Rhamnus cathartica

Herbs gallery - Buckthorn

Common names

  • Buckthorn
  • Common Buckthorn
  • European Buckthorn
  • Purging Buckthorn

Buckthorn (botanical name, Rhamnus cathartica) is basically a deciduous (plants that shed their leaves once in a year) shrub or small tree that grows up to a height of 25 feet. The shrub/ tree has slender branches that have pointed bristles at the tip.

The trees bear oval or elliptical, opposite, sharp and prickly-toothed dark green color leaves having even veins that are visible. The flowers of this tree/ shrub appear in clusters between May and June and have a greenish hue. These flowers yield fruits resembling berries and enclose three to four seeds and their color turns black when they are ripe.

The purging buckthorn or common buckthorn belongs to the family of Rhamnaceae and is indigenous to Europe, western Asia as well as northwest Africa.

This herb can be found growing in the wild from the central British Isles to Morocco and further east to Kyrgyzstan. In the early part of the 19th century or may be even before that, this species was introduced into North America, primarily as an ornamental shrub.

The bark of the buckthorn tree is deep gray, while the inner bark is orange and it is clearly visible when the tree is cut. Generally, the branches or twigs of the tree have a sharp spine at the apex. The arrangement of leaves is normally sub-opposite or semi-opposite, but there are ample examples of opposite as well as alternate arrangement of leaves of the common buckthorn.

The leaves of the tree have a dark green hue, oval shaped and grow up to 1.5 inch to 3.0 inch (3.8 cm to 7.6 cm) in length. The leaves are somewhat pockmarked having three to four pairs of veins that are curving and slightly crinkled at the tip.

The common buckthorn blooms during the spring. The yellowish-green, four-petal flowers appear in clusters of two to six close to the bottom of the petioles. Buckthorn is a dioecious plant, which means that the species bears male as well as female flowers on different plants.

The fruits of this tree are small and black in color resembling berries that are approximately 0.25 inches (0.6 cm) in diameter. The common buckthorn is considered to be an invasive plant that takes over the prairies, forests and savannas in the Midwestern states of the United States.

Plants belonging to this species have the aptitude to develop into dense coppices and push out the other shrubs and understory plants growing in the area. When the buckthorn plants are established in their place, it is virtually difficult to eradicate them.

It is quite easy to identify a common buckthorn tree/ shrub, as they bear little spikes at the tips of most of their branches. The leaves of the species are jagged and may be found in both opposite as well as alternate arrangement on the same branch. The leaves are green as well as attached firmly to the branches even after the plants of most other species have shed their leaves.

The tree bears fruits that have a resemblance to cherry, but they not only enclose more than one seed, but are also dark hued and grow profusely. In this regard, the trees of the Rhamnus frangula, which is closely related to this species (Rhamnus cathartica) are very alike.

The fruits of the common buckthorn are a favourite food for many birds, which consume them eagerly and disperse the seeds far and wide. As the trees of this species become mature, they fruit profusely and in a span of just a few years generally there are several thousand seedlings all around the base of each full-grown tree.

When you cut the stumps of the tree, it again sprouts robustly. Generally, use of herbicides is required to control the trees when they have grown large enough to be pulled out.

The name of this species - cathartica, hits that for a long time the common buckthorn was known to be an effective purgative - a very potent laxative. In effect, the berry-like fruits of the tree are used as a laxative and they are extremely distasteful.

In order to turn them into a comparatively palatable medication, John Gerard, an herbalist of the 16th century, had recommended that the fruits be broke open and boiled in a fat flesh broth with no use of salt.

When this broth is served as a drink for laxative purpose, it is more palatable. In effect, Gerard further elucidated that the fruits would subsequently purge with few griping, denoting with lesser complaints.

The British pharmacopoeia listed syrup prepared with buckthorn fruits in 1650 and this syrup contained elements, such as nutmeg, cinnamon and aniseed, to reduce the bitter flavour of the syrup. It may be noted that even in the 19th century, children requiring a purgative were often given syrup prepared with buckthorn fruits and mixed with sugar and ginger.

Although the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus has initially named the species as Rhamnus catharticus, this spelling was rectified to cathartica since the genus name of the plant Rhamnus is feminine in gender.

Parts used

Fresh or dried fruits.


Practitioners of herbal medicine have used buckthorn as a laxative for several centuries. In fact, this herb has fulfilled the requirement of the herbalists when they needed a potent purgative. There is sufficient pharmacological proof to substantiate this remedial attribute and use of buckthorn.

Though the bark of the shrub as well as the berry-like fruits of the buckthorn have been used a purgative in the past, they actions are said to be potentially hazardous and aggressive and accompanied by serious side effects.

For the vividly yellow Brimstone butterflies, the buckthorn is a food plant. If you notice a large number of sulphur-yellow hued male Brimstone butterflies at a place, you can guess that there is a buckthorn plant in the vicinity.

In addition, this plant also forms a substitute host for the Puccinia coronata, which is responsible for the vital rust disease of cereals. This plant species is also the main over-wintering host for soybean aphid, a notable agricultural bug of soybeans, in North America

The timber of the buckthorn tree/ shrub is solid and compact, but very rarely used.

Other medical uses

Habitat and cultivation

The buckthorn is native to Europe and some parts of Asia and Africa. It was introduced into North America from Europe and over the years the species has naturalized in this continent. Currently it is found growing in vast tract of land extending from Quebec in Canada to the Midwestern US state Minnesota and southwards to Missouri and Virginia.

The common buckthorn (botanical name, Rhamnus cathartica) has the aptitude to tolerate and grow in shade. This herb is known to be comparatively rapid-growing, but has a very short life span. As mentioned earlier, the trees/ shrubs of this species are solid as well as durable and can adapt to urban and even sub-urban surroundings.

Common buckthorn is able to grow virtually in any area where its seeds may be scattered. This species is commonly considered to be an invasive plant and its shade prevents other trees in the vicinity from establishing themselves. Owing to its invasive nature, currently many have been endeavouring to get rid of the plant from their homes, parks and even the forested areas.

However, it is virtually very difficult to control this species, since it grows robustly and continually from the root collar even after girdling, cutting and burning. Nevertheless, it has been found that application of concentrated herbicide to a cut stem is effective in controlling the spread of the species.


Common buckthorn encloses vitamin C and anthraquinone derivates including rhamnocarthrin.

Usual dosage

The leaves and fruits of the buckthorn may be used to prepare infusion as well as a tincture, which are effective in curing a number of health conditions.

Infusion: To prepare the infusion add two teaspoonfuls of the leaves and fruit to a cup of boiling water and allow it to infuse for about 10 to 15 minutes. This infusion ought to be drunk either in the morning or in the evening since it takes almost 12 hours to become effectual.

Tincture: The tincture prepared with the buckthorn leaves and fruits should be taken in the dosage of 1 ml to 2 ml at night-time as well as in the morning.

Seeds: One may also chew a few (around 10) seeds of the buckthorn before taking any food in the morning. It needs to be noted that taking a very high dosage of buckthorn may result in severe diarrhea and even sometimes vomiting.

Collection and harvesting

The berry-like fruits of buckthorn ought to be harvested/ collected during September and October.


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