Common Names

Wild Cherry Bark , Black Cherry, Choke cherry
Botanical Name
Prunus serotina
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.




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.

King's Dispensatory writes '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'

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.


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.

~ The authors, titles and the 'where-and-when' published of over 50 further studies and articles on Wild Cherry are listed in a PDF found here

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.

General comment on herbal safety

All medicinal herbs that have the power to do good have the potential to do harm. The old maxim 'the poison is in the dose' precisely describes how too much of anything can be bad for us. The ancient rule to 'firstly, do no harm is, to this day, held as the core directive by all practitioners of traditional herbal medicine. Not only are we careful to do our best to use the right herbs, but equally we take care to not give too much of them or use them overlong.

For some years now, against this proven and safe way of herbalism, there has been a rising tide of excessive caution and scare-mongering in many parts of the world. The same authorities that, not so long ago, decried herbal medicines as ineffectual, have now taken up a different adversarial position; that they are dangerous substances that should only be prescribed by Doctors, who of course have zero training in them.

Lists of '10 popular herbs and why you should avoid them' include things like Garlic and Ginger that might 'thin your blood'. Such cautions are absurd to the point of the ridiculous, but fear is a universal driver that has long been proven to be effective at manipulating people.

Unfortunately, the same unnecessary fear and worry has crept into many natural health websites and popular publications on herbs. Herbs that we have safely used for thousands of years, that have no reports of adverse reactions in the medical literature despite widespread use by millions of people, are suddenly described as contraindicated because of something that should have been seen as completely unimportant, or at the utmost a merely theoretical concern, such as a laboratory study on one of the herb's constituents to use an all too common example.

I wonder sometimes if the writers of such articles feel that the herb will be more deserving of respect if it is thought to be a little bit dangerous, in other words more like a drug than something that has simply come out of the earth and been used by ordinary people for generations beyond count.

There is just so much misinformation about herbal medicine on the internet now. Ludicrous claims and cautions abound in equal measure; it seems like one group are trying to make money out of the public whilst the other are busily trying to scare them off.

I have to believe that the kind of reader who takes the time to read pages on herbs that are as extensive as this one is much less likely to be swayed by marketers or misinformers. I hope that you will keep your wits about you if you get conflicting opinions from people who have never really got to know these herbs, who have never worked with them, or learned how to use them safely and effectively.

I want to remind you that the reason that herbs can never be patented and owned by any individual or corporation is because they are, and always will be, the People's medicine. They belong to all of us and it is my great hope in sharing this work that you will learn how to use them wisely for yourself, and the people you care for. Be safe, but do not be afraid.


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.


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?

Part of the reason is that people vary in their constitutions as to whether they are either hotter or cooler and, at the same time, either dryer or damper. This useful and rather fascinating subject is introduced further here

Another big part of using the right herb when it is most needed comes from understanding the need to treat what is going wrong for the person that had led up to their getting a health condition. In this light, Wild Cherry can particularly offer its benefits when a relaxing action is needed in the 'cycle of healing', more about this here

Please understand that I cannot advise you, including on products or dosage, without seeing you in person in my clinic but for ideas on how you might find a good herbalist in your area read here

This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!




© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd