"What is sweeter, after all, than black haws, in early fall?" James Whitcomb Riley (1849-1916)
Black haw was one of the few plants that those of us in the mountains of southeast Kentucky called by its rightful name. It was a low growing shrub, living along the rocky hillsides and often close to one of the mountain streams flowing nearby. Its classified name Viburnum prunifolium, tells us it is of the small tree family, but I have seen it grow up to perhaps 30 feet tall, and to me that isn't very small. The gray to reddish brown bark is rough and cracked into small plates on older trees. Heavily veined, finely toothed leaves are elliptical and grow in opposite pairs. Tiny white flowers bloom in April and May in round top clusters at the ends of the stems. They are followed by fruit that turn bluish black when ripe.
My great Aunt Bett, who was the supplier of home remedies in the mountains, only peeled the bark of the tree for her decoctions, and since I was not familiar with the use of the remedy, I was only interested at the time in how many berries I could hustle before the birds got to them. Over the years, she got around to telling me a little of her use of the liquid she made from it, but I scarcely remember all that she told me. It seems the Native American uses of this native tree are not well documented either, but one source mentions that they employed a decoction or extract from the boiled bark to treat venereal disease. Not having had a clue about what that meant all those years ago, it's just as well I didn't know.
Black haw's use as a medicine by the early American settlers was well recorded, however. Aunt Bett knew all about that but did not ever tell me. I had to read about it in her papers. You'd think that by the time I was in my teens and getting ready to leave her, my family, and my beloved mountains behind, she would have told me all that I needed to know. Well, she didn't, and I had to learn a bunch of it now that I am so far past child bearing age I can't even remember it. You guessed it. The settlers and Aunt Bett used it as a tonic for pregnant women. From a friend of mine who is teaching at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, I have a copy of the words of Dr. John King as they appeared in the "American Family Physician" in 1857: 'The black haw provides us with a uterine tonic'. It goes on to say that doctors largely prescribed a decoction of the bark to prevent miscarriage or threatened abortion. It was also recommended for the relief of painful menstrual cramps and the afterpains of childbirth. As a result of growing demand and repeated articles in medical and pharmaceutical journals, the bark gained a place in the published pharmacopia in 1882, and was listed there until 1926.
Contemporary research indicates that a bark decoction probably acts as a uterine sedative and alleviates cramps, but it is doubtful it can prevent abortion or miscarriage. So now I know. When I watched Aunt Bett delicately peel small pieces of bark from the trunk of black haw, she was doing so to make just such a decoction. Stuffed with the sweet berries, I probably just didn't get around to asking her what it was used for. And even if I had, she might not have told me. Those were among the unmentionables that I grew up not knowing in those days. Aunt Bett's habit of not telling me things unless I needed to know was probably a good thing. Otherwise I might have poured black haw juice down my dog Pepper's throat every time I watched her give birth to her puppies. She moaned and groaned and I cried, every single time, and believe me, Pepper had puppies nearly every year.
I mention the black haw now, not for its medicinal value, but simply for its beauty. It grows from Connecticut to Michigan, and south to Florida and Texas. Its clusters of tiny flowers make it a striking addition to a garden, and if you have a habit of nibbling on the fruits of your garden as you wander through it, the berries are enough to make you want to stop and sit awhile. My favorite time of year for it is when the flowers bloom in the spring, it seems they open all at the same time, covering the entire tree in a blanket of white. Its cracked bark pattern adds plenty of texture as well, and there is nothing better than texture, color, and sweet berries, all on the same plant , happily growing in our gardens.
Thanks to Dr. S. Urbach, UofL School of Medicine for his help and advice, and to the authors of Magic and Medicine of Plants, The Reader's Digest Association, 1986.
All photos are from Plant Files. Thanks to these photographers: Equilibrium and Plantdude.