Tree Foods and Remedies
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The potential of our native trees for use as herbal remedies and foods is little known. This is not entirely surprising considering the small amount of woodland remaining here. Inevitably much of our cultural tree heritage disappeared alongside the deforestation of England. There is justifiably great concern over the tragic destruction of tropical rainforests and we are often reminded of the potential there for medicines and foods. We forget that right here on our doorstep our own trees can be sources of foods, remedies and other products. Trees for Health believe that trees are not valuable solely for their use to humans, indeed trees are intrinsically valuable – they have value in themselves. They also have an invaluable role in our ecosystems and many benefits as described in Tree Planting and Restoration.
Trees for Health does think that using tree parts in a respectful and sustainable way has benefits not only for us but also as a basis for increasing woodland cover. By developing ‘non timber forest products’, it will become more important to restore trees into the landscape.
Important Note: The information contained on this page has been compiled from a range of sources listed at the end. Most tree and other plant medicines are safe and gentle but they have the potential to cause harm if used in the wrong way. It is advisable to consult a qualified herbalist before using herbs, or to use a reputable source of information for dosages and recipes. Always inform your doctor if you are taking any alternative forms of medicine.
Practising herbalists in Britain already use a significant number of plant species, both native and non-native. The proportion of trees used is relatively small, which seems to reflect the lack of trees in our landscape. Forest people use a far greater proportion of trees as medicines.
Native tree species that are used commonly by herbalists here include hawthorn, white willow, lime, elder and oak. Other well known trees used include horse chestnut, eucalyptus, walnut, gingko, cedar, witch hazel, olive, juniper, buckthorn, ash, holly, pine, beech, larch, elm, sweet chestnut, hornbeam, crab apple, aspen, birch and more! A long list but still not used very frequently in comparison to other plants.
Trees are also used in flower essences and these include aspen, beech, cherry plum, horse, red, white and sweet chestnut, crab apple, elm, holly, hornbeam, larch, oak, olive, pine, walnut and willow.
There remains however much potential in our native trees for remedies and foods.
A herbalist writes in his dissertation “Tree remedies tend to be stronger, more sustaining and with more powerful actions than their non-arboreal counterparts. They are often gentle and protective in their physical and emotional effects and, being slow moving, are particularly suitable for treating chronic illness. The circulation of the blood and the integrity of the musculoskeletal and integumentary [skin] systems are particular areas of application.” (Purves, D.A., 2003, p.50). He makes parallels between these medicinal actions of trees and their characteristics. Trees are strong, large and have longevity. They are enduring and they form boundaries. The xylem and phloem of trees move large amounts of fluid, not dissimilar to their ability in treating human circulation.
When a plant’s physical characteristics indicate its medicinal properties, this theory is called the ‘doctrine of signatures’. There are interesting examples with trees. Willow for example was traditionally used to treat rheumatism, arthritis and muscular aches. Willow is a flexible tree that moves with ease in the wind and it favours growing in damp places. The symptoms of rheumatism and arthritis are exacerbated by damp conditions. So the tree’s characteristics suggest that it will be beneficial for people who need flexibility and the ability to cope with dampness.
In a slightly different way, the traditional significance of the hawthorn perhaps indicates its medicinal action. It is also called the May Tree because it flowers in May and its blossoms were traditionally seen as a joyful sign of the approaching summer. Some herbalists literally describe the tree as “giving heart” and “uplifting”. The bright red berries (haws) and sometimes the flowers are used as a heart tonic remedy.
Finally the much-loved oak is mighty and long-lived. It continues to grow and persist against all odds. Even after lightning strikes and when part of the trunk and the limbs have died, the tree persists. This strength can also be its weakness, it can lose limbs in storms through this inflexibility. The oak also hosts hundreds of insects and animals. Medicinally oak has been used for diarrhoea – it is not a tree likely to ‘let go’ easily! It is also useful for infections of the digestive tract, haemorrhoids, mouth inflammations, nasal polyps, sore throats and wounds. This is interesting when considering the ability of the oak to cope with the invasion of so many insect species and in particular the oak’s response to some insect invasion by forming oak galls. It was these galls with their powerfully astringent properties that were once used to treat diarrhoea, dysentery, infections and wounds. While the oak forms galls to protect itself from invasions, infections and damage, the medicinal properties for us are remarkably similar.
As a Bach Flower Remedy, oak’s characteristics are also apparent. It supports brave and strong people who never give up the fight but who do not know how to give in and have difficulty acknowledging their weaknesses. Oak teaches people to embrace the playful, tender and trusting moments of time.
In our first autumn season of 2004, the hedgerows and woodlands were prolific with berries, fruits, nuts and seeds. We harvested haws, acorns, elderberries, blackberries and apples and made jams, jellies, cordials and acorn coffee. These were popular on stalls and the acorn coffee despite its reputation for bitterness and a poor coffee substitute, was a hit for most people. The bitter tannins can be reduced by boiling the acorns first. Acorns can also be ground into flour or roasted. In hard times they were eaten more frequently but there is no reason we cannot incorporate them into our diet today. They were also once used to feed animals. They should be used in moderation or combined with other foods. They are a binding food and used in excess can cause constipation! We also collected hundreds of acorns and planted them in our tree nurseries to grow more oak trees.
We used haws to make some delicious chutney. The preparation was rather fiddly with stalks and stones but the finished product was more than worth it! The haws were so abundant that picking 7 pounds seemed to make no impact, leaving plenty for the birds.
Elderberries were prolific and made a great addition to jams and a delicious cordial. The flowers and berries of the elder are both medicinal. The flowers are used for arthritis, catarrh, colds, flu and other respiratory infections, hay fever, sinusitis and ear infections. Externally they are beneficial for conjunctivitis as an eyewash and for chilblains, tired eyes and for sunburn. The berries are thought to help prevent cancer as they contain anthocyanins that have potent antioxidant effects. They are beneficial for colds, flu, and viral infections. Their nutritional content can assist recovery and improve energy levels.
It is apparent that there is no clear division when using trees and other plants, between foods and medicine. Trees for Health use berries, fruits, nuts and seeds for foods, which all have medicinal properties. There are many recipes for infusions (teas) and decoctions (boil plant for 10 minutes) that can easily be prepared in the home.
Trees for Health is currently researching what tree parts can be used as herbal remedies and establishing what products are appropriate for the local community today. If you have any old recipes in the family or suggested sources of information, please get in touch! We are particularly keen to make contact with elders in our society who have valuable knowledge of remedies that are in danger of being forgotten. Traditionally these were passed down in families with no written records but in our modern world, less importance is placed on them. We would like to hear from you if you can help with any information like this so that we can record and revive our cultural plant heritage. Although our main interest is trees, please contact us with any plant recipes/remedies as we work with herbalists and other similar projects.
In the spring we will be making teas, infused oils and ointments etc, as well as candles and soaps. These will be volunteer activities and the products that we make will be sold on our stalls.
The Celtic Wisdom of Trees by Jane Gifford
Tree Medicine by Peter Conway
The New Holistic Herbal by David Hoffmann
Wild Food by Roger Phillips
Food for Free by Richard Mabey
A Hedgerow Cookbook by Glennie Kindred
Also quoted on this page:Tree Medicine by Donald Purves, an MSc dissertation obtained from the Scottish School of Herbal Medicine