Trees on a fundamental level provide shade from the sun and when mature, firewood. But certain trees also can serve as a food source or offer medicinal benefits.
The seven trees below will grow across most parts of North America, from the deep south to far north. It was tough to pick just seven. and you may have your own ideas, but from my perspective these are the best:
1. Apples. I continue to feel that apples are one of the most versatile fruits we have. It’s not just because they’re good to eat, but they offer the ability to make apple cider and most significantly, apple cider vinegar. Vinegar is a natural antiseptic and an excellent resource for canning and food preservation. The variety doesn’t really matter, although you might want to consider planting two of the same variety to help with pollination.
2. White willow. Willow bark has a chemical substance called salicin in the inner bark, or xylem. It’s the active ingredient in aspirin and has been infused in a tea for centuries by the Chinese and Native Americans as a pain reliever and fever reducer. A German chemist in the 1800s first isolated this compound to make a commercial pain reliever. His last name was “Bayer” and he called his new product aspirin.
3. Cherry. Cherry trees have both nutritional and medicinal value. The cherries, whether sweet or sour, can be used across a variety of recipes, from pies to juice. Cherry juice has been shown in clinical studies to be a powerful treatment for arthritic conditions, including gout. They’re also beautiful trees when they’re in bloom and like apple trees, you can use the wood to flavor smoked foods as branches die or need to be trimmed.
4. Oak. Oak is a slow-growing tree but it has numerous benefits. As firewood, it burns long and hot. Baby oak leaves are an excellent addition to a salad or soup. The biggest additional benefit may be the acorns. They are high in protein, calories from fat – which is important in cold weather – and can be used in a variety of ways, such as nutmeats in a meal or to make flour. You just have to be patient because they (like we said) grow slow. Buy the biggest tree you can find.
5. Ginko. Scientists say Ginko is the oldest deciduous tree on Earth. It was thought to be extinct until a botanist happened to come across one growing in a garden in China. The tree has significant medicinal value, and the leaves are commonly infused into a tea. Benefits range from blood thinning to some indications that it can help to treat neurological conditions like Parkinson’s disease, as well as boost the immune system.
6. Pear. Pear trees are hardy trees and also provide a good source of firewood, as well as smoking wood for smoked foods and fruit. Pears are a great table food and can also be used to make breads, tarts and other simple desserts.
7. Mulberry. Some people might disagree and say this is a very messy tree. It is. But mulberry trees bear a sweet fruit that shows up in early June, and it’s one of the first fruits to appear. I put a tarp under the tree and shake the branches to make harvesting easier. The fruits are sweet to semi-sweet and are great on cereal or ice cream. You also can make mulberry juice, jelly or blend the fruit into bread for mulberry bread. They will stain your fingers and lips, but if you want to dye fabric, the juice will certainly do that.
The ability of any tree to survive and thrive is dependent on the environment where you live. Most of the trees I’ve identified will survive across most parts of North America, but desert parts of the continent and high mountain areas could be problematic. When selecting the best trees for your homestead, think about if they can offer more than basic shade and firewood. Can the tree offer either fruit or a medicinal benefit that transcends the usual tree? Those are the trees I like to plant.
We’d love to hear your ideas about the best trees to plant. Some of you living in far southern environments may be able to grow oranges and avocados. No matter where you live, let us know what trees you’ve planted in the section below.