The prickly ash or the Zanthoxylum americanum is a tall shrub that may also be described as a small tree and usually grows up to a height of twenty feet. The shrub is distinguished by its barbed stalks and branches. The leaves of the prickly ash are covered with fine hair like materials when they are young and as they mature they become smooth and have spots of resins on the outer surface. When the leaves of prickly ash are crushed, they give out a fragrance similar to the lemon. The shrub bears green colored flowers that appear in bunches on old wood prior to the leaves. Next, reddish brown coarse casings appear on the wood. These capsules enclose black seeds of the prickly ash and the seeds are spicy to taste. In fact, the prickly ash shrub may be found in the region ranging from Canada to Virginia and Nebraska.
The natives of North America used the prickly ash to seek relief from toothaches and hence the prickly ash shrub is also known as the toothache tree. In order to get rid of toothaches, the natives of North America chewed the barks of the prickly ash shrub. Many of them even crushed the bark of the prickly ash and pasted it on their gums for relief. Although the native North Americans vouched the usefulness of the prickly ash in curing toothaches, Constantine Rafinesque, a European herbalist who was studying therapeutic herbs in America around 1830, claimed that the medication did not bring any relief to him. In his documentation, Constantine wrote that he experienced a burning sensation in the mouth when he used the bark of prickly ash. He further wrote that while there was a temporary relief from the toothache owing to the burning sensation, the pain returned as soon as the effect of the bark waned.
In addition to relieving toothache, the prickly ash tree had other benefits for the native North Americans. Gradually, they shared their experiences with the prickly ash with the new settlers in the continent. A poultice prepared with the prickly ash bark blended with bear grease was used to treat external pains. On the other hand, the liquid or infusion obtained by boiling the bark in water was used to treat a wide range of ailments including gonorrhea (a sexually transmitted disease), sore throat as well as rheumatism or stiffness in joints and muscles. The writer of the three-part American Medical Botany (published between 1817 and 1820) Dr Jacob Bigelow, as far as treating rheumatism is concerned, wrote that there are many medical practitioners who rely heavily on the therapeutic potential of the prickly ash. As a result of this tendency, the medicine finds place in many drug stores. Significantly, even today, numerous herbal medicine practitioners recommend the usage of prickly ash barks and berries as a medication for rheumatism.
Another intimately associated species of the prickly ash tree known as the Z. clava-herculis or the Hercules' club is also known to possess similar remedial properties as the original prickly ash tree or Z. americanum. This variety of the tree is also called the Southern prickly ash tree.
As mentioned earlier, the prickly ash was initially used by the native North Americans as a medication to seek relief from toothache as well as cure rheumatism. During the 19th century, people in the United States used the prickly ash to induce the circulatory system. Later, it was also found to be helpful in treating arthritis and used it widely to cure the disorder. Between 1820 and 1926, the prickly ash bark was listed in the Pharmacopoeia of the United States (the official body that sets the standards for all prescription and over-the-counter medicines and other health care products manufactured or sold in the US).
Incidentally, most herbalists in the West considered the prickly ash as the main medication for treating arthritic and rheumatic problems. In addition to these therapeutic qualities of the prickly ash, the bark of the tree also helps in inducing flow of blood to the excruciating and stiff joints. By doing so, the prickly ash helps in providing additional oxygen and nourishments to the affected area. At the same time, it also helps in removing the waste materials from that particular region of the body.
The prickly ash is a beneficial medication for treating intermittent claudication (cramping pains) and Raynaud's disease as it enhances the blood circulation in both conditions. This is crucial for the two conditions, which are known to narrow down the arteries in the affected limbs and prevent adequate blood flow to the hand and leg muscles.
The other therapeutic uses of the prickly ash include its application to treat disorders such as the dry mouth, tooth decay and toxic shock syndrome or circulatory failures caused by toxins. In addition, the prickly ash or medications prepared with the bark or berries of the tree are useful in relieving gas, curing diarrhea and toning up or neutralizing the digestive system. Externally, prickly ash is also applied to cure leg ulcers and insistent pelvic inflammatory disorder.
It is interesting to note that many Native American tribes along the eastern coast of the continent held the prickly ash in high esteem for its usefulness in treating disorders such as stomach upsets, painful throats, throbbing muscles and skin infections. In addition, the prickly ash bark was used by them to induce the secretion of saliva and cure various other ailments. During the end of the 19th century, eclectic doctors (physicians who chose the best or preferred medication from a variety of sources) practicing herbal medicine in the United States carried on with the conventional use of the prickly ash as the key medication to treat digestive disorders, reinforce the nervous system as well as cure cholera. At the same time, herbalists intensively used the bark of prickly ash to treat rheumatic conditions. Considered to be an alternative in traditional herbal medication, the prickly ash is known to improve the body's aptitude to combat as well as recover from all kinds of physical problems.
It may be mentioned here that the prickly ash tree found in China, which is known as the Zanthoxylum simulans, also possesses the properties of its American relative and is widely used to treat different conditions. In addition to being an effective medication for human use, the Chinese prickly ash is also used to eliminate parasites.
Habitat and cultivation
The prickly ash is indigenous to southern parts of Canada and the northern, central and western parts of the United States. The shrub thrives well in damp and shaded places like in the forest. The prickly ash is reproduced from seeds during autumn. While the bark of the prickly ash shrubs is harvested in spring, the shrub's fruits or berries are gathered during the summer.
Prickly ash may be used internally both as an infusion and tincture. Basically, the prickly ash is used internally. However, there are situations when it is used externally as a poultice.
Infusion: To prepare an infusion with the prickly ash, add approximately one to two teaspoons of the tree's bark to one cup of boiling water and allow the substance to permeate for around 10 to 15 minutes. The infusion may be drunk three times daily for desired results.
Side effects and cautions
If medications prepared with prickly ash are taken in doses mentioned above, it is unlikely that there will be any adverse side effects. It is important to remember that since prickly ash induces digestive functions, people suffering from ulcerative colitis, peptic ulcer or ulcer in the digestive tract and gastro-esophageal reflux should always avoid using medications prepared with it. There are many herbalists and physicians who also advise that prickly ash or medicines prepared with it should be avoided by pregnant women as the use of the substance may induce menstruation resulting to the hazard of a miscarriage.
It may be mentioned here that till the time of writing this piece, there was no information regarding prickly ash's interactions with any familiar drug in the market.