Wildflowers, Plants and Ferns, Pacific Northwest
Although not a plant, the Cascara tree has such beautiful flowers that it needs to be on here. The cascara tree grows all over Vancouver Island and along the mainland from the south coast down to Oregon. It is a small, deciduous shrub growing from 2.5 to 3.5 meters in height. It has pubescent stems covered with reddish brown bark and sometimes grey lichen. Dark green leaves with prominent veins and toothed margins. Leaves are rounded at the base with somewhat hairy undersides. Short stemmed clusters of small, greenish white flowers grow from the upper leaf axils. The bark is collected in early spring and summer.
People have used cascara for centuries, primarily to relieve constipation. First peoples used it to relieve the condition and probably passed the knowledge down to Spanish and Mexican priests who arrived in the Americas in the 1800s. It is still used in herbal medicine for the same purpose, as well as to cleanse the bowels. In modern herbal medicine, it is considered a stimulant laxative and has the potential for abuse.
No one is entirely sure how cascara relieves constipation and cleanses the bowels but many people believe the herb may irritate the bowel tissue and draw fluid into the intestines. By drawing this fluid in, it produces a bowel movement.
There is some debate over the proper preparation of cascara for medicinal use. Some people believe the bark was scraped from the tree, aged and then dried for one year. Others believe it is prepared by scraping the bark in the spring or summer, drying it and then aging it for a few years. It is available today in capsule, tea or tincture form. We have always scraped the inner bark when the sap runs and then dry it for a year.