Cherries are members of the botanical genus Prunus, which is a member of the Rosaceae (or rose) family. Cherries can be a shrub or a tree, and are believed to have originated in the Caucasus mountain region between Europe and Asia.
Cherries are divided into two broad groups: sweet (Prunus avium) and sour (Prunus cerasus). Varieties of the cherry are widely distributed throughout temperate regions of the world and have been cultivated for thousands of years. Roman historian Pliny reported that sour cherries were introduced to ancient Rome as part of a victory celebration after the defeat of the Parthians at a place called Cerasus.
From the simple division of sweet and sour cherries, classification of the various cherry types has grown increasingly complex through the years. Today, there are literally hundreds of varieties due to their long record of cultivation and crossbreeding.
Cherry trees have been used widely for their fruit, eaten fresh and also used in cooking. Both the fermented fruit and the crushed pits are used in making the European liqueur kirsch. The tree is also a source of wood used in making high-quality furniture. The stalks from some of these cherry varieties have been used medicinally as an astringent. However, it's most widely accepted that the cherry tree whose bark is utilized in herbal medicine is the wild cherry (listed now as Prunus serotina, but in nineteenth century herbal books is listed as Prunus virginianus).
The wild cherry is a native of North America. It is found in central and northern parts of the United States, as well as in cooler, nondesert parts of the Southwest. Wild cherry trees characteristically grow to a height of 50-80 ft (15.2-24.4 m), with a trunk width of 2-4 ft (0.6-1.2 m). The leaf of the wild cherry is oval, with a minutely serrated edge, and is more pointed toward the tip. Its leaves are approximately 3 in (7.6 cm) in length, dark green and shiny on top, and paler and fuzzy on the underside. Small, white, petaled flowers appear along the stems before the leaves in early spring. Pea-sized, purplish black fruits that are bitter develop and ripen by late summer.
The outer bark of the wild cherry tree is dark gray to black, very rough to the touch, and breaks away easily from the trunk. Even though the bark from the roots, trunk, and branches has medicinal properties, it is the root bark that is the most beneficial. Beneath a cherry root's dark outer covering, the interior is a dusky reddish color. It has an almond-like aroma that evaporates when dried, but re-emerges when the bark is crushed or dissolved. Its tastes astringent and bitter. Its chemical constituents include cyanogenic glycosides, starch, resin, tannin, gallic acid, fatty matter, lignin, red coloring material, as well as calcium, potassium, and iron salts.
Wild cherry bark has a strong sedating effect on the cough reflex and is particularly useful to treat dry, nonproductive coughs in respiratory conditions. Because of its antispasmodic qualities, it has been used with other herbs to treat asthma. It is given for spasmodic cough to enhance relaxation and resting or at night to reduce cough and enhance sleep. Its astringent properties make it useful as a bitter, taken to stimulate sluggish digestion and the appetite. A cold infusion of wild cherry bark has been noted to soothe eye inflammation.
Bark is collected in the autumn by carefully stripping away small sections. The outer wild cherry bark is then removed and the lighter colored, reddish interior cortex is dried, but not in direct sunlight. Once thoroughly dried, it must be stored in airtight containers away from light. Because it deteriorates so rapidly, it is more beneficial if used when still fresh and must be newly collected each year. The fragments of inner bark crush easily to make a powder. This powdered cherry bark can then be dissolved in either alcohol or water. A cough remedy is made by dissolving 4 oz (113 g) of the bark in 4 oz (120 ml) of water for several hours. The solution is then strained, and honey is added to sweeten to taste. Boiling cherry bark is not recommended since this decreases the medicinal properties. Cherry bark can also be used to make a tincture and lozenges.
Coughing is a normal and helpful reaction to airway or lung irritation. It is designed to expel harmful substances (such as excess phlegm or irritants) from the lungs. Suppressing a cough, then, can actually prevent or postpone recovery. It is persistent coughing that needs treatment. It is also important for potential users to remembered that a cough is merely a symptom of some other illness, as are digestive problems. Wild cherry bark preparations should not be taken for an extended period of time. They should be used for temporary relief only of
Wild cherry bark preparations can cause sedation, especially if recommended dosage is exceeded.
Grieve, M., and C.F. Leyel. A Modern Herbal: The Medical, Culinary, Costmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folklore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs and Trees With All of Their Modern Scientific Uses. Barnes and Noble Publishing, 1992.
Hoffman, David, and Linda Quayle. The Complete Illustrated Herbal: A Safe and Practical Guide to Making and Using Herbal Remedies. Barnes and Noble Publishing, 1999.
Hobbs, Christopher. Herbal Advisor. http//www.AllHerb.com.