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!