This post has been written as part of the February UK Herbarium Blog party. You can find the list of other articles here.
Tree bark is not something which immediately springs to mind when you think about herbal medicine, but when winter is upon us and fresh herbs are difficult to come by, trees can offer us their bark to treat many different conditions.
Horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) was the first tree to teach me how to work with bark medicinally. It was February 2008, three months after I developed an inflammatory condition which made my ankles swell and itch and kept me at home on the sofa for nearly three weeks. The itching meant my veins were in a bad way and although I recovered sufficiently to go back to work, it was likely I would always suffer with swollen ankles as my job meant I was standing up for several hours at a time when I was training.
I knew horse chestnut conkers could be used both as a salve and tincture to help strengthen vein walls, but it was the wrong time of year for conkers and I didn’t have any oil, only a very muddy tincture which I began to take in minute doses.
Around that time, Henriette Kress made a comment on her email discussion group about using horse chestnut bark if nothing else was available, so the next time I was down at the farm, I collected an armful of sticky bud twigs and started peeling off the bark in short strips. It was easier from younger twigs rather than older branches. I ended up with a sore thumb but the oil was just as good as conker double infused oil. Even better, my ankles recovered and hardly ever swell unless I’m very tired and run down.
Crampbark (Viburnum opulum) was the next bark I worked with. I purchased my first tree from Poyntzfield Herb Nursery by mail order in 2006. It was very small and I didn’t want to remove any prunings, so the next year I made a trip to Northern Derbyshire and brought back another larger specimen along with two short leaf lime and two spindle trees.
Crampbark is a strange tree because you harvest the bark when the tree is flowering, unlike all other barks which are taken before the sap rises. I’ve now made tinctures from bark taken both when flowering and when the tree is dormant and there doesn’t seem to be any major difference. The tincture is a wonderful shade of dark red and can be used for any kind of muscle cramp. I’ve given it to people with night time leg cramps and it’s been very successful.
Wild cherry (Prunus serontina) was my next bark. I knew it was good for dry coughs, but couldn’t seem to find any trees. My father planted three wild cherries in the rickyard many years ago, but they’ve never flourished. I did take some prunings from them in 2009, removing the bark, which I dried. I used it for the first time this month, when Chris returned from his annual ski trip with a cough which rocked the whole house and turned him into “blob” for several days.
I tried the bark in a tea with other cough herbs and when that didn’t work; I brought out the cherry blossom elixir I’d made from the tree at the bottom of our garden two years ago. I mixed the cherry blossom elixir with an elixir of horehound and hyssop and dosed Chris with it every few hours. He seemed to either sleep or cough alternately during the day and the next day he was much improved and the cold came out.
What I’d like to try in the future is make a cherry bark tincture and mix that with equal amounts of the cherry blossom elixir and see how that works, although with all honesty, I’d really rather not have to deal with a similar cough ever again!
The one bark medicine everyone is familiar with is willowbark. It has been mentioned in medical texts from ancient times as a remedy for aches and fever. The white willow,(Salix alba), has been the one most used in European medicine. Maud Grieve wrote that it was a “Tonic, antiperiodic and astringent”. It was used in dyspepsia connected with debility of the digestive organs. She also said, “In convalescence from acute diseases, in worms, in chronic diarrhoea and dysentery, its tonic and astringent combination renders it very useful.” The astringency came from the tannins in the bark.
The Eclectic herbalists in America used the black or pussy willow, (Salix niger) for a very different purpose. Matthew Wood in his Earthwise Herbal says it was a sexual tonic, used when the specific indications included nocturnal emissions, impotence, ovarian pain before and after menses, nervous disorders and leucorrhea. Mrs Grieve said the bark was prescribed in gonorrhoea. She also said that a liquid extract of the willow bark was prepared and used in mixture with other sedatives for ovarian pain.
Matthew Wood said that pussy willow could also be used as a pain reliever, like white willow, as it also contained salicin. He said “it acts like aspirin but is soothing to the stomach instead of irritating. He quotes Louise Tenney, who wrote in 1983 in her book, Today’s Herbal Health, that “Willow is valued as a nerve sedative because it leaves no depressing after-effects.”
I had never worked with willow until this month when we held a bark workshop. I cut some shoots from my young pollarded crack willow (Salix fragilis) and after we removed the bark we made a tea and a decoction. The aspirin-taste was much more noticeable in the tea, hitting the very back of my tongue. The decoction was a much deeper yellow colour and had an almost smoky flavour. The taste came on both sides of the tongue towards the back, but not on the same spot as the tea, which was really interesting.
There are still several barks I have yet to work with. Oak (Quercus robur) bark can be used for severe skin conditions where a tannin-laden astringent is called for. The bark of Oregon Grape (Mahonia aquifolium) lower branches can be substituted for the root if it is sufficiently yellow. I’m keen to try out its many properties. Oregon Grape is related to the Barberry (Berberis vulgaris) and the bark can be carefully harvested to obtain yellow berberine either from stems or root bark. Jim Macdonald uses apple bark’s astringent properties for digestive and other problems.
My first year apprentices have been working with elder bark during January. There was a lively discussion about which constituents within the bark should help with bruising since none of the literature seemed to mention this effect referring only to the leaves. Historically the bark has been harvested, dried and powdered as an emetic. One of the apprentices used her bark salve on her husband’s bruised foot and proved it did help as the bruise was much reduced the following day.
My feelings on the subject are very much tied up with the season. Sometimes barks have a specific use, well researched and documents, but sometimes another part of the tree is not available, so you use what you have access to. In winter, this means the bark. If it can help, it will and for that I shall always be grateful.