Cascara Might Not Kill You, But...
Updated: Feb 16
Photo by Jesse Taylor, taken at Evergreen State College Longhouse Ethnobotanical Garden
"Poison for a rival," he said. "or at least she thinks so.""Oh?" I said. "And what is it really? Bitter cascara?"He looked at me in pleased surprise. "You're very good at this," he said. "A natural talent, or were you taught? Well, no matter." He waved a broad palm, dismissing the matter. "Yes, that's right, cascara. The rival will fall sick tomorrow, suffer visibly in order to satisfy the Vicomtesse's desire for revenge and convince her that her purchase was a good one, and then she will recover, with no permanent harm done, and the Vicomtesse will attribute the recovery to the intervention of the priest or a counter spell done by a sorcerer employed by the victim."-- From DRAGONFLY IN AMBER, by Diana Gabaldon
You may remember this exchange between Master Raymond and Claire at his apothecary shop, in which he explains his clever solution for the problem of what to do when powerful people asked him for poison to use on their enemies. Rather than say "no," and risk the wrath of the Vicomtesse, he gave her cascara, a highly effective laxative. Depending on the dose, the intended victim probably wished she was dead once the drug took hold!
In the TV series, this exchange between Master Raymond and Claire takes place in episode three. In episode four, "Le Dame Blanche", Claire experiences first hand what "poisoning" with bitter cascara is like. She becomes violently ill during a dinner party and Jamie has to carry her upstairs to bed. She realizes that someone put cascara into her drink because she recalls the bitter taste. This is particularly troubling because she is pregnant and cathartics like cascara can induce labor or, in her case, miscarriage.
Fortunately, she recovers and the baby is OK. But we are left to wonder who was trying to poison her - was it Le Comte St. Germain? When she tells Raymond about this later he says he sold only one dose and that was to a servant boy he didn't recognize. The plot thickens.
Species: Rhamnus purshiana
Common names: Cascara sagrada (which means "sacred bark" in Spanish), bitter cascara, chittem or chitticum bark
Cascara is a shrub or small tree native to the Pacific coast of the United States and Canada, from northern California into southern British Columbia, and east to the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains in Montana. It is often found growing in the forest understory, beneath big leaf maples and alongside alders and osier dogwoods.
Cascara bark was used as a laxative for centuries by Native American tribes. The bark was collected in spring and put into the shade to dry. Green bark would cause vomiting and severe diarrhea, so the aging process, taking at least a year, was an important part of preparation.
Cascara found its way to Europe by way of the Spanish conquistadores who explored the Pacific Northwest in the 1600s. They gave it the name Cascara Sagrada, or sacred bark, because of its efficacy.
According to Wikipedia, "By 1877 the U.S. pharmaceutical company Parke-Davis was producing cascara preparations, and soon afterwards cascara products were being exported overseas to European markets. The explosion of the cascara industry caused great damage to native cascara populations during the 1900s, as a result of overharvesting."
Cascara was the principal ingredient in over the counter laxatives in the US until May of 2002,
when the FDA banned its use. Studies at the time appeared to show that cascara is carcinogenic.