Gazing out of the railway carriage this morning on the way into work, I was struck by how many trees are either coming to life or displaying blossom. Noticing these changes teaches us so much about our local environment and what is available during the lean time of the year.
The waste ground across from the station platform is growing an impressive array of feral trees, reminding me that every cultivated plot would return to native woodlands within five years if not managed.
The trees are mainly hawthorn and sycamore, but along the lineside, pussy willows were flowering alongside “ordinary” willows and a lone cherry tree was showing the first signs of blossom. The hawthorn leaves were a beautiful shade of light green, but it will be several weeks before the sycamore buds burst. Any elders were hiding, but I know their purple budded leaves are already growing green.
What could we use these trees for?
Bark collection is normally done in winter while trees lie dormant, but the green bark of the young willow branches is a useful source of anti-inflammatory and headache potions. Willow bark can be harvested at any time during dormancy but is said to achieve optimal quality in the spring just as the first leaf buds start to form.
Glennie Kindred says “willow bark has been used for its pain-relieving qualities for at least 2,000 years. The Salix alba (white willow, withe, withy) contains salicin, which is converted to salicylic acid in the body.” Willow bark reduces fever and relieves rheumatism. A decoction can be used for gum and tonsil inflammations and as a footbath for sweaty feet.
The decoction is made by soaking 3 teaspoons (15ml) of the bark in a cup of cold water for 2 - 5 hours. Then bring to the boil. Strain and take a wineglassful each day, a mouthful at a time. The bark can be dried, powdered and stored in an airtight container.
Many herbalist believe black willow (Salix nigra) to be the most effective tree, but the difference is negligible if the bark is freshly harvested. Salix nigra is the pussy willow and has black bark as opposed to the light greens of the white willow. Its properties are much the same, but Glennie says it was used in the past as an aphrodisiac and sexual sedative.
Goat willow or sallow willow (Salix caprea) is used in very much the same way as the white willow, but sallow bark tea is recommended for indigestion, whooping cough and catarrh. It can also be used as an antiseptic and disinfectant.
Young hawthorn leaves were historically known as “bread and cheese” because it often found its way into mouths when other foraged food was rare. They make a refreshing tea for heart conditions and other water retention issues, but don’t take them without advice if you are on other heart medication.
Now is the time to make a cherry blossom elixir. The bark of the wild cherry, Prunus serontina is the species usually recommended for dry, involuntary coughs. The inner bark is the most potent part of the tree, acquired by a mixture of whittling and scraping with a hand-knife. Experiments with modern cultivars of Prunus. avium, the Sweet Cherry, show that good results can be obtained from pruning garden cherry trees.
Ananda Wilson first alerted me to the possibility of using the cherry blossom for a delicious elixir and every year I try to find blooms to cover with brandy and honey for coughs later in the year. The cherry tree in my garden is too high up to gather flowers easily, but maybe this year I will find some at a height I can reach!
Another joy in my garden at the moment is the yellow forsythia. If this were the forsythia suspense of Chinese origin, it would be a staple medicinal herb. The fruit is one of the most common components in Chinese herbal formulas for treating the common cold, influenza, and allergies.
Now would be the time to gather young horsechestnut leaves for salves and tinctures to strengthen arterial walls and support varicose veins. The time for harvest is very short since it must be done before the conical flowers appear.
Elder leaves too could be harvested for bruise salves, but I prefer to allow them to remain on the trees as I would rather use plantain, yarrow or comfrey, but that is my choice. I’m waiting for the flowers which will show summer is just around the corner.