to speed up the aging process. Aging is essential because the fresh bark is very irritating to the gastrointestinal system, causing vomiting and intestinal spasms.

Constituents: Cascara bark is high in hydroxyanthraquinone glycosides called cascarosides. Resins, tannins, and lipids make up the bulk of the other bark ingredients. Cascarosides have a cathartic action, inducing the large intestine to increase its muscular contraction (peristalsis), resulting in bowel movement.

The basis of Cascara’s laxative effect is the presence of a mixture of anthraquinones, either free (aloe-emodin) or as sugar derivatives (glycosides). The free anthraquinones remain in the intestines and cause catharsis by irritating the intestinal wall. Those anthraquinones present in the plant as sugar derivatives are largely absorbed from the intestine, circulate through the blood stream, and eventually stimulate the nerve center in the lower part of the intestine, which causes a laxative effect.

Medicinal Properties:
Purgative, bitter tonic.

Main Uses: Cascara Sagrada is a mild laxative, acting principally on the large intestine. It is considered suitable for delicate and elderly persons, and may with advantage be given in chronic constipation, being generally administered in the form of the fluid extract.
It acts also as a stomachic tonic and bitter, in small doses, promoting gastric digestion and appetite.

Treat hemorrhoids and anal fissures -. Combined with conventional measures to soften the stool (plenty of dietary fiber, water, and exercise), occasional use of cascara sagrada preparations may prevent the pressure and pain associated with hemorrhoids and anal fissures (cracks in the skin near the anus). In fact, by speeding up bowel movements, hemorrhoids are also less likely to develop.

The dried, aged bark of this tree has been used continually for at least 1,000 years by both native and immigrant Americans as a laxative natural medicine, commercially called “Cascara Sagrada”, but old timers call it “chitticum bark”.

Cascara Sagrada means “sacred bark” in Spanish. The much more pertinent name chitticum means “shit come” in Chinook Jargon; chittam comes from the Chinook Jargon phrase chittam stick = “laxative tree” which is similarly from the English word “shit”.

The bark is harvested mostly from wild trees; over-harvesting in the middle 1900s eliminated mature trees near many settled areas. Once stripped from the tree, the bark is aged for about 1 year to make its effect milder. Fresh cut, dried bark causes vomiting and violent diarrhea.

Preparation & Dosages:
Cold Infusion: 2 to 6 ounces.
Tincture: [1:5, 50% alcohol], 1 to 2 teaspoons.
Fluid Extract: [1:1, 50% alcohol] 1/2 to 1 teaspoon.
Liquid extract: 1 teaspoon three times a day or 1 or 2 teaspoons at bedtime; or 1 or 2 capsules of dried bark at bedtime.

Because long-term use of any laxative can make your body lose critical fluids and salts (especially potassium) and lead to chronic diarrhea or weakness, limit your use of cascara sagrada to one or two weeks. Habitual use of cascara sagrada can cause dependence on laxatives.

Some people develop crampy gastrointestinal discomforts with cascara sagrada; lower your dose if this happens and stop taking it altogether if the uncomfortable sensation persists.

Don’t use cascara sagrada continuously for more than two weeks.

See your doctor if constipation lasts for more than one week.

Never ingest fresh cascara bark, which is extremely irritating and can cause severe vomiting. The bark must be stored for a year or more and be specially treated before it’s safe to use. Instead, stick with standardized commercial cascara products (capsules, tablets, powders).

Avoid cascara sagrada if you have an inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, or if your doctor has diagnosed an intestinal obstruction of any kind.

Unless your doctor recommends it, don’t take cascara sagrada if you are pregnant or breast-feeding; its effects on the fetus and infant are unclear.

The information presented herein is intended for educational purposes only. Individual results may vary, and before using any supplements, it is always advisable to consult with your own health care provider.


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