As any seasoned herbalist knows, the majority of wild edible and medicinal herbs are predominantly available during the growing seasons, spring through fall. With the arrival of fall, herbalists in temperate climate zones begin to collect and stock up on their most useful herbs before the onset of winter. Why? Because most plants are herbaceous; meaning everything above the soil withers away as the plants pull all remaining energy and nutrients into their roots before dormancy, a form of plant “hibernation” that renders the aerial parts inert. As the leaves and stems whither and fall, spotting and proper identification become much more difficult. Though the roots of many herbs can be used during this time, good luck finding them with no tops and snow everywhere! Even if you have their locations marked, you may not be able to dig their roots up if the ground is frozen.

Yet even in the “dead” of a harsh northern winter there are old earth plant medicines to be easily accessed if you don’t mind braving the cold to get them. Often overlooked or underrated, it’s the trees and woody shrubs that are the unsung heroes of the medicinal plant world. Not only do many provide food and/or medicine while actively growing, many still contain their medicines and nutrients in their stems or bark, as well as their roots. Like everything botanical, the key is in identification. Most herbalists are pretty adept at identifying a tree by its leaves. But if you are familiar with their growth habits and can identify them by their bark and/or buds, then you have access to a medicinal resource where many herbalist and naturalists fall short.

Let’s face it; sometimes sh*t happens. You never know the circumstances that might require you to refer back to old earth knowledge, and forage for medicinals off season. Perhaps you’re snowed in and can’t get to a doctor? Or perhaps your cat knocked over your entire shelf of glass apothecary jars, spilling and soiling what you’ve collected. Anything can happen. But if you know your trees and shrubs well enough, you’ll never be caught off guard and still be able to remedy many complaints or replenish your storage with a winter walk in the woods.

***Actually, I’d recommend a winter walk in the woods either way. There is a silent magic about the woods during winter…. a kind of calm, disarming serenity as nature slumbers with one eye open… listless, yet still aware of your presence. Try it sometime! ;-) ***

Since I’m from the eastern woodlands, I’ll select two of the most common from my turf as examples. To represent the trees, let’s talk about the ‘wild’ or ‘black” cherry. But first, let’s find it….

***Hover over the pictures with your mouse for more info.***

The wild cherry (Prunus serotina), is a tall (50-80ft), native, deciduous tree that’s most at home in the Eastern US, though it can be found in the Southwest as well. It’s not picky about where it grows, and can be found in dense woods, open fields, or along roadsides. It blooms late in the spring with fragrant, white flowers that hang in elongated clusters that give way to black berries in the summer. Because the berries are a favorite of birds, the seeds are carried and scattered over great distances, contributing to the trees extensive range. Fortunately for winter identification, this is an easy one because it has a very distinctive bark. A mature tree develops a very rough, scaly, dark grey bark that easily peels or flakes off. It looks like the trunk is covered in burnt cornflakes. Peeling the bark will reveal a rusty brown inner layer. Identifying younger specimens in the winter gets a little trickier though, since the bark resembles that of a birch for the first years of its life. As you can see from these pictures, there's quite a difference. This is where learning a tree's buds comes into play. While a tree’s bark often changes with time and maturity, its buds remain the same throughout its life (barring the inclusion of flower buds upon maturity of certain trees). In any case, there is no better way to ID a dormant tree than by the buds. In the case of black cherry, its buds resemble tiny pointed cones that are usually a reddish color and arranged in an “alternate” pattern. (A single bud on one side, followed by a bud further up the stem on the other side.)

Wild cherry is not only a very common and wide-spread tree, but it’s a very multipurpose one as well. Tiny black “cherries” that hang in long clusters, ripen in early to mid summer and are not only edible, but make great jams, preserves, or jellies. The wood, which is a striking reddish brown, is a very strong hardwood that makes beautiful furniture. It also adds a great smoky flavor to whatever you’re cooking on the grill.

As for its medicinal value, you’re mainly looking at making a decoction* (hot tea) or syrup from the inner bark (the young brown bark just under the outer grey bark), which contains a reasonably strong cough suppressant. Therefore it has relevance in the treatment of cold, flu, asthma, and bronchitis where coughing persists. It also contains substances that aid digestion. Keep in mind though, that this herb only suppresses the cough reflex itself and does not address the cause. All in all, this is a very handy tree to know inside and out. Wild cherry stands gray and tall, a stark contrast against the snow during cold and flu season!

***A decoction is a hot tea where the herb is brought to a boil in water before simmering, as opposed to normal tea preparation, where already heated water is poured over the herb. The extra heat of a decoction is required of some roots and barks to get them to release their medicines. ***

Representing today’s shrub category of helpful winter medicinals is the ‘black haw’ bush. Though not quite as multipurpose as the wild cherry, black haw has some great uses, especially for women.

Black haw (Viburnum prunifolium), another native of Northeastern woodlands, is a deciduous shrub that averages 6 – 15ft in height and spread. Flat-topped clusters of non-fragrant, white flowers appear in spring and develop into dark, blue-purple berries in autumn. Like wild cherries, black haw berries are also edible, making a great jam or jelly. Furthermore, these berry clusters hang on well into the colder months after all the leaves have fallen, making them an important identifier in the winter (If the birds have not finished them off). The stem/trunk tends to be short, thick and gnarled with arching branches. Black haw’s bark is not the strongest distinguishing factor, as it takes a trained eye to do so. However, it can be described as light-brown, and has a “blocky” texture like dinosaur or alligator skin. An important identifying factor as spring approaches is in the outermost dormant buds. Because the black haw blooms first thing in the spring, the dormant flower buds begin to swell, giving the outermost tips of the branches a bulbous shape. Also make note of the bud placement on the stems, which are arranged in an “opposite” pattern (Buds on opposite sides of the stem, yet at the same level.), ending in the swollen flower bud at the tip of the twig. Another distinguishing feature about black haw’s buds is that they are coated in a rust-colored, velvety protective covering.

Once again, the medicinal value of black haw is in its bark. A decoction of the inner bark reveals a powerful relaxant effect for the uterus and is very helpful in treating/relieving false labor pains. Black haw has been used successfully to prevent miscarriages as well, though it should not be used within the first 2 trimesters (Obviously, this is last resort medicine, and a professional herbalist’s advice should be sought before using this, or any herb).

Black haw’s most common use is in the relief of menstrual cramping. Part of its pain relieving effect can be attributed to its salicin content, the chemical in which aspirin is derived. Though the salicin content is much lower than that of willow bark, anyone allergic to aspirin should not take this herb. Black haw bark will also lower blood pressure. This is quite a useful shrub that’s still available to you even in the middle of winter, IF you know it well enough!

Even in the cold winter months, the forest can still be your herbal pharmacy. These are just a couple of useful and common examples. Other common trees/shrubs of the eastern US with medicinal properties include willow, slippery elm, sassafras, witch hazel, oak, poplar, elderberry, white pine, dogwood, silver birch, bearberry(Uva Ursi) and many more. Of course, you must do your research. Use extreme caution and be 100% sure of what you’re collecting, how to prepare it, and how much to use. There are many great herbal medicine books out there, as well as trained/certified herbalists and herbalism schools to learn from. If you’re learning on your own, research, research, research, and cross-reference before you experiment. Some medicinal plants are safer than others.

As for tree and shrub identification, try to get a field guide with excellent color pictures of all features, including bark, twigs, and buds. Most of them don’t seem to have good pictures of the dormant characteristics, but there are ways around that if you're willing to do a little field work. In the growing season while the trees and shrubs have their leaves, they'll be easier for a novice to identify. When you're in the field, carry a good camera with you and when you have found a tree of interest, take the time to examine and photograph its features, including the bark and buds (if your camera or phone can get close-ups). Then look them up and do additional research at home. To help commit them to memory, create a portfolio and even try marking certain trees to help you remember if you have to. Just make sure that whatever you’re marking them with is not going to harm or cut into the tree should you forget about it. If you've got the knack for it, drawing a tree's features is a great way to solidify them in your mind. Plant ID is all about details, and the more you can get your hands involved, the better you'll develop an eye for them.

You never know when old earth knowledge may be needed, but always be conscious and respectful of the woods even in winter when things seem lifeless. I assure you things are quite alive. Life is just beneath the surface of the bark or peeking out at you from the hole in that tree trunk over your head!

Journey well and in good health out there, friends! Stay warm!

With hunting season under way, perhaps it's a good time to reflect on some increasingly forgotten, old earth tracking and awareness skills.... skills that are in danger of extinction as the modern outdoorsman turns away from his or her senses and toward the comfort and ease of technology. While we're not here to rag on outdoor tech, we are here to keep the old earth knowledge and skills alive because you never know when you might have to fall back on them.

In the not too distant past, the average woodsman knew exactly what plants, animals, and resources resided on his/her land without the help of trail cameras or ATV's. In fact, I'd wager that the old earth woodsmen knew their environment far better than any modern one. The old earth woodsman HIKED the land. He didn't cruise by on four wheels. With the tunnel vision that comes with steering a vehicle, many of nature's clues and details are missed. Taking the time to slowly scout the land allows a chance for far more details of sight, sound, and smell to be taken in. A bigger picture of what is normal vs disturbed becomes more reliable, thus tipping you onto the activities of any given animal. Perhaps our increasing disconnection is a symptom of the hurried lifestyles of today, because knowing the land well enough to see what's normal and what's out of place requires time..... time spent in the field establishing a personal relationship with it. By only putting in the time during hunting season, the modern woodsman ceases to be a master of his domain and becomes a tourist in it.

Today's woodsman places far too much emphasis on equipment, and not enough time into skills.... except for shooting of course. But then, shooting and hunting is becoming more and more about equipment culture, and less about food culture and woodlore where it should be. Far too many woodsmen today would rather play "show and tell" with their gear than discuss the vitality of resources on their land. Not nearly enough thought to plant knowledge and foraging opportunities are given either. Old earth woodsmen regard plant knowledge as being of equal importance to animal knowledge. Why? It's because they are all connected to one another. The old earth mindset looks not only at the plant or animal of interest, but also at the neighboring links on the food chain as well. Knowing and understanding both plants and animals in your evironment allows you to establish a better grasp on the habits of both. It's rare to come across a modern woodsman that is equally excited about the big buck living on the property as he/she is about a huge patch of paw paws, or boneset.

With a wealth of old earth knowledge, the traditional woodsman could read the land and translate animal signs into a remarkably complete picture of its habits without ever laying eyes on the animal itself. Dumping a pile of corn on the ground and pointing a trail cam at it doesn't reveal much about an animal's habits or how many there are. So without the gimmicks, how is this information acquired? Here are a few tidbits to give you an idea of how deep this old earth rabbit hole goes......

Understanding animal sign is much more than studying tracks. Often times, tracks are not easily visible on hard rocky soil, or through spongy leaf litter. Old earth wisdom tells us to look for other signs that something lives in, or is active in the area. It takes a trained eye to spot the matted grass that outlines a rabbit run, or the entry/exit point that a muskrat frequents at the water's edge, or the patch of trillium beheaded by deer. And even though most people these days want nothing to do with any animal scat (poop) they happen across, to our ancestors it was time to stop and have a closer look..... a LOT closer.....

Animal scat contains a wealth of information, not just what kind of animal left it and where its been, but what it's been eating that might be of interest to us as well. Example: It's no secret that I LOVE paw paw fruit. So finding paw paw seeds in this coyote scat was exciting news.... There are paw paw trees in the area! Now I'm more inclined to examine the local terrain more closely to discover them. Animals don't digest fur very well, so examining a predator's scat can also tell me what prey animals I might find in the area as well. If I haven't lost you yet, this should blow your mind....

As you might imagine, animal scat can also indicate the health of the animal that left it. Sometimes you'll happen across scat with worms, or scat that's runny. A closer examination may reveal evidence of plants in the area that the animal was consuming to correct its malady. Carnivores tend not to eat salad, so when they do, there's usually a good reason for it. Our old earth ancestors learned everything they know from studying nature, and animals were (and are) some of our best teachers. Observing what sick animals would eat in the wild is how we humans began to understand the medicinal value of many plants. If that's not a good enough reason to take an interest in animal poo, I don't know what is!

Finding animal sign or learning your animal tracks is a lot easier when you know the hot spots as well. Our old earth ancestors could always gauge what was living in the area (and how many) by a visit to the nearest woodland meadow water hole or creek. The water's edge in a woodland meadow (a meadow surrounded by woods) is a great place to look for animal sign for several reasons. Meadows have amazing plant diversity, which in turn attracts diverse animal life that lives or feeds on and around those plants. This in turn attracts the predators which come out of the woods to hunt the herbivores, and all of these animals have to drink somewhere! It sounds like a recipe for chaos, but it all works out somehow. Striking a harmonious balance is what nature does best.

Reading the land to track animals is an old earth skill that is every bit as relevant today as it ever was. Awareness of your surrounding environment isn't just about knowing what you can harvest. It's about responsible resource management. Our old earth cultures were (and are) very careful to avoid overexploitation, which in turn assures the continued availability of any given plant or animal resource. The thing about modern tech is that it eventually fails with time and use, often at inopportune times, and it costs money. But skills only get stronger as you use them, and they cost nothing but time and practice to develop. So as woodsmen of today, shall we continue to put all our eggs in the tech basket and roll the dice? Or are we going to hold onto a more intimate connection to the land by keeping those old earth skills honed for the time when we may really need them?

“The more you know, the less you have to carry. The less you know, the more you have to carry.” ~ Mors Kochanski ~

*** Hover over the images with your mouse to see more info. ***

I wanted to share with you all today, an old earth story of how medicine came to be. It is a story told within the context of oral tradition, passed down from hundreds of years of Cherokee ancestry regarding healing with plants. Since then, we've seen a vast transformation in the field of medicine as we've largely moved away from medicinal plants and into synthesized pharmaceuticals. However, herbalism, the realm of healing with plants has never died out. It is still the prominent form of medicine over most of the world. It's merely been marginalized in western culture. Though fueled in part by the astronomical costs of modern healthcare and pharmaceuticals, herbal medicine has seen a resurgence with the holistic healing movement.... a valid and important movement I might add.

In fact, historically, the foundation of the pharmaceutical industry is thoroughly rooted in plant medicines. That is, the drug trade came to be, mostly from researchers isolating and then synthesizing artificial medicines from known herbal remedies in order to have cures that could be patented for profit. After all, you cannot patent life, or a naturally occurring resource. Or at least you couldn’t before gmo's came into the picture.

Today, western culture has mostly forgotten the true history of medicine. In fact, the disconnect has grown so wide that nine out of ten people think herbal medicine is akin to seeking answers from a crystal ball. Though, a little unbiased research certainly proves the validity and effectiveness of herbal medicine. So which way is better? Drugs certainly do the job quickly, appeasing our instant gratification culture, but are quite often SWIMMING with unintentional side effects leaving the body damaged or weakened in other ways. Herbal remedies are certainly gentler on the body as they are more easily metabolized with fewer side effects, but they often take more time to do the job (a fact that often fuels skepticism regarding herbal remedies). The subject is still hotly debated, for sure. “Westernized” medicine as it has come to be known is obviously important, but we must not forget the validity of the old ways or our plant kingdom relatives.

I first came across this story in my studies with indigenous healers on one of America’s many first nations' reservations, but came across it again in a great herbal remedy book “The Herbal Home Remedy Book” by Joyce A. Wardwell (click the image to read more)

This has become one of my favorite herbal books that I’ve come across over the years. I really appreciate it not just because it gives good herbal advice, but because the author takes a very down-to-earth approach. Highlighted with tribal tales and wonderful stories steeped within oral tradition, not only is this book informative, but it’s fun to read. The following story, at least for me, is a really touching reminder to be thankful for that which the Earth provides and to treat all beings, including plants, with respect. Ask permission before you take. Give thanks if you do. Never take more than you need….. The Rule of Thirds is a great way to respect our plant relatives as well as our balance with the surrounding environment. That is: Leave 1/3rd for the plant, 1/3rd for the animals, and only take 1/3rd for yourself. And if there is not enough to go around, don’t take it. I hope you enjoy this wonderful tale. If you do, and resonate with its message, I encourage you to pick up Joyce Wardwell’s book and read the other stories she provides; as well as her herbal knowledge. :)

Thanks for reading!

~Steve & Ashley~

How We Got Medicine – a Cherokee story retold by Joyce A. Wardwell

When the world was young, the animals called a council. In those days, the beasts, birds, fishes, and insects could all understand each other. They and the people lived together in peace and friendship. But as time went on, the people increased so rapidly that they began to slaughter the larger creatures for their flesh or skin, while the smaller creatures were crushed.

Otter, the diplomat, led the council and soon the animals agreed to go to war with the people. But how?

Then Coyote spoke up. “I can sneak into the people’s village and find out what their weaknesses and strengths are.” When he returned, he said, “What people have that we don’t is a bow and arrow. If we had those tools, I know we could win.”

Beaver remembered there was an old yew tree in a forest the people had burned down years ago. He went and cut it and shaped it into a bow. Reed said they used her dried stalks for arrow shafts. Wild Turkey gave three of her best tail feathers. Flint dashed himself against some rocks under a waterfall to make a good arrowhead. The bow and arrow were all ready.

“Hold on…something's missing,” said Snail, looking over the bow and arrow thoroughly. “This won’t work.” Then Coyote remembered about the bow string…he had seen the people twirl animal intestines to make the string. Well, you can imagine no one wanted to give up his intestines to make a string!

Then Old Cat stepped forward. She said, “I have no teeth and can’t hunt anymore. I haven’t eaten for a longtime, and I’m tired. You can use my gut to help make the bow. I want to help, and it’s really all I can do.” Then she lay down and died. The animals thanked her for her gift. Her intestines made a strong and taut bowstring. But no one could pull the string.

You see, all the animals walked on four legs, or six, or had wings.

Suddenly Bear drew himself upright. “See, I can stand like man. Give me time to practice. I’ll work the bow.” A week went by and Bear returned to the council. He said, “The bow works fine, but my claws keep getting in the way. I know if we could just cut them off somehow, then I could aim the arrow and kill the people.”

“No, Bear!” Otter said. “If we cut off your claws, then you’re no longer Bear. You can’t climb a tree, fish, or grub for insects. You’ll be no better than the people.” And with that the council gave up, and was about to disband, when a small voice came out of the air.

“Ho! We can help. We can kill all the people!”

“Who are you? Where are you?”

“Oh, you can’t see us. We are the invisible ones. We are disease. And we surely can kill all of the people. But first everyone must agree.”

One by one all the beasts, all the fliers, the crawlers, the swimmers, the divers, all agreed to let disease kill the people. But when the plants were asked, they paused: “Wait. We’ve never really paid much attention to people. Let us watch them for a whole cycle of seasons. Come back in a year. Then we’ll give you our answer.”

A year passed. The council was called and the plants said, ” Wait. We have watched the people, and you know, in a year’s time, their babies can’t speak for themselves yet. Come back in twenty years when they have grown to adults. Then we’ll give you our answer.”

Twenty years passed. The council was called and the plants said, “Wait. We have watched the people, and you know, in twenty years’ time their hearts are still young. Come back in a hundred years when they have lived a whole lifetime. Then we’ll give you an answer.” The animals grumbled. A hundred years from now, would there even be any animals left? But they had no choice.

A hundred years passed. The council was called and the animals said, “No more delays. You must give your answer now, plants. Do we let disease got to war with the people or not?”

“Yes, go ahead,” said the plants. “Do your worst. Give the people disease. You are right-the people destroy too much. We won’t stop you.”

“But,” said the plants, “we did notice some people who are not like the rest. They show respect. They ask first, and they are careful. So we will help them. Anytime a person comes and asks us for help in a proper way, we will help.”

And that is how we got medicine.

*This story belongs to the Cherokee people. It was first recorded by James Mooney in 1890 in The Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees.


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© 2016 by Old Earth Project

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