Alder Buckthorn

Rhamnus frangula

Herbs gallery - Alder Buckthorn

Common names

  • Alder Buckthorn
  • Alder Dogwood
  • Arrowwood
  • Black Alder Tree
  • Black Dogwood
  • European Black Alder
  • Glossy Buckthorn
  • Persian Berries

The plant called the alder buckthorn is used in many herbal medications, especially as a laxative. The alder buckthorn can be considered a deciduous shrub or even a small tree, the plant often reaches 20 feet in height when fully mature. The alder buckthorn is characterized by the presence of glossy oval shaped green leaves, each of which can be one to three inches in length, the leaves are borne on the stem in alternate rows and are not ridged.

The young alder buckthorn possesses a green bark, which will eventually and gradually turn gray as the plant ages and as the plant grows the bark is also marked with whitish transverse ridges all along its surface and this is very prominent in the oldest plants. The alder buckthorn also bears little greenish white colored flowers, these are typically in bloom during May thorough July.

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The flowers are borne in small clusters at the joints of leaves and in some cases on the terminal tips of the branches. The alder buckthorn produces pea sized, minute green berries, which slowly turn red and then black when they fully ripen during the month of September-at this time these berries are ready to be plucked for use in various herbal medications.

The name alder buckthorn is not to be taken literally as a description for the plant; the shrub itself is not an alder and cannot be considered thorny in any way. The direct translation of the shrub's fanciful Italian name is the reason, this plant is called buckthorn in English, the Italian name for the plant "spino cervino", or "stag's thorn" is quite inaccurate.

This shrub is not a native species of the new world, and as with other plants the alder buckthorn is an import from Europe to North America a long time back, however, the shrub now grows wild in large tracts of north eastern North American and along the Northeastern United States. At the same time, the cultivation of a variety of the alder buckthorn called the Tallhedge is carried on by many nurseries in North America; this variety is largely used as hedge and windbreak plants in localities across North America.

While the Greek physician Galen, recognized and knew of the properties of the alder buckthorn during the second century A.D., this knowledge is not clear in his writings and the physician seems to have confused the alder buckthorn with other related species of useful plants.

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These classes of related plants which included the alder buckthorn were attributed strange and terrible powers at various times down the centuries, the plants were supposed to posses the power to protect individuals against witchcraft, they were believed to be capable of warding off demons, and they were also apparently used to flush out poisons, and to treat headaches in different people.

Paradoxically, while attributing the alder buckthorn with all these powers, the ancient herbalist ignored the much more prosaic but proven herbal value of the bark as an effective laxative, the actual widespread use of the plant in this role came only in the 1300's, when the power of the alder buckthorn as an herbal laxative was discovered.

Some reasons which may be provided for this apparent attitude towards the buckthorn bark's laxative action is that the action of the herb is comparatively less severe to the other forms of laxative in use during that period, the gentle action of the plant may not have been viewed as being effective enough to be made use of in those times, when the norm and fashion was to use very violent purgatives for the treatment of many problems.

Around these times, wood sourced from the alder buckthorn was also utilized to produce shoe lasts, wooden nails, and veneer for wooden products. In addition, gunpowder makers of that day highly prized the charcoal manufactured from the alder buckthorn for use in their product. Dyes were also sourced from the alder buckthorn, and a yellow dye was produced from the bark, while the unripe alder berries were used in the production of a green dye - these dyes were utilized in various manufactures.

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Parts used



The most notable properties of the remedies made from the alder buckthorn lies in their effective laxative and cathartic actions, for this reason, the herbal treatment of chronic constipation is often carried out be giving the patient a remedy made from the alder buckthorn tree.

The effects of the herbal remedies made from dried and stored alder is different to that made from fresh plants, and the action of such preserved alder buckthorn remedies is decidedly milder than the senna or the common buckthorn remedies, this is not necessarily a bad thing, as it makes it possible for the alder buckthorn to be utilized safely and continuously over a very long period to treat cases of constipation and to encourage the return of regular bowel movements.

Due to its mild action, the remedy made from the alder buckthorn is especially much more beneficial for the treatment of individuals in whom weakened muscles in the colon is a problem and also when there a poor bile flow is contributing to the problem. At the same time, remedies made from the alder buckthorn are not to be used in the treatment of cases of constipation that arise due to the presence of excessive tension in the walls of the colon.

Other medical uses

Habitat and cultivation

Large parts of the northeastern United States and parts of Europe have significant areas in which the alder buckthorn grows. Marshy woodlands are the habitats that the alder buckthorn prefers and grows best in. Late spring to early summer is the usual time during which the bark of the alder buckthorn trees is collected - such trees are at least 3-4 years old, the collected bark is dried and then placed in storage for at least another year before it is utilized in different herbal remedies.


Chemically the bark of the alder buckthorn contains 3-7% of the compounds known as anthraquinones - these include frangulin and emodin, and the compounds known as anthrones and anthranols, the bark of the alder buckthorn is also rich in the alkaloid-armepavine, it also contains large amounts of the pigments - tannins, and the plant based organic compounds called flavonoids.

In patients, vomiting is induced by the emetic compounds anthrones and anthranols; however, storage over a period of time will lessens the severity and strength of their emetic action. The alder buckthorn and closely related plant species all contain the compound known as anthraquinones - this chemical is found to act on the muscular walls of the colon, and it results in the stimulation of the bowel movements about 8-12 hours after the remedy is ingested by the individual.


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