Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Sacred Trees of the American North East: Blackhaw

Blackhaw trees

Blackhaw, Viburnum prunifolium, is an amazing witch plant native to the midAtlantic US (see map of
native range below). Here in Pittsburgh, it grows as a bush, but further south it can grow into a small tree (like in the picture above, from Missouri). The bark is smooth and dark, and tends to be rough and reddish.  It has small thorns   In the spring, Blackhaw blossoms with five-petaled white flowers in large clusters similar to Hawthorn or Blackthorn, that attract clouds of bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. The flowers are sweetly fragrant, sort of like honeysuckle (a distant cousin).  In the late summer, it produces small stonefruits called drupes, which look sort of like olives crossed with black cherries (which are also kinds of drupes).   The drupes overwinter on the tree, being softened and sweetened by repeated freezing.  They are a favored food of many migratory birds, as well as squirrels, chipmunks, and mice.  White tail deer brows the leaves and twigs.  Humans also eat blackhaw drupes, usually in wine or jam and other preserves.  They can be eaten from the tree in spring.  If you'd like to try some blackhaw recipes, you can find some here.

Blackhaw flowers
Blackhaw drupes

In addition to being so pretty, Blackhaw is an important healing plant, especially for women.  It was traditionally used by Native healers for all sorts of women's health issues, including calming menstrual cramps, preventing miscarriage, speeding recovery from childbirth, and easing menopausal symptoms. So powerful preventer of miscarriage is it that is was often force-fed by slavers to the women they enslaved to prevent them from aborting (for which they used the root and bark of the cotton plant). It is a powerful antispasmodic of the uterus, primarily due to the presence of scopoletin, which is a coumarin glycoside. HOWEVER, blackhaw also contains salicin (the same as aspirin is made of), which can sometimes cause birth defects. Pregnant or breastfeeding women should only take blackhaw (or aspirin) after consulting with a medical professional.

I do not know any myths or legends specifically about viburnum prunifolium, but I know legends of many other, closely related, viburnums.  Viburnum opulus (kalyna) plays an especially prominent role in Ukrainian folklore.  There, it was associated with the birth of the Universe, and its red berries symbolize blood and the undying trace of family roots.  The plant is often referenced in Ukrainian poetry:
"My love for you is filled to the brim with the bitterness of the kalyna" - Liubov Zabashta.
"My heart senses the scent of the ripened steppe, and the strong tea smells of kalyna" - Mykola Synhaivskyi.
"People! Do not burn the trees! The red kalyna heals the heart, the forest and grove heal the soul" - Stepan Kryzhanivs'kyi.

It is likely that the mythic character of Viburnum opulus arises from it's physical properties, which are quite similar to blackhaw, although the berries are red in Ukraine and blue-black on ours.  The two plants are chemically quite similar and have similar medical uses, relating primarily to the womb.  So, by extrapolation, we can assume that blackhaw is also a powerful spirit ally for fairy/ancestral/Otherworldly matters, and this has been my experience.

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