Barking Up the Right Tree: The Medicinal Value of Bark
by J Garnett
With many Americans moving toward natural medicine, alternatives to pharmaceuticals are being sought out. Many choices are available and becoming more mainstream, but there are still some that are just emerging here in the U.S., even though they’ve been in practice for thousands of years. Long before pharmaceuticals became available to humans, plants, herbs, flowers, fruits, vegetables and even trees were the go-to remedy for countless ailments.
Trees have been revered since perhaps the beginning of the human race. They’re tall and sturdy. They offer shade on a hot sunny day. They produce oxygen. Trees can support a swing or a treehouse. There are people who’ve been called tree-huggers because they respect the bountiful gifts which trees offer humanity, and the planet itself. According to BBC News and Science and Environment, the oldest living thing on the planet is a tree.
A comprehensive study published in the Journal of Sustainable Forestry states that there are over 60,000 different species of trees on earth. A fig tree in Sri Lanka is at least 2,224 years old. In Chile, there’s a Patagonian cypress tree that’s over 3,600 years old. An ancient bristlecone pine named Methuselah, in the White Mountains of California, was discovered to be just under 5,000 years old. Since Methuselah’s discovered age, another bristlecone pine, unnamed, was discovered in the Inyo National Forest and is over 5,000 years old. Trees should be revered, and tree-huggers have had the right idea all along—because coupled with being ancient, they offer numerous medicinal compounds that can be helpful in the shift to natural plant medicine.
According to a CNN article, “From a Tree, a Miracle called Aspirin”, by Elizabet Landau, one of the oldest uses for tree medicine dates back to 3000 BC, when the Ancient Egyptians used the bark of the willow tree for an analgesic. Hippocrates, the Greek physician who lived from 460-377 BC, also noted that the leaves and bark of the willow tree not only relieved pain but also helped in reducing fevers. Most parts of the willow tree contain the acid, salicylic. It wasn’t until thousands of years later, in the early 1800s, that the acid was isolated by French scientist Henri Leroux. With the discovery, aspirin was created. Through the years, the benefits of aspirin have been uncovered. Not only does it reduce pain and fever, but it also helps thin the blood, which helps with the prevention of blood clots and heart attacks.
Native Americans and indigenous tribes around the globe found a number of medicinal properties in many other trees. Bark has been used to help with inflammation, high blood pressure and arthritis. In more recent years, bark has even been used in some cancer treatments. It’s not very common in today’s society to view a tree as part of the make-up of herbal and plant medicine. Its uses, however, can be in the form of poultices, tinctures, salves and as a wash to fight off infection from open wounds.
One tree that people are familiar with is the Scottish pine, better known as the Christmas tree, which isn’t well known as a medicinal tree. The pine’s bark and leaves can be made into a tea that is used for an internal antiseptic, a diuretic and for lung health, especially as an expectorant. It can also be made into a salve that can help with arthritis pain.
Like the Scottish pine, bark from the ash tree can be used to reduce the swelling caused by arthritis, rheumatism in particular. Birch tree bark can be added to a bath and helps ease the effects of different skin conditions including rashes, eczema and psoriasis. The bark from maple trees is made into a tea and used to treat kidney disease and bronchitis. Elder bark is used to treat headaches and symptoms that accompany allergies and chest colds. It’s also used to bring on perspiration, which lowers fever.
There are numerous uses of bark for many different ailments and conditions. So how does one get the bark, especially from trees that aren’t grown in the region where they reside? As parts of the planet are brought closer together through technology, many ingredients from tree bark, leaves and sap are now available online. Make certain that the online company is reputable and that their products are third party tested.
For the adventurous type of person, foraging bark from local trees for medicine is an option. Precautions must be taken when collecting bark from a tree. Like the human skin, a tree’s bark is the outer covering for the vital processes that take place within. Without the skills to harvest bark safely, a tree can become wounded and die. Very small pieces of the bark should be removed from a living tree. Collecting bark from branches and trees that have fallen naturally is recommended for the novice forager.
J. Garnet, M.A., is an educator and freelance writer. Garnet’s studies have led him to the world of plant medicine and its many benefits. His work is centered on educating the public on alternative medicine. Connect at 520-437-8855 or [email protected].