Take Some Willow Bark and Call Me in The Morning…

Have you ever wondered how people centuries ago made due without a neighborhood CVS or other readily available source of medicine? We take for granted the fact that we can just run out and get some aspirin or Tylenol and our aches and pains will magically disappear. But for centuries society needed to use natural products to deal with the many  problems of everyday life. One of the most often used products was the plant life of the area. Listed below are several common tree species and some of their common medicinal uses; I picked species that are native to our area and can readily be found in the Northeast – This discussion of the fascinating blend of medicine and dendrology is for information purposes only. Please consult a medical specialist for any specific medical advice or medical situation.


The major chemical in this tree, salicin, is found in the bark. When salicin is in the body it converts to salicylic acid, a common ingredient of aspirin. A preparation of Aspen was often used for headaches and fevers. We still use aspirin today for everyday aches and pains.


This species also contains salicin. All of the members of the family Salicaceae, of which the willows and poplars are members, get their family name from this chemical.


This species was used extensively by both doctors and Indian medicine men. The inner bark was used as a mild cathartic (cathartics can be used as a form of gastrointestinal decontamination following poisoning via ingestion). The most common medicinal preparation was used for upset stomach, digestive disorders and as a mild laxative. Several Indian tribes also used it as a dressing for wounds. It is often described as similar to rhubarb.


Also a member of the walnut family, the inner bark of this species has laxative properties similar to Butternut. The leaves also had medicinal properties. It was used to help with eczema and herpes.


Slippery Elm is a very interesting tree – almost all parts of this tree were utilized by both Indians or 19th century medicine men. Even today, you can find slippery elm formulas in health food stores. The bark of this tree provided a healing salve considered to be among the best possible treatments for wounds, bruises, sore and burns. This bark preparation was so exceptional that it proved not only soothing to the user but also reduced pain and inflammation.


This was one of the most medicinally important Oaks. Tannin is found in both the bark and acorns of this tree. The tannin has very powerful antiseptic and astringent properties.


Eastern Hophornbeam is well known for it’s durable wood that is often used to make mallets and handles, but to the early pioneers this tree was also medicinally important. The primary use of hophornbeam was as a cough syrup.


Medicinally, this was one of the most important trees to the Indians. They made use of the needles, buds, bark, cones, roots and pitch. This species contains vitamin C and is used in the prevention of scurvy. It contains 5 times the vitamin C as an equal weight of lemons and is also rich in vitamin A. smoke from burning needle (do not try this at home) was inhaled as a cure for backache. The cones and buds were used by the Indians in the treatment of coughs.

If you have any questions about how to identify any of these species please send me an email or post in the comments. (Cvarb@me.com)

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