Magazine article American Forests

Trees That Heal (and Don't)

Magazine article American Forests

Trees That Heal (and Don't)

Article excerpt


Of the 750 native and naturalized species cataloged in the Check List of United States Trees (1979), only a relative handful truly possess medicinal powers. But a longtime interest in the subject convinces me that at least 300 species have been credited with having therapeutic properties.

The ills of humans have long responded to treatment by poultices, physics, ointments, pain killers, and other remedies concocted from leaves, twigs, bark, fruit, and roots. But so-called kitchen or folk medicine is gradually disappearing into history. This is a pity, for its traditions-even its superstitions-are colorful and tell us much about our past that is not recorded in formal history textbooks.

Medication in colonial America was largely the function of women. They concocted the remedies and administered the simple cures. Basically, their treatments were analgesic (diminishing pain), cathartic (purgative), and vulnerary (healing wounds). Physicians were often remote and not readily available.

I have compiled a representative miscellar of the hundreds of arboreal panaceas that formerly were accepted with faith in their curative powers. Some have been proved to be nostrums of questionable worth. For example, the vapor of boiled bark and leaves of balsam fir were inhaled to treat snakebite, surely a bizarre antidote.

Others are were, respectable remedies. An example is the syrup of wild black cherry that a 70-year-old grandmother would use to doctor her 10-year-old grandson (me) with a cold and sore throat. The syrup soothed my pain and had a favorable taste.

The various species of pine (Pinus spp.) have long been believed to possess curative values. The pinon pine of the Southwest (P. edulis) was esteemed by Indians, who chewed the gum for sore throat. Heated resin brought boils to a head and healed insect bites, inflammation, and cuts.

Longleaf pine (P. palustris), a conifer of the deep South, produces turpentine oil that was employed in the treatment of colic. The gum has been efficacious in the doctoring of kidney ailments and tuberculosis, as practiced by the primitives. It was used in ointments and plasters.

Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) is abundant in the northern United States and Canada. A tincture of the fresh bark and young buds has a stimulating effect and is not to be confused with the hemlock that Socrates drank (a poison brewed from an herb). A strong decoction a concentration made by boiling) was at one time said to be useful as a diuretic and as a remedy to reduce gastric irritation and colic. An oil obtained by distillation of the leaves was applied as a liniment in croup and other respiratory disorders requiring a stimulant. The high tannin content of hemlock bark was a soothing cure for burns sores.

Northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis), also known as arborvitae, is a handsome tree. Early in the settlement of America, an ointment of fresh arborvitae leaves with bear's fat was considered a relief from rheumatism. A decoction was useful in the treatment of scurvy, the dreaded affliction of seamen on sailing ships. Donald Culross Peattie in A Natural History of Trees says it was "probably the first tree of North America (north of Mexico) to be introduced into cultivation in Europe."

The berries of the common juniper (Juniperus communis) are the fruits that flavor gin, which some people claim-with or without tongue in cheek-is a corrective for that run-down feeling. …

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