Harvest Medicinal Trees in Your Backyard

Harvest Medicinal Trees in Your Backyard


As a child, I spent many afternoons scaling the white pines my father had planted in our backyard. Decades later, when I bought my first home, my dad set to planting trees right away, including a weeping willow by the creek in our front yard. The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree: My daughter spent her youngest years learning to climb in the low branches of that willow. Those white pines and that willow are now towering giants. Watching a tiny sapling grow into a massive being is deeply satisfying.

When we think of healing plants, our minds gravitate toward the plants growing at our feet – the garden herbs, weeds, and woodland plants of the forest floor – but there’s a veritable treasure trove of healing remedies towering above. Humans have been harvesting and using medicine from trees for millennia, and medicinal trees and shrubs probably already grow near where you live. Perhaps you’re already able to identify the trees in your midst, and you merely need to learn their medicinal qualities and how to harvest them.

With a pruning saw, harvest limbs that are 2 to 3 inches in diameter

Harvesting Tree Medicine

Ethically gathering medicine from trees has its advantages – with their larger stature, it’s easier to collect a sizable amount of medicine from trees without hurting them. Be sure you have permission or the legal right to harvest. Avoid roadways, railways, power lines, and any other areas that may have been sprayed with herbicide. Only harvest from tree species that are both locally abundant and widely distributed. Be 100 percent sure of your identification before harvesting! There are poisonous shrubs and trees. Two examples are yew (Taxus spp.) and oleander (Nerium oleander). Be sure to use scientific names, as common names can be misleading. For example, desert willow (Chilopsis spp.) is not a true willow (Salix spp.) – the two trees are unrelated and possess different medicinal uses.

Saw off side branches into workable sections

Most folks think the medicinal part of trees is the bark. But woody botanicals have a diversity of medicinal parts, including flowers, inner bark, fruits, leaves, roots, resin, and root bark. You have to learn which parts are used for food or medicine from any given tree species. Harvest resin by looking for trees that have already released it, and then scraping it from the trunk right into little jars. Resin is much easier to gather after it’s begun to harden. Gathering flowers, leaves, and fruit from trees is pretty straightforward as long as you’re leaving more than half the medicine behind so the plant can still reproduce or photosynthesize, and local wildlife can share in the bounty.

Harvesting pine resin from a tree's that already been damaged

Harvest resin by looking for trees that have already released it, and then scraping it from the trunk right into little jars

Harvesting and peeling bark, on the other hand, may be new for some of you. Three pieces of information are crucial for harvesting bark.

First, spring and early summer are the best times to harvest bark, because it’ll peel more easily from the plant’s woody portions. Second, woody plants have two layers of bark, and it’s the inner bark you’re after. The outer bark is void of medicine or flavor. Third, girdling a tree – removing all the bark from around its trunk – will kill it.

A thin strip of outer bark is peeled back, revealing the medicinal inner bark

A thin strip of outer bark is peeled back, revealing the medicinal inner bark

You can sustainably harvest bark through a few methods. The simplest approach is to look for fallen limbs after a storm, making sure they’re free of disease by inspecting the leaves and twigs. You can also harvest limbs 2 to 3 inches in diameter from larger trees using a pruning saw, and subsequently peel off the bark. Harvesting small branches is less harmful to the tree than peeling bark from the trunk. Wounded trees are more vulnerable to disease.

man holding sticks

For a simple and less damaging method of harvesting, gather fallen limbs from the forest floor

 

Once you harvest the limb, scrape off any lichens from the bark and remove dead portions. Peel off the leaves. Using pruners, cut off all the twigs under 1⁄2 inch and set them aside. Saw off the remaining side branches. Begin to harvest bark by placing a clean blanket or tarp on the ground to catch the peels. With the branch positioned upright on the blanket, take a compact, sharp knife, and peel the bark in long strips, slicing away from your body.

 

 

Scuff off any lichens, loose bark, and debris from outer bark.Remove smaller twigs with pruners and strip away leaves.

Scuff off any lichens, loose bark, and debris from outer bark. Remove smaller twigs with pruners and strip away leaves.

You’ll know when you’ve reached the inert inner portion of the wood, as it’ll be a lighter color and different texture than the layers of bark. Wood isn’t used for medicine, but it’s fine if you end up with a little bit of it in your bark peelings.

The thin, dark outer bark and inner white wood lack medicinal properties, but are harmless.

 

Look closely at the bark peelings. The outer bark will be like a thin, darker skin, and the inner bark will be moister, thicker, and lighter in color. There’s no need to separate the inner bark from the outer bark when harvesting from a limb of this size, because the outer bark is so thin. Take up your bark shavings and cut them into 1-inch pieces using pruners. The bark can then be dried in loose baskets or on screens, or it can be made into medicine right away.

The small twigs you set aside can also be used, but they’ll be weaker medicine compared with the bark. Cut the twigs into smaller pieces with pruners, as they’re too fiddly to peel, and process them like you did the bark.

Peeling bark from large trees is another matter. Enterprising foragers work with their local sawmills, gaining permission to harvest bark from recently felled trees. If you’ll be harvesting trees from your land for lumber or firewood, you’ll need to use a drawknife to peel the bark. Remove and discard the outer bark first, before peeling and saving the inner medicinal bark.

With a compact, sharp knife, peel the bark in long strips, slicing away from your body. Cut the bark strips into smaller pieces with pruners or heavy-duty kitchen shears

Peeled and processed bark, ready for medicine making or drying.

Peeled and processed bark, ready for medicine making or drying





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