As winter turns to spring, I have been noticing the trees. Trees are optimists. Even as the leaves yellow in the fall, the trees are preparing for the spring, storing nutrients for the cold months ahead and growing small new leaf buds that wait for the sun to return and the sap to rise.
My eyes go up as I walk through the winter woods, scrutinizing bark and bud. Every year I have the immense pleasure of getting to know the trees, and their wisdom, a bit better.
Trees help prevent erosion and play a huge roll in climate support by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They produce oxygen, food and habitat for other living beings, as well as medicine. They are the cornerstone of many ecosystems.
Trees and shrubs offer all sorts of amazing medicines from every part of the plant, depending on the species. These range from seeds (including nuts, berries and fruits), sap, pollen, bark, twigs, leaves, flowers and buds. If we are going to harvest tree medicine, let us first think of the trees.
Most conifers are evergreens and have needles or scale-like leaves. They tend to live in less hospitable environments like mountains and other areas exposed to the elements. Conifers generally need less water, nutrients and light than deciduous trees. Their needles and sap are high in volatile oils, which can be antimicrobial, stimulating and warming, but also tend to be irritating to the kidneys, especially in large doses. Because they are evergreens, they generally store medicine in their bark and leaves more evenly throughout the seasons.
Deciduous trees have less durable leaves, which they drop during the fall. They tend to need more nutrients and grow by water, such as rivers, streams, lakes and seeps. If you see a stand of willow or cottonwood that isn’t by a river, you can bet they have found an underground water source. Deciduous trees are generally best harvested in the spring, summer, or fall depending on the part of the tree you are using.
Poplar bud oil, also called Balm of Gilead, is one of my favorite herbal remedies to make in the spring. The smell is balsamiferously delightful. I open the jar of oil and feel like I am down by the river in the middle of spring, fingers sticky with dark red resin from the leaf buds. Poplar is high in salicin, making it anti-inflammatory and analgesic (pain relieving). It is a rubefacient, meaning when applied topically it will draw blood to an area, thereby speeding healing and tissue repair. Its antimicrobial properties make poplar useful for preventing or treating infections of the skin, lungs and urinary tract. Poplar bud oil is useful for body aches and injuries such as sprains, strains, sore muscles, bruises, and headaches. It is helpful for dermatitis, eczema, wounds, and cuts. The oil or salve can be used as a chest rub for congestion, cough and respiratory infections.
Unlike many herbs, trees and shrubs can often be easily identified in the winter months. Here are some of the identifiers to look for:
How to Feel the Sap Rising
(a poem for summer)
Walk as slowly as possible,
all the while imagining
yourself moving through
pools of honey and dancing with
snails, turtles, and caterpillars.
Turn your body in a clockwise direction
to inspire your dreams to flow upward.
Imagine the trees are your own
wise ancestors offering their emerald
leaves to you as a sacred text.
Lay yourself down across earth
and stones. Feel the vibration of
dirt and moss, sparking a tiny
revolution in your heart
with their own great longing.
Close your eyes and forget this
border of skin. Imagine the
breeze blowing through your hair
is the breath of the forest and
your own breath joined, rising and
falling in ancient rhythms.
Open your eyes again and see it
is true, that there is no “me” and “tree”
but only One great pulsing of life,
one sap which nourishes and
enlivens all, one great nectar
bestowing trust and wonder.
Open your eyes and see that there
are no more words like beautiful,
and ugly, good and bad,
but only the shimmering presence of your
own attention to life.
Only one great miracle unfolding and
only one sacred word which is
—Christine Valters Paintner
Online Arbor Day resource for tree ID: https://www.arborday.org/trees/whattree/WhatTree.cfm?ItemID=E6
Winter Tree ID with limited species and some good pictures: http://www.sfi.mtu.edu/Urban_teachers/Winter%20Tree%20ID%20Clues.pdf
Dichotomous Tree Key: https://www.uwsp.edu/cnr-ap/leaf/Documents/LEAFWinterTreeIDKey.pdf
Bud and leaf scars: http://dept.ca.uky.edu/Morphology/Budleafscar.pdf
Tree and Shrub ID of Montana: http://www.msuextension.org/gallatin/documents/naturalresourcesdocuments/2B0323.pdf
© Elaine Sheff, Clinical Herbalist 2017
About the Author:
The author of several books on herbal medicine and healing, clinical herbalist Elaine Sheff has been passionate about sharing herbal knowledge for over 25 years. Her latest book is Naked: Botanical Recipes for Vibrant Skin and Healthy Hair. Elaine is the Co-Director of Green Path Herb School, located in Missoula, MT, where she strives to inspire and empower students and clients to remember their connection to the earth, the plants and their own healing process. As a certified Instructor of the Natural Family Planning and Fertility Awareness Methods, Elaine has helped many couples to avoid or achieve pregnancy naturally. An artist and writer, Elaine has written numerous articles about her family’s journey with epilepsy and a special needs child. You can often find her bent over an herb in her garden or marveling at small flowers in mountain meadows with her husband and sons.