Nov 10 , 2014
Laurel Redmon, M.S., L.Ac. Dipl. Ac.,C.H
Trees, Earth’s largest plants, embody the wood element. Humans and trees have co-evolved to a degree that our lives seem unfathomable without their wealth of resources. Symbolically, trees have represented longevity, wisdom, fertility, and a strength that can yield without breaking. These universal themes apply to the elemental wu xing as well.
People residing in North America are privileged to enjoy plentiful woods despite almost complete logging of primeval old-growth forests on our continent. Presently, we have one of the most robust timber industries in the world. Medicinal and energetic applications of these grand plants is unfortunately overshadowed by a plethora of other uses deemed more utilitarian.
Engaging with trees in a way that can utilize their resources without killing them is a wonderful and rewarding pursuit. Most tree medicines can be harvested with minimal impact on the plant. Bark or inner bark should always be harvested in modest vertical strips, to avoid undue access for various pathogens. It is especially important not to cut completely around the plant’s circumference (girdling) because this leads to the tree’s death.
A multitude of woody plants have always been an important source of medicine: this fact spans history and geography. Why not “get back to our roots”—some of these American trees traveled here from Europe or Asia like many of us!
Littleleaf linden, basswood, American Linden
This is one of the most popular everyday tisanes (teas) in continental Europe, and deserves consideration as a major herb. Linden’s heart-shaped leaves are a sure signature to denote its helpfulness in both physiologic and emotional heart spheres. Its June blossoms exude an exquisite aroma, and honey from these inconspicuous flowers is world-renowned.
A tonic that can actually bolster heart Qi (cardiotonic), this herb has a reputation of helping heal broken hearts as well. Linden has soothing and demulcent properties that have been used historically to treat heart palpitations, “hysteria”, vomiting or indigestion. These indications link the heart and stomach organs in Oriental medicine and indicate the obvious link between mind and body disharmonies.
Linden’s soothing and demulcent properties are therapeutic to mucous membranes, aiding fevers, colds as well as a wide range of chronic gastrointestinal problems. An important nervine, tea of linden leaves and blossoms could help anxious, depressed or generally high-strung people. It is a wonderful herb for children too- either for colds and fever or an anxious personality.
White, Red, English or Tanner’s Oak
This ubiquitous and famed tree was considered sacred to the Greeks, Romans and Druids. Its majesty, great size and slow growth habit have contributed to this as well as the hardness and centuries-long endurance of its wood. Acorns have become a symbol of potential for great things burgeoning from a humble origin. Oak bark is the quintessential astringent of European herbalism, indicated primarily for hemorrhage, diarrhea and laxity or swelling of tissues.
Interestingly, Peter Holmes mentions its application as a tonic for spleenQi: healing prolapse of many types, tightening vessels and relieving exhaustion can be considered in this capacity. Oaks also yield a flower essence: this is a homeopathic-style remedy employed to encourage perseverance, as well as a state of calmness in the face of difficult or violent circumstances.
White and Red Pine
Pines are tall, straight resinous plants that retain their needles (leaves) but experience seasonal changes like everything else. The Chinese viewed these plants as a tonic for Qin Qi, or Chest Qi, particularly Lung Qi. Their resinous qualities give them special medicinal applications, especially in respiratory and dermatologic realms.
Pine pitch or resin contains antimicrobial properties resulting in a potent remedy for bacterial pneumonia or bronchitis. Pine pitch or tar has been employed for skin conditions of a chronic nature, like eczema, psoriasis and seborrheaic dermatitis. Tea from pine needles has been used historically to treat a wide range of kidney and bladder imbalances, as well as gout. With close family ties to some of the oldest living things on Earth (Loblolly Pine, Giant Sequoia), pines contain high levels of life-extending antioxidants.
Quaking or Bigleaf aspen, White poplar, Tulip tree
Aspens grow in groups or clones, which lets the gentle quaking of their leaves lull listeners into a peaceful state. Poplar buds contain high levels of salicylic acid as well as other pain-relieving and vulnerary (wound-healing), calming resins with similarly soothing effects. This tree’s wide range, aspirin-like pain relieving quality with a simultaneous ability to heal traumatic injury make it an important tree to identify and use in wilderness or survival situations.
Poplar bark shares an astringent quality with most other tree barks but is unique in strengthening the kidney and bladder meridians. This action lends it to treating “yin door” discharges such as leukorrhea and incontinence from Qi or Yang deficiency. This often occurs in older women who have borne several children or in men being treated for prostate diseases both before and after surgery.
Slippery elm, American elm
While American elms were once dominant in their shade-providing canopies in our cities, Dutch elm disease lead most to a sad death. Slippery elm has persisted in Eastern U.S. forests, and provides unique and pertinent healing qualities.
The mineral-rich, mucilaginous inner bark of this tree soothes and restores mucous membranes primarily in the gastrointestinal tract. Ulcers in both upper and lower gastrointestinal tract can mend with help from this Yin-enriching plant.
Famous for lubricating dry or inflamed throats and vocal chords, slippery elm can also aid diarrhea, constipation, and lung ailments.
Elm’s unique emmolient and antimicrobial properties distinguish it as a superior Yin tonic with an affinity for skin diseases as well as internal medicine. This herb was historically made into a gruel to assist convalescence from a wide array of chronic and acute disorders. Judicious use of this plant, including increased cultivation will assure its availability for future generations.
Oriental pharmacopeias indicate the breadth of application that trees can have. Almost every category of action is graced by an agent from a tree.
Morus alba, or white mulberry, considered a noxious weed in our country, supplies us with agents that relieve wind-cold (Sang Ye, mulberry leaf), clear hot phlegm (Sang Bai Pi, mulberry inner bark), banish wind-damp from the channels (Sang Zhi, mulberry twigs), and tonify the kidneys (Sang Shen, dried mulberry fruit). Such an unglamorous tree obviously yields a wealth of medicine. This evokes the mystery of yet undiscovered or forgotten uses for our other medicinal trees.
Holmes, Peter. The Energetics of Western Herbs: Treatment Strategies Integrating Western and Oriental Herbal Medicine. Volume I, Revised Third Edition. Snow Lotus Press, Boulder: 1997.
Paterson, Jacqueline Memory. Tree Wisdom: The Definitive Guidebook to the Myth, Folklore and Healing Power of Trees. Thorsons, San Francisco: 1996.
Elpel, Thomas J. Botany in a Day: Thomas J. Elpel’s Herbal Field Guide to Plant Families. Third Edition. Hollowtop Outdoor Primitive School (HOPS) Press, Pony: 1996.
Grieve, Mrs. M. A Modern Herbal: The Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folk-Lore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs & Trees with Their Modern Scientific Uses. Volume I, A-H. Dover Publications, Inc., New York: 1971.
Laurel studied Chinese Medicine, including Acupuncture and Herbology at The American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco. Her study of Herbalism was conducted over a period of sixteen years, four of which she spent living in Hong Kong, participating in the founding of Cheryl’s Herbs. She has studied with international leaders in Chinese and Western Herbalism, as well as aromatherapy and mycology. She has taught classes on subjects from cooking to pulse diagnosis, and written for and edited herb and aromatherapy books. She lives and works on an herb farm in the Baraboo Hills, and maintains a practice and herb shop in Madison. Her Red Sage Classical Chinese Herb Formulas are available exclusively through Cheryl's Herbs.