WILD CHERRY
Common Names

Wild Cherry Bark , Black Cherry, Choke cherry
Botanical Name
Prunus serotina
Family
ROSACEAE ~ Rose Family

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What is it?

In herbal medicine we use the bark from this large species of cherry tree that can grow up to 30 meters tall. The taste of Wild Cherry is distinctive and recalls the flavour of bitter almonds.


FLOWERS


CHERRIES


DRIED BARK

How has it been used?

Wild Cherry has been used for nervous heart palpitations and for irritable digestive disorders but its primary modern and traditional use has been for the treatment of unwanted and unhelpful coughs.

Early colonists to America found native American Indians using Wild Cherry to relieve coughs but also as a general sedative and treatment for labour pain, diarrhoea and pain and soreness in the chest in general. They adopted the Indian uses for the herb but also widely used it to treat the bronchitis, whooping cough and pneumonia that plagued their communities. Wild Cherry was one of the most popular botanical medicines of the 19th century, both by itself and as an ingredient in numerous patent medicines.

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Science on Wild Cherry

Wild Cherry contains some potent ingredients called cyanogenic glycosides (prunasin) which is probably why it is the strongest natural cough reliever there is. In practice that means that Wild Cherry is mostly used for what is termed a ‘dry, unproductive cough’.

Wild Cherry bark loses its potency if stored for more than a year. You must not heat Wild Cherry, the main ingredients that help soothe and reduce a cough, the cyanogenic glycosides, can be damaged by heat. Most herbalists use it as a tincture because it is easy to take and stays potent for much longer.

Safety of Wild Cherry

There are no reports of Wild Cherry bark causing toxicity in the medical literature and it is considered safe to take by young and old and during pregnancy or breast-feeding. Note that the bark should not be heated and the leaves should not be used at all as these most definitely have been associated with poisoning of livestock and humans.

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Personal experiences

I rate Wild Cherry very highly for its ability to help with horrible coughs and I've had many patients who have come in after weeks or even months of intensely irritating and unproductive coughs who find to their delight that their Wild Cherry cough mixture turns matters around in no time.

That said, generally we are looking to encourage rather than suppress a cough in natural medicine because it is there for a reason and you need to help the body do what it is trying to do (in this case clear out debris or infection by coughing it out) rather than suppressing the process (which is largely exactly what many drugs are designed to do).

The traditional recommendation with Wild Cherry is to use it when the cough is 'unproductive' and not to use it when there is obvious debris to clear. This is because Wild Cherry does significantly ease the cough reflex and we have to be very careful not to end up extending the problem longer by interfering with the lung's natural self-cleansing process.

That said there have been plenty of times that I've used Wild Cherry when the cough has not been dry or useless but the person is so exhausted by the process of trying to clear their lungs that they desperately need some respite. Coughs can be really debilitating because they involve an enormous amount of effort, muscular contraction and general restlessness.

And it has to be said that a cough is a blunt instrument in many ways. It can be set on full throttle by the tiniest of particles in the lungs. Even long after an infection has been resolved, toxins left over by the bacteria, or even damaged lung or bronchial tissue itself can act as the signal to the brain saying “there’s something in here and you have to cough it out no matter what the cost!’ Sometimes the cost is too high and when people get exhausted they can become vulnerable to other, potentially even more serious problems.

A huge part of the art of herbal medicine is getting the dose right and people do vary as to how much they need. I'm often inclined to set a dose range (e.g. 3-6 mls up to 5 times daily) and then have the patient take increasing doses until they get an obvious reaction. Once you feel the body responding don't be tempted to take more to get a stronger reaction; it doen't work that way. Too much is just as unhelpful as too little and herbs are powerful substances; not to be under-estimated! When you feel the cough easing and the breathing coming easier stay with that dose and wait until you feel you need some more before taking the next one. The best way to take Wild Cherry is to drip it in with small amounts and you usually need to do it frequently and plan to turn things around nice and quickly. You measure treatment lengths in days with this herb, not weeks.

Wild Cherry combines perfectly with Licorice root and Marshmallow for dry and sore lungs and with Elecampane and Mullein for a weakened or congested respiratory system.

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Constitutional note

Much of the information here about the traditional uses of Wild Cherry is consistent with the model of thinking whereby one may treat problem A with herb B.

There is value in this approach in how it helps us pass on useful knowledge to one another but where it falls short is that people are not all cut from the same cloth! Wild Cherry might work brilliantly for one person but less well for another -- why is this?

The reason is that people vary in their constitutions as to whether they are more hot or cool and at the same time more dry or damp; more info about this here.

There is an old wisdom in treating the person first and the condition second and in this light Wild Cherry can particularly offer its benefits when a relaxing action is needed in the 'cycle of healing' - something that is discussed here and shown in a chart here.

Excerpt from Felter & Lloyd's Kings Dispensatory from 1898

Wild cherry bark has a tonic and stimulating influence on the digestive apparatus, and a simultaneous sedative action on the nervous system and circulation. It is, therefore, valuable in all those cases where it is desirable to give tone and strength to the system, without, at the same time, causing too great an action of the heart and blood vessels, as, during convalescence from pleurisy, pneumonia, acute hepatitis, and other inflammatory and febrile diseases.

Its chief property is its power of relieving irritation of the mucous surfaces, making it an admirable remedy in many
gastro-intestinal, pulmonic, and urinary troubles.

It is also useful in hectic fever, cough, colliquative diarrhoea, some forms of irritative dyspepsia, whooping-cough, irritability of the nervous system, etc.

Please understand that I cannot personally advise you, including on products or dosage, without seeing you in my clinic but ideas on how you might find a good herbalist in your area are here.
This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!

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© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd