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Herbal Monograph

Herb:    PRICKLY ASH     (Xanthoxylum americanum; Rutaceae)

Other Names:    toothache tree, yellow wood, suterberry    (2)

Toothache tree, yellow wood, suterberry.    (57)

Tooth-ache tree.    (61)

Character/Energetics:    spicy, warm and diffusing   (6)


Meridians/Organs/Body Parts affected:   spleen, stomach, kidney   (6)

blood, circulation and stomach.    (14)

Part(s) used:   the bark   (6)                                                                                                       

                      the bark and berries   (9)

Identification & Harvesting:    An aromatic shrub or small tree up to 3 m. tall.  Branches are alternate and leaves feather-like.  Bark and stems are covered in small sharp spines.  Bark is brown-grey and faintly furrowed with whitish patches.  Flowers are green-yellow in terminal umbels.  Fruit is black or dark blue and enclosed in a grey shell.  Leaves and berries have an aromatic lemon-like fragrance.  Grows in North America.    (2)

The berries are collected in late summer and the bark is stripped from the stems of this shrub in the spring.  (9) 

The northern bark is in curved or quilled fragments about 1/24 inch thick, externally brownish grey, with whitish patches, faintly furrowed, with some linear-based two-edged spines about 1/4 inch long.  Fracture is short, green in the outer, and yellow in the inner part.  Tastes bitterish and very pungent, causing salivation.  The southern bark, which is usually the sort found in the market, is 1/12 inch thick and has conical, corky spines sometimes 4/5 inch in height.    (57)

A member of the rue family.  Northern prickly ash is a tall shrub found in moist woods from Quebec to Georgia, west to Oklahoma, and north to Ohio.  Southern prickly ash, also known as Hercules’ club, is found in damp woods from Delaware south to Florida and west to Texas and Arkansas.  Southern prickly ash is most abundant in Texas, the source of most of the commercial supply.    (61)

Active Constituents:    pyranocoumarins, particularly xanthoxyletin or xanthoxyloin;  isoquinoline alkaloids, particularly berberine, N-methyl-isocorydin;  volatile oil;  resins.    (2)

volatile oil, fat, sugar, gum acrid resin, a bitter alkaloid which may be berberine and a xanthoxylin   (6)       

Alkaloids, volatile oil in the berries.   (9)

Contains a number of alkaloids and alkalmides, one of which, neoherculin, produces a local numbing effect.  It is thought to be identical in structure to echinacein, a component of echinacea that causes the numbing of the tongue.    (61)

Actions:   anti-inflammatory, anti-rheumatic, diaphoretic, circulatory stimulant, hypertensive.    (2)

stimulant, analgesic, alterative, anthelmintic, astringent (6)

                 stimulant (especially circulatory), tonic, alterative, carminative, diaphoretic   (9)

Primarily stimulant;  also alterative, antispasmodic, astringent, emmenagogue, rubefacient.    (14)

                 carminative, circulatory stimulant, promotes sweating, tonic (15)

Stimulant, alterative, tonic, diaphoretic.  Berries are considered the more active, and are also carminative and antispasmodic.    (57)

The Asian and African spp. have demonstrated anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and cardiovascular benefits.  Research on some isolated principles in the bark of southern prickly ash shows antibacterial and anti-inflammatory activity.  Extracts of the this bark affect muscle contractility via the neuromuscular transmissions.    (61)

Conditions & Uses:   Used for low blood pressure, rheumatic disorders, fevers and inflammation.    (2)

Prickly ash bark promotes capillary circulation, warms the body and circulation, relieves gastralgia (stomach pain) and dyspepsia caused by coldness and vomiting, stops diarrhea; treats rheumatic complaints, toothaches, swellings and injuries, applied internlly or externally. The berries of the Chinese variety are called brown peppercorns or Sichuan pepper and used in Sichuan cooking. As the berries have a higher percentage of volatile oils, their properties are considered to be stronger. Westem herbalists usually use the bark.    (6)

Prickly ash may be used in a way that’s similar to cayenne, although it is slower in action and a lot less traumatic to take! It is sued in many chronic problems such as rheumatism and skin diseases. Any sign of poor circulation calls for the use of this herb, such as chilblains, cramp in the legs, varicose veins and varicose ulcers. Externally it may be used as a stimulation liniment for rheumatism and fibrositis. Due to its stimulating effect upon the lymphatic system, circulation and mucous membranes, it will have a role in the holistic treatment of many specific conditions.   

           This herb may also be effective in cardiovascular problems. (9)

Internal uses — asthma:  powder*, decoction*, fluid extract*.  Cardiac stimulant, general stimulant:  fluid extract.  Chronic rheumatism:  fluid extract*, decoction*, powder.  Cold extremities, dropsy, heart tonic, sluggish circulation:  fluid extract, decoction.  Colic, flatulence, nerve stimulant:  fluid extract, decoction, powder.  Indigestion:  fluid extract of the berries.  Skin diseases:  fluid extract*, decoction*.

External uses — wounds:  use powdered bark as a poultice.

*Usually used in combination with other herbs when treating the indicated problem.

Prickly ash bark is excellent when used to increase circulation and to produce warmth during chills.  It is good for colds, rheumatism, poor digestion, weakness and arthritis.  It is a good blood purifier for deposits in the joints.  Add this herb to carminatives when there is colic, gas and weak digestion.  A decoction is excellent for cold extremities and acute ailments.  When using as a diaphoretic, note that if excessive sweating manifests, cut the dosage down by 25% until the amount taken does not produce perspiration.  The boiled fresh bark is a good wash for itchy skin.  This herb is good to add to remedies when trying to break fevers.  I have seen this herb bring on sweat when all else has failed.    (14)

May be used wherever a general stimulant is required, and will be found of especial service in the treatment of rheumatism and skin diseases.    (57)

Early American doctors considered the properties of the two spp. identical.  Was deemed valuable for stimulating digestion, bile secretions and pancreatic activity.  Was widely used for rheumatic conditions and for nervous conditions accompanied by dry mouth to “stimulate” the mucous membranes.  A tea was used for uterine cramps, neuralgia, fevers and as a circulatory tonic.  Very little research is available on the two North American spp.  Used in Europe for treating rheumatic conditions and Raynaud’s disease, and to stimulate circulation in cases of intermittent claudication (limping and pain in the calves or other muscles).    (61)

Combinations:   For poor circulation: circulatory stimulant, promotes sweating; warming for all “cold” conditions. Take a decoction of 15 g herb to 600 ml water; take up to 5 ml tincture daily. Can combine with angelica root or rosemary, or add a pinch of cinnamon powder to the decoction.    (15)

Precautions:    No known hazards or side effects with designated dosages.    (2)

Given its reputation as a uterine stimulant, avoid during pregnancy.    (61)

Tincturing Process:

Applications:   Infusion: pour a cup of boiling water onto 1-2 teaspoonsful of the bark and                                             let infuse for 10-15 minutes. This should be drunk 3x daily.

                          Tincture: take 2-4 ml of the tincture 3x daily   (9)

Decoction:  simmer 5-15 min.; 1-2 oz., 3-4 x daily.  Fluid extract:  1/2-1 tsp., 3-4 x daily.  Powder:  2-5 #0 capsules (10-30 grains), 3-4 x daily.    (14)

For poor circulation: circulatory stimulant, promotes sweating; warming for all “cold” conditions. Take a decoction of 15 g herb to 600 ml water; take up to 5 ml tincture daily.

Can combine with angelica root or rosemary, or add a pinch of cinnamon powder to the decoction.   (15)


Dosage:   2‑5 gms.    (6)

Liquid bark extract dose, 1/2-1 drachm.  Liquid berry extract dose, 10-30 minims.    (57)

Steep 1 tsp bark in a cup of hot water for 10-15 min, 3 x daily.  Tincture 10-30 drops of the bark, 5-15 drops of the berries before meals.    (61)

General Notes:   Research is seriously lacking.    (61)



(2)  PDR for Herbal Medicines (Medical Economics Co., 1998), p. 1228

(6) Planetary Herbology by Michael Tierra, C.A., N.D.,  pg. 243

(9) The Herbal Handbook by David Hoffman, pg. 86-87

(14) Natural Healing With Herbs by Humbart Santillo BS, MH, pgs. 163-64

(15) The Complete Medicinal Herbal by Penelope Ody, pgs. 150-151, 182

(57) Potter’s Cyclopaedia by R.C. Wren, F.L.S., p. 283

(61) 101 Medicinal Herbs by Steven Foster, pgs. 160-61