Tuesday 21 February 2012

Working with bark - another tree gift

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.

Monday 20 February 2012

February Blog Party Articles : Working with winter trees

We have an international flavour to this month's UK Herbarium blog party. Ruth has joined us for the first time to talk about her love of Australian Eucalyptus trees. Leslie has written a delightful article on a local American spring tonic provided by Sassafrass roots. Jo-Ann shares pictures of her local winter trees and Ali talks about her surprise in finding medicine on her doorstep from Grandmother pine. Jackie has posted about her changing relationship with winter trees due to her apprenticeship

One of my apprentice tasks has been to map their local area looking especially for hawthorn and elder. Several people posted articles about making elder bark salve or taking others on their local walks. These have been included in the blog party.

I will be writing my blog party post tomorrow when my family leaves. After being ill for so long and then spending two days cooking for my parents and in preparation for our tree felling weekend at the Sanctuary, I haven't been able to sit down at the computer and think!

Blog party articles
A vote of thanks to trees by Ruth
Bark Medicine: Sassafrass by Leslie
How becoming an apprentice herbalist changed the way I relate to trees in winter by Jackie
Working with bark - another tree gift by Sarah
Trees in winter by Jo-Ann
Grandmother Pine by Ali
Using Elder Bark by Rita (Rita lives in Belgium and has just started learning
A Bruise salve made from elder bark by Shobana
Hotpotch Herbs - a winter walk by Paules

A vote of thanks to trees

When Sarah posted on the Down to Earth forum asking if anyone wanted to write an article about trees as part of the February UK Herbarium blog party I felt immediately compelled to answer. You see, I love my trees, and this seemed to present an opportunity to say thank you to them in some way.

I am blessed to live in the Perth Hills in Western Australia. Our little wooden pole home sits within a 1 acre bush block that is heavily treed with Australian Eucalypts consisting of mainly; Jarrah, Marri and Wandoo. I can see the trees from every space in the house (even in the bath!) and is one reason we chose to buy the property 6 years ago. The whole ambiance of the place feels very peaceful and I think of it as a sanctuary that I can return home to after a hectic day at work, helping me to remain sane in an insane world.

The trees help me to recharge my batteries and I think of them like a bridge to tap into an infinite source of energy. When I am stressed or anxious I only have to look at the trees to instantly feel calm and grounded. If I am feeling very depleted energetically I go outside and walk amongst them, listening to the rustle of their leaves in the wind and feeling their bark. The trees always feel strong and ‘real’, something tangible that I can see and touch, growing tall and straight and lush.

I have discovered that if I spend lots of time with the trees, walking, sitting looking at them, talking to them and touching them, my creativity is triggered I just have to go and write or paint or create something. For example my trees helped me to write and illustrate a fairy tale to welcome my grandchild into the world. I was inspired by the trees to paint them into the story with faces amongst their bark, revealing the spirits that I can sense reside within them.

I sometimes write poems and little stories about my trees. This is what I wrote about Angor, a large Marri that grows outside our second bedroom where I used to do my yoga every morning (before the new Grandchild took over the room : )):

‘I see him every morning,
I dip up and down in my salute to the sun
I see him each and every time
On the up
And then on the down.
That almost in the corner of my eye seeing,
he stands there solemnly
And I am instilled with confidence-
in time and place.
Sometimes I am sad.
I look at Angor and I giggle.
He looks very serious and wise
The delight of him flows through my body lifting my spirit
Chasing the sadness away…………….
I sense his rootedness
I too feel my roots
I become aware of the earth beneath my feet and the timeless beautiful nature of it all’.

I haven’t overtly used trees in my work with people. However I have had clients introduce trees into counselling sessions and I have supported and assisted them to develop the theme. The clients that I am thinking of clearly found their connection with trees healing and comforting.

The trees not only sustain my mind and spirit but they also keep my home warm in winter; their fallen braches and twigs providing logs and kindling. Their leaves too are an important element in our little circle of self-sufficiency. We use them to mulch the garden beds and to add to the compost bin.

If I am feeling frivolous I will get some fresh gum leaves put them in a glass bowl and sprinkle them with water. Their scent infuses the whole house with the aroma of fresh eucalyptus.

With Love

Ruth x

Sunday 5 February 2012

All Tea Towels Review

I love tea towels. When I started knitting again three years ago all my family and friends received a tea towel along with homemade knitted dishcloths and a piece of soap for Christmas. Every time we go on holiday a new tea towel appears in our kitchen as a friendly reminder of new experiences or I send them to far away friends who may never have a chance to visit the places I go.

“Did you like the tea towel I sent?” I asked a friend recently after I’d sent her some Irish linen tea towels with Celtic designs on them.

“You mean they were meant for drying dishes?” She looked at me with a horrified expression on her face. “Each one is so beautiful. I thought it was a wall hanging so I put them in my bedroom!”

When I received an unsolicited email several weeks ago from a new online tea towel company asking if I would like to review some tea towels and could choose two to keep afterwards I was very pleased.

The All Tea Towels site is well laid out with interesting designs which are easy to locate. I have to say it took be half an hour to decide which tea towels to request as samples because there were so many beautiful designs to choose from. I eventually chose Herbs and Spices and Herbs and Butterflies from the Fruit and Veg, Garden selection as my samples as I thought they would be good teaching aids for talks. There were several in the Flowers and Nature section I was very taken with and may return to buy later on in the year. I especially loved the Garden Roses and the British Wild Flowers.

The samples arrived the following day, which was very impressive. One tea towel was pure linen and the other a linen/cotton mix. Both were very good quality with vibrant colours and clear writing.

What pleased me the most was the included 100% Linen Tea Towel Care Guide recommending that I steep the linen tea towel in a bowl of mild detergent and rub it gently by hand before leaving it to steep for a further couple of hours to remove most of the natural starch in the fibres and improve absorbency. It also recommended drying dishes with the non-print side of the tea towel.

In all the years I have been buying tea towels I have never been offered a guide to their care, so I was very impressed this was included with the samples. I am very happy to recommend the All Tea Towel Company and hope others have the same happy experience that I have had.