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When people think of edible plants, trees and bark are probably not very high on the list of what comes to mind. Sure, using bark as a major food source is only something you’d do in the most desperate imaginable survival situations. However, regardless of whether you’re in a survival situation or not, bark and other parts of certain trees contain chemicals with powerful medicinal properties.
For a great reason to start incorporating medicine made from bark and trees into your home apothecary, look no further than this year’s unusually savage flu season. Incorporating natural remedies and preventatives into your lifestyle helps ward off sickness like this year’s particularly dangerous strains.
In addition, trees provide powerful, natural, and free healing tools from Mother Earth to help prevent and treat all kinds of other health issues.
Cutting down a tree to build your log cabin and start your dream homestead? If it’s a medicinal tree, you might have just readied a massive bounty of medicine for harvest in addition to wood for building. Learn a few common species, and a whole new world of potential opportunities opens up for you to live more purposefully and in closer harmony with nature than ever before, using more of what you take (and taking more of what’s available!).
Below I’ve listed some of very common and extremely powerful types of trees that you can start using for medicine immediately, but first, a couple of notes on using trees for healing:
First off, like all powerful remedies and conventional medicines, there is always a risk of side effects and allergies, so use caution. Each of the trees listed can be used to make tea, salve, tincture, or oil. Oftentimes the “inner bark,” rather than the rough outer layer, is where the bulk of the oils and active chemicals are, but for most uses you can just shred fresh entire twigs to make your final product, or just steep them for tea.
Be careful with dosage — for example, tinctures are more concentrated and are effective at different doses than teas or oil infusions, and too much of any chemical can harm you.
To harvest bark, cut a square into your positively-identified tree. Make sure you cut deeply enough that you penetrate the outer and inner bark layers. Then gently dig into the square from the sides, lifting and prying methodically as you go deeper around the edges, until the square comes off in just one or two whole pieces. Breaking off twigs at the ends of branches is another good way to obtain bark without harming the tree.
If you never harvest from the same tree more than once per year, healthy trees should be able to heal completely without having been damaged. However, harvesting too much at once will damage trees, so harvest only enough from each to fit in the palm of one of your hands.
Now, onto some common varieties of powerful medicinal trees!
Guide to Edible Bark: Using Trees for Medicine & Food
- 1 Willows
- 2 Cottonwoods
- 3 Birches
- 4 Pines
- 5 Final Thoughts
Willow encompasses a wide family of trees and shrubs, all with bark containing a chemical that works similarly on the body as aspirin.
This makes willow bark a fantastic natural remedy for many of the same afflictions: headaches, muscle ache, gout, inflammation, symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis, and menstrual symptoms, to name a few. It is also known to help with symptoms, prevention, and recovery for flu, fevers, and colds.
There are many different willow species, which can be hard to tell apart. They can look very different from one another, but thankfully, they are all medicinal. Generally, they love to grow near water. As trees they like to appear in clumps, and shrubs often appear in clusters.
Most people will immediately recognize any variety of weeping willows, which were cultivated by humans for ornamental purposes, but identifying non-weeping types is a bit more complex. Non-weeping willows look similar to weeping varieties, but without as exaggerated long-hanging branches and drooping leaves.
Willow leaves are typically long and lance-shaped, with a prominent ridge running down the middle, though certain varieties have oval leaves. Leaves are alternate, with veins reaching up each leaf from the central ridge. Veins aren’t always prominent, and on most species are alternating or offset.
Notes on Usage:
Ideal harvest time for willow bark is late winter and early spring, but other times of year are viable also. The flavor will be very bitter with a bit of minty coolness. When making a tea, don’t let it boil, and don’t steep for longer than 20 minutes or you risk cooking out the medicine.
Some feel that teas that contain willow bark are too bitter for any but the most adventuresome palates, while others find the taste pleasant. This is partially also due to the large range of bitterness and mintiness levels within different types of willows, but mixing with other medicinal herbs like ground ivy can help if your tea is bitter.
You can also take cooled tea as a shot, or pack dry powdered bark into a capsule to take internally. Otherwise, willow makes a fine oil, salve, or tincture.
The inner bark is edible and rich in Vitamin C, but probably requires lots of cooking to remove toughness and may be quite bitter. Making tea is a great way to get the benefits of willow’s Vitamin C without having to figure out how to make the bark palatable.
Main Complication Risk:
The active ingredient in willow bark is an aspirin-like chemical called salicin. Extreme amounts of it could cause kidney problems such as bleeding, which is vastly more likely in people with existing kidney issues. This is true of store-bought aspirin as well!
Related to the willow, cottonwood is rich with a medicinal resin that is excellent for muscle pain, and is a powerful antimicrobial. It also contains many antioxidants, and is an effective expectorant.
Cottonwood tea is great for coughs and colds, and salves make great replacements for Neosporin and other wound ointments. As an ingredient in cosmetic creams and masks, cottonwood stimulates cell regeneration and reduces inflammation for clearer, younger-looking skin.
Also good for skin issues like boils, warts, and sores, and for aches and pains, cottonwood is an incredibly versatile medicine. It doubly functions as a preservative, meaning anything you make from it will have a longer shelf life than otherwise.
For example, infused oil made from cottonwood and coconut oil will last much longer than the coconut oil would have lasted by itself. In addition to using the bark, members of the Menominee tribe reportedly soaked young cottonwood buds in fat and then stuck them into their nostrils to treat head colds and sinus infections.
Cottonwoods enjoy wet areas, so they’re a common sight on American riverbanks. Branches tend to be very thick and long, and leaves are triangular with flat stems and toothed edges. Some leaves are more ovoid or teardrop-shaped.
During warm seasons, cottonwood produces a cottony, fluffy white seed that disconnects from trees and flies around as little puffballs of “summer snow.” Cottonwoods grow fast and can reach 75-100 feet tall. The bark of young trees tends to be thin and light gray, often with vertical lines. Older trees darken and develop deep ridges and furrows in their bark.
Notes on Usage:
While cottonwood bark is great, the true prizes are the sticky little buds. Buds ideal for harvesting are still closed and firm, but covered in sticky resin. As with willow trees, cottonwood leaves can be harvested as well, but probably have a lower density of active chemicals than other parts.
Infuse the buds in oil and use it as an ingredient in creams, salves, ointments, and more. An alcohol extraction will yield tincture that can be diluted and swished in the mouth to treat oral sores and irritations, turned into a homemade all-natural cough syrup, or taken internally to ward off infections and parasites.
Inner bark and buds are even edible, though I’m not sure what the ideal method is of cooking them. Chew on the bark to help with toothaches and oral sores. Some native tribes used the resinous, balsam-scented buds as a kind of chewing gum and preventative.
Main Complication Risk:
As is the case with willow trees, cottonwoods contain salicin. For that reason, people with kidney issues or those who are allergic to aspirin should avoid it.
Birch trees have a tasty, minty wintergreen flavor that makes for a wonderful medicinal tea.
Their bark has many uses in survival, from paper to tanning leather, but the medicinal applications of the bark and leaves add a whole other dimension to the birch tree’s already-formidable range of uses for thriving day-to-day, in addition to being a great tree for life-or-death survival situations.
Birches are usually easily identified by their papery, white to gray or yellowish bark. The bark surface usually has small horizontal ridges, and often peels back in stiff curls.
Some varieties don’t have peeling bark, but the vast majority do. Leaves are alternate and toothed, with shape ranging from ovoid to triangular with pointed tips.
Notes on Usage:
Known for its purifying effects, the birch tree is a powerhouse. Birch leaves, buds, and bark have powerful anti-inflammatory properties. Birch is said to be good for cramps, skin conditions and gout, and as a diuretic, is good for cleansing the kidneys and treat urinary tract infections.
Topically, birch is said to help eczema, muscle aches, and arthritis. Young shoots and leaves are known to have a laxative effect, and can be used to make a wound poultice or salve. In folk medicine, birch is also among several trees said to help with hair loss.
As an added bonus, birches are also common hosts for incredibly versatile medicinal mushrooms like the birch bracket polypore. This mushroom can be used as a bandage, immune-boosting tea, or as a powerful salve ingredient.
Main Complication Risk:
While generally safe, birch may increase sodium retention, so use caution if you have high blood pressure. As with all new substances, there is always some risk of allergy or other unknown sensitivity—which is as true for coriander or clams as it is for birch.
One big advantage to pine trees as a source of medicine is that their precious healing sap and needles can be harvested year-round, even in winter. Pine needles make a tasty tea that is rich in Vitamin C. They can also be chewed passively while you go about gathering, hunting, building shelter, weaving baskets, or doing any other type of survival activity.
Pine sap, often seeping out of the tree readily but also easily collected by causing very minor wounds to the tree, can be used in a variety of medicinal salves, syrups, oils, and tinctures. Pines are also very easy to identify.
Pine trees are conifers that always have two, three, or five groups of needles emerging in bundles from each twig. Any other number of needle bundles on each twig, and it might not be a pine. Cones are woody as opposed to papery, with overlapping scales.
Other conifers have cones with overlapping scales, but pinecone scales tend to be thicker and harder than firs and other types. Limbs tend to be stout. Bark can be mostly smooth, scaled, or rough and furrowed.
Notes on Usage:
Pine needles and twigs are easy to gather. But the strong antibacterial and antifungal sap is ideal for making powerful cough syrups, salves, tinctures, and even refreshing medicinal sprays. To collect it, scrape it directly off a tree wherever it drips, and use a knife reserved only for this purpose (it will become hopelessly sticky).
Deposit what you collect in an old jar. Use alcohol to get the sap off your hands, and wear a shirt that you are okay with ruining! The stuff is extremely pesky to clean off of skin, and close to impossible to remove entirely from fabrics.
In addition to the needles and sap, you can also harvest nuts from pinecones to eat. In addition to using it for oil infusions and potent tinctures, the surprisingly-moist innermost layer of bark can also be eaten. Fry or bake it into a “bark chip” for a unique snack and survival food.
Main Complication Risk:
“Too much of a good thing” is always possible, but complication risks are extremely low with pines—probably even lower than with other trees.
(Note: Natural remedies, and articles about them, are not replacements for consultation with a professional physician, and should not be construed as such. Any new substance you haven’t consumed before carries risk of unknown allergies and other complications).
These are only a few types of trees with powerful medicinal properties. But they provide a testament to the sheer number of seemingly-endless varieties of powerful healing plants that coexist with humanity in abundance. Even in urban parks, these trees and plants are plentiful.
We are truly surrounded by food and medicine at all times—if only we knew how to identify which ones stand waiting for us, ready to be enlisted as life-saving and life-extending allies.
Eric is a nature-loving writer, experience junkie, and former Boy Scout who never forgot that time-honored Scout Motto: Be prepared. Aside from camping and survival, he loves writing about travel, history, and anything he finds strange and unique!
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