It must have been a long process of trial and error. How do you figure out that a plant or tree can have medicinal benefits? Obviously, some Native Americans, as well as many other ancient cultures from China to the Incas and Aztecs, found solace and relief from plants that surrounded them.
Significantly, many of those natural cures were derived from trees. Typically, it was the inner bark of the trees or the xylem that provided the most potent mix of natural elements with curative properties. However, there are some exceptions, such as the needles of pines and the berries from Juniper trees.
We’re going to explore five common trees in North America that continue to be used for various medicinal purposes. They are:
- White pine
- White willow
- Slippery elm
We’ll also review what type of preparation was used and how to prepare it for home use. A word of caution is related to allergies and dosage. Home preparation of natural cures is not always an exact science. Just as important, different people respond to these natural treatments in different ways, depending on their body weight and predisposition to allergies. In all cases, you should first consult your doctor. Take a low dose of any natural preparation you make, such as a teaspoon or less, to assess your body’s response. You should also avoid giving these natural treatments to young children.
Bark and needles of pine were available year-round and used regardless of weather or season. However, warmer months often provided the best concentration of ingredients due to the fact that the sap was still flowing in the xylem of the trees.
An infusion was the most common preparation technique. It’s essentially a tea made by soaking the inner bark or crushed pine needles in very hot, but not boiling water. Boiling water can break down some of the beneficial compounds. The steeping time was usually 5 to 20 minutes. The longer the steep the more concentrated the ingredients, so take good notes if you choose to make your own preparations to determine tolerable dosages.
Poultices were also used frequently to treat external afflictions. This involves an infusion or crushed ingredients that are saturated into a piece of cloth and applied to the skin where the pain or affliction is located.
As we’ve already noted, time of year in addition to the general health and age of the tree can also affect concentration of ingredients, so you may have to take that into account as well.
1. White pine
While the inner bark is often used as an infusion, the young shoots, twigs, pitch and needles of white pine were also used by Native Americans to treat a variety of conditions both internally and externally.
The pitch or pine sap was used as a poultice on a hot cloth and applied to the chest to treat coughs and pneumonia. Pitch applied directly to the skin was used to draw out boils, abscesses and splinters. It also was used as a poultice for wounds or sores.
An infusion of the crushed pine needles, often combined with the inner bark and young shoots, was used to treat colds, fever, heartburn, croup, laryngitis, bronchitis and coughs.
The scent of the white pine itself has aroma therapy properties, especially when applied externally to the chest or throat as a poultice for cough or sore throats.
2. White willow
We’ve covered the health benefits of willow bark in the past, but the medicinal value is so significant it makes sense to revisit the benefits. All willow trees have a chemical element called “salicin” in the inner, xylem bark. White willow has the highest concentrations. A German chemist synthesized this element in the 1800s and developed a tablet with both pain-relieving and fever-reducing properties. The chemist’s last name was “Bayer,” and the tablet he invented was called “aspirin.”
Native Americans would steep the xylem from the inner bark of the white willow in very hot water and drink it as a pain reliever and to reduce fever. One of the side benefits of this infusion for some people is that it does not thin the blood like regular aspirin. This has value for people on blood thinners, people with naturally thin blood due to genetics or diet, and people afflicted with hemophilia.
3. Slippery elm
Slippery Elm preparations were made from the inner bark and in some instances, the leaves. Once again, an infusion was made by Native Americans, often with a combination of inner bark and crushed leaves and used to treat digestive disorders, gastrointestinal conditions, gout, arthritis, stomach aches and sore throat. It also was used as a mouthwash or gargle to treat sore throat, mouth ulcers and toothache. As an external treatment it was used as a wash or poultice to treat skin conditions, hemorrhoids and insect bites.
As a poultice the infusion is poured into a piece of fabric and applied to the skin. It is said to have significant benefits for pain reduction, inflammation of wounds, boils, burns and skin ulcers. One recipe calls for five tablespoons of ground inner bark infused in a very hot cup of water and strained to make the basic infusion that can be either sipped or used as a wash or poultice. Here again, take a little at a time to assess its concentration and your reaction to the compound if you choose to use it as an herbal remedy.
The Juniper is an evergreen that grows around the world. The small, round bluish berries are the primary flavor ingredient in gin. When the berries are fully ripe in late summer, Native Americans would eat them off the tree to treat kidney, bladder and urinary tract conditions, digestive disorders, gum disease, diarrhea, gout and arthritis, and rheumatic conditions.
There are some cautions to keep in mind. It’s believed that Juniper berries can cause miscarriage in pregnant women, and high doses can irritate the urinary tract. It also shouldn’t be given to children, considering their low body weight and the potential for even the smallest dosage to be too high.
5. Poplar buds
Poplar trees are ubiquitous across North America, and in the spring Native Americans used the poplar buds as a topical treatment for muscle soreness and headaches when applied to the brow as a poultice. The buds were usually ground, and the sticky result was applied to the skin, around painful joints or bruises or anywhere else localized pain occurred, including insect bites. It is not intended for internal use but as a topical treatment only.
The key ingredient in poplar buds that makes them effective as a topical pain reliever has a familiar name: salicin. This is the same chemical found in willow bark and used as the base ingredient in aspirin.
What advice would you add? What trees would you put on the list? Share your tips in the section below: