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Cascara Sagrada (Rhamnus purshiana)

Synonyms: Frangula purshiana, Rhamnus purshianus, Cascara Sagrada, Cascara Buckthorn, Cascara, Bearberry, Chittam, Chitticum.

Cascara Sagrada is a species of buckthorn native to western North America from southern British Columbia south to central California, and inland to western Montana.

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 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.

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 colonised a barren plot of land.

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". The laxative action is due to the Cascara glycosides(cascarosides A,B,C & D).

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

Long used as a laxative by Native American groups of the northwest Pacific coast, chitticum bark or Cascara Sagrada was accepted in medical practice in the United States in 1877, and by 1890 had replaced the berries of the European Buckthorn (R. catharticus) as a commonly used laxative. It was the principal ingredient in many commercial, over-the-counter laxatives in North American pharmacies until 9 May 2002, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a final rule banning the use of aloe and cascara sagrada as laxative ingredients in over-the-counter drug products.

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.

An infusion of the bark is sometimes painted over finger nails in the hope that the bitter taste will deter the person from biting their nails.

Other Uses:
A green dye is obtained from the bark.

Cultivation details:
Succeeds in any reasonably good moist soil in sun or partial shade.
This species is hardy to at least -15°C.
The flowers are produced in small clusters on shoots of the current year's growth and it is a good bee plant.

Propagation:
Seed will require 1 - 2 months cold stratification at about 5° and should be sown as early in the year as possible in a cold frame/outdoor seedbed or stratified in the fridge.
Prick out the seedlings into individual pots when they are large enough to handle, and grow them on in the greenhouse/cold frame/protected position for their first winter.
Plant them out in late spring or early summer of the following year.

(this info came from a seed advertisement for this plant.)

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Comment by thomas e. goulter aka doinit on January 23, 2016 at 9:39pm

I harvested probably 2-3 thousand pounds of cascara bark when I was young ,,on the southwest corner of Wa. state ..

Comment by Charlotte..aka..Booyah on December 10, 2015 at 12:58pm

This article is very interesting. I do not think I have ever seen this plant and seed growing locally.

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