Sep 032009

Common Names: Silktassel, Bear Brush, Quinine Bush, Fever Bush

Botanical Name: Garrya spp.

Energetics: Cold, dry

Taste: Bitter, bitter, bitter

Actions: Very Strong Relaxant (anti-spasmodic), uterine stimulant, febrifuge, anodyne

Parts Used: Twigs & Leaves

Preparations: Tincture for the most part, as I’ve yet to meet a person, including myself, who can get the tea or infusion down. Fresh plant 1:2 95% Dried plant 1:5 50%

Dosage: 10-30 drops for a medium sized person (less if you’re very sensitive), taken as needed every 45 minutes or so until pain and cramping is reduced or eliminated for up to several hours at a time. For larger people, start with a dose of 30-60 drops for the first two doses then drop down to 30 drop doses. If feelings of disorientation, listlessness or tissue depression occurs, back off the dose.

Our native Silktassels are plants of the Mountain and Coastal West of North America from Texas to Washington. Here in the middle mountain forests with their dark leathery oval leaves and non-descript form, they are easily mistaken for Evergreen Oaks. They are most easily recognized by their new growth, which shoots straight up on leggy stems in a way that is completely different from Oak growth, or by their very distinctive tassel-formed white flowers or dark fruits.

For the longest time I thought the Canyon was home to only a half a dozen or so plants and was thus concerned for their continuance and rarely harvested even the leaf for medicine. In the last couple of years though, I’ve come to realize there’s no shortage of Garrya here, they’re just very well camouflaged our mixed Oak/Juniper/Pine woodlands. In fact, we have dozens upon dozens of glorious Silktassel bushes, often growing among volcanic outcrops and near Wolfberry (Lycium) and the aforementioned Oak.

Up close, Garrya’s leaves are finely and ornately veined in silvery white, and their dark blue-green color has a black undertone that results in one of the most unusual yet subtle leaf patterns I have ever happened upon. There’s something about Silktassel that can cause your eye to skip past it on first glance, dismissing it as green noise and nothing to be concerned with. Up close though, it draws you into its sometimes disquieting but always compelling presence. The flowers can seem to simply be a bland ivory white, but are actually many shades of green, violet, blue, grey and other colors, that are noticeable only upon closer examination. The very essence of the plant is very much like that, hidden beneath the surface, multi-faceted and shining only in the shadows. No doubt we still have much to learn from this secretive yet generous herbs.

The first time I made a tincture of mostly leaves with a few twigs, I was a bit dismayed by the black/gray/blue color of the tincture, the odd smell and the truly frightening taste. Bitter, biting and dull all at once in flavor, I was concerned that there might be something wrong with the tincture. So I made some more with the same result. This assured me it was the intended result, but I still found the resultant medicine to be less than inviting and actually avoided its use for several months before giving in to my own endless curiosity. I retain my respect for this strong medicine and use it only when it is specifically called for, usually be acute pain and cramping.

Silktassel has a long history of being used in intermittent fevers, probably mostly due to it intense bitterness and has also been know as Quinine Bush and was used as a substitute at times for Quinine in the treatment of maleria and other “periodic” diseases. Indigenous peoples were also known to utilize its powers as an antispasmodic in the treatment of gastro-intestinal cramping. In addition, it has a reputation for its ability to “bring on a woman’s courses” and to sometimes cause abortion, and has thus been known as a uterine stimulant.

In current times, it is best known as a smooth muscle relaxant. With its special affinity for the pelvic area, it can be extremely useful in menstrual cramps (especially the stagnant, clotty, dull pounding sort), bile duct cramping of all kinds, gut cramps from food poisoning or similar woes as well as the aching caused by interstitial cystitis, bladder and urinary tract infections.

I have several times now been witness to Garrya almost miraculously stopping excruciating duct pain of various sorts, from kidney stones, to liver related bile duct cramping, to gallbladder attacks. It can cause the duct to relax sufficiently to allow the stone, gravel or whatever else to pass with less resistance and pain.

Michael Moore summed it up quite nicely with:

Our Silk Tassels are strong and reliable smooth-muscle relaxers, of the type generally classed as parasympathetic inhibitors or anticholinergics…. they are useful pain relievers and antispasmodics for the cramps or tenesmus from diarrhea, dysentery, gallbladder pain, urethral or bladder cramps and menstrual cramps.

While it works perfectly well all on its own, I often prefer it in simple 3-herb formulas in order to moderate the anti-cholinergic effects, dilute the bad taste a bit and to help guide its often general action into something more specific. For kidney stones, I am apt to mix it with Chamomile and Crampbark, and for Liver tension with duct spasming that feels like a band tightening across the entire middle of the torso underneath the ribs I very much like a combination of Garrya, Wild Yam and Moonwort (Artemisia ludoviciana and allied spp.), while for the intense but dull ache of a slow to come on menstrual period, it often goes well with Hedeoma (American Pennyroyal) and Motherwort.

It’s not the type of herb that will solve whatever underlying problem is causing your pain, it is powerful but specific to addressing the symptoms. With that in mind, care should be taken to always address the root problem in addition to simply stopping the pain.

Silktassel is also effective externally for wounds, cuts, painful swellings and other minor abrasions and contusions. It has a knack for reducing or eliminating pain from these minor accidents when used as a poultice or when applying the tincture to unbroken skin.

This largely unknown herb has proven to be a very important and powerful ally in my healing practice, and has provided ease for many. As I mentioned earlier, I feel strongly that this somewhat elusive plant still has many facets that modern herbalists have yet to uncover, and that we that those of us that share a bioregion with it should be listening carefully for any further wisdom and healing it has to offer.

Contradictions & Contra-indications: Let me note that this is not a tonic or nourishing herb in any sense, it is very strong and can be drug-like in its action. It is therefore best used in acute cases, or acute stages of a chronic disorder (gallbladder attacks, kidney stones, menstrual cramps etc). It should not be used over a long period of time or in large doses, and never by pregnant or lactating women or small children. Also, avoid taking with any other medication at all, too many interactions are possible. K? K.

~All pics (c) 2009 Kiva Rose Hardin~


Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West by Michael Moore

Herbs for the Urinary Tract by Michael Moore

  4 Responses to “Silktassel: Shining From the Shadows”

  1. Thank you Kiva Rose! I am always looking for plants to study for my Master Herbalism course. I especially love the desert plants! Thank you so much for this very thorough information!
    You have a beautiful site here!
    Looking forward to reading more soon!
    Cher Marie

  2. I’m so glad to hear about the abundance in the Canyon and that you can harvest as needed. I’m seeing a lot of abundance here in NH too, and now have less fear of extinction of herbs, more understanding that they want to be harvested. I think they are honored when we choose them as medicine. Its wonderful. We are abundant.

    Thank you Kiva for writing about SilkTassel, it was a great read and I especially like its folk name Bear Brush I bet that has lots of stories too!


  3. Dear Kiva,

    Another wonderful herb to get to know! Thanks so much for the information.



  4. Im so glad I found this. I just made a tincture with silk tassel & had the same reaction, I thought there was something wrong with it. The taste is just horrendous. But I need it for something & so I’m glad to hear that you had the same experience, that mine turned out as it should & that the taste is just well.. How it is. Thanks!!

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