The prickly ash tree has a long history of use in Native American medicine. The bark was used to treat intestinal cramps, dry mouth, muscle and joint pain, toothache, nervous disorders, arthritis, and leg ulcers. The berries were used for circulatory problems such as intermittent claudication and Raynaud’s syndrome.
There are no documented medical uses of prickly ash bark.
In test-tube studies, substances called furanocoumarins in prickly ash have shown anti-fungal properties.1 Another prickly ash constituent, chelerythrine, has shown activity against antibiotic-resistant staph bacteria.2 However, it is a long way from studies like these to actual evidence of efficacy. Only double-blind, placebo-controlled studies can actually show that a treatment works, and none have been performed on prickly ash. (For information on why such studies are essential, see Why Does This Database Rely on Double-blind Studies?)
Prickly ash is often taken in the form of tea, made by boiling 5–10 grams of the bark in a cup of water for 10–15 minutes. For toothache, the pieces of the bark may be chewed. Tinctures are also available.
Prickly ash has not undergone any modern scientific safety evaluation. It contains potentially toxic alkaloids; whether or not these lead to any harmful effects remains unknown.3,4 Safety in young children, pregnant or nursing women, or people with severe liver or kidney disease has not been established.
1. Bafi-Yeboa NF, Arnason JT, Baker J, et al. Antifungal constituents of northern prickly ash, Zanthoxylumamericanum mill. Phytomedicine. 2005;12:370–7.
2. Gibbons S, Leimkugel J, Oluwatuyi M, et al. Activity of Zanthoxylum clava-herculis extracts against multi-drug resistant methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (mdr-MRSA). Phytother Res. 2003;17:274–5.
3. Bowen JM, Cole RJ, Bedell D, et al. Neuromuscular effects of toxins isolated from southern prickly ash ( Zanthoxylum clava-herculis) bark. Am J Vet Res. 1996;57:1239–44.
4. Newall CA, Anderson LA, Phillipson JD. Herbal Medicines: A Guide for Health-CareProfessionals. London: The Pharmaceutical Press; 1996:219.
Last reviewed December 2015 by EBSCO CAM Review Board Last Updated: 12/15/2015