Viburnum prunifolium L. and Viburnum rufidulum Raf.


Black Haw, Nannyberry, Wild Raisin


There are about 120 species of Viburnum in North America and seven species in Missouri. Many of these species produce edible fruit, but they are more prized as ornamental shrubs (Young 1992:352; Steyermark 1963). Of the edible species, V. prunifolium and V. rufidulum are the most common members of the genus in Missouri. Both are shrubs or small trees bearing small, purple-black drupes resembling raisins. Unlike raisins, however, they have very large seeds and proportionately less flesh.


       The seeds, or more correctly stones because they have a bony endocarp protecting the true seed, of both these species are very similar in shape and surface texture. Stones are flat and ovate, with a relatively sharp point (the hilum) at one end. There is usually a circular depression near the base, and the opposite side is slightly convex. The endocarp, the outer surface, is hard but quite thin. It has a slightly bumpy surface in both species. When uncarbonized, it is a light brown color (See Figure. 1 and Figure. 2).

       There are a few differences between the two species; V. prunifolium seeds tend to be smaller than V. rufidulum. After charring, I found the average length for 10 V. prunifolium seeds was 8.4 mm (range 72. to 9.6) and average width was 6.3 mm (range 5.6 to 7.1), while the average length and width for eight V. rufidulum were 9.1 mm (range 8.8 to 9.6) and 7.4 mm (range 7.0 to 7.8) respectively (See Table 1). As can be seen, these two types are not enormously different in size and there is some overlap in the range of sizes for the two. V. prunifolium seeds also tend to be narrower and more nearly oval than V. rufidulum, but there is also variation in the shape within the species. Of course, if only fragments of seeds are found, as often occurs in archaeological contexts, it would be impossible to differentiate between these two species.

       Seeds from both V. prunifolium and V. rufidulum seemed to change shape when experimentally charred. They puffed up, becoming less flat, and the concave depression on the one side disappeared. The outer endocarp, which was very hard while uncarbonized, also became very brittle and easily broke off. These changes should be borne in mind, as they would make it even harder to distinguish between the two species in archaeological specimens, which are usually charred.

Archaeological Distribution

       Viburnum has been identified in archaeological samples from sites across a fairly large geographical range. A few fragments of a Viburnum species, thought to be V. prunifolium, were found by Lopinot (1982) at the Carrier Mills site in central Illinois. One Viburnum sp. seed tentatively identified as V. prunifolium was found by Fritz and Powell (1998) at the Toltec Mounds site in Arkansas. In the Illinois River Valley, Asch and Asch (1985:358) found two Viburnum sp. at the Smiling Dan site. Cutler and Blake (1976) also list Viburnum sp. found in samples from a site in Georgia, four sites in Illilnois, one site in Kentucky, one in Louisiana, five in Missouri, and one in Oklahoma. Direct evidence for consumption of Viburnum sp. seeds comes from Salts Cave in Kentucky where three were recovered from a paleofecal sample (Yarnell 1969:46). Yarnell (1969:53) also mentions one other Early Woodland site east of Illinois where Viburnum sp. was found.

The Modern Plant and Its Distribution

       Both V. prunifolium and V. rufidulum are large shrubs or small trees with dark foliage that turns from green to purple or red in the fall. The fruits are simple drupes with a bluish-black color. The flesh is slightly sweet but tends to be a bit dry. The stones are large and there is not much flesh per fruit. The plants produce flowers from April to May, and fruits ripen in August and September (Steyermark 1963:1414-1415). (See Figure. 3 and Figure. 4)

       Both species are commonly found on rocky stream banks, along the base or edges of bluffs, or in rocky glades or thickets. V. prunifolium seems to be more resistant to cold. Its range extends from Florida and Texas north to Connecticut, New York, and Michigan. It also extends from the east coast west to Kansas. V. rufidulum has a range extending from Florida and Texas only as far north as Virginia, Ohio, and Indiana. Its range also extends from the east coast to Missouri (Steyermark 1963:1414-1415).


       Black haw fruits can be eaten raw or dried for storage. They can also be eaten cooked, although Phillips (1979:45) indicates that the cooked fruit are dry and unappealing. Viburnum prunifolium was used by the Cherokee as an anticonvulsive, to reduce fever, and for sore tongues (Moerman, 1998:595). Roots of these two species were made into a tea used by the Catawaba Indians of the east coast totreat stomach problems. Inner-bark tea from a related species, V. acerifolium, was used by the Menominees for cramps and colic (Lewis and Elvin-Lewis 1977:276). The plant is known to contain a coumarin glycoside which functions as an antispasmodic (Lewis and Elvin-Lewis 1977:20).

       Viburnum seeds are recovered from the archaeological record in very low numbers. The plant was probably of limited importance as a food source for most people who used it. The drupes are edible but provide little nourishment because they are rather small and have such large seeds. They were eaten, however, at least on occasion, and their presence in an archaeological context may be useful as a seasonal indicator if, as would seem to be the case, they were primarily eaten when they were most abundant in the late summer to late autumn (Yarnell 1969:49).

Table 1. Size of Viburnum Seeds After Charring (in mm)
             Viburnum prunifolium             Viburnum rufidulum
              Length              Width               Length              Width
                  8.6                   6.0                   9.2                    7.2
                  9.6                   7.1                   9.0                    7.3
                  7.9                   5.8                   9.3                    7.2
                  7.7                   5.6                   9.5                    7.8
                  7.7                   5.8                   9.5                    7.5
                  8.2                   5.7                   8.8                    7.5
                  8.3                   5.8                   9.6                    7.3
                  7.2                   5.7                   9.4                    7.0
                  8.0                   5.7
                  8.8                   6.2
Average:  8.4                   6.3                   9.1                    7.4



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Written by: Kimberly Schaefer