Foraging: Sweet Chestnuts (Castanea sativa)

Foraging: Sweet Chestnuts (Castanea sativa)

Nothing quite conjures up the magical atmosphere of autumn as the warm, sweet scent of roasted chestnuts. It immediately invokes images of bonfires and harvest feasts. When the days are getting shorter and there is that crisp little nip in the air, when the leaves turn bright in color and spread a thick carpet on the ground, when the earth smells musky and moist from the rain, the chestnut season is upon us.

Description

Sweet Chestnuts, which must not be confused with Horse Chestnuts, belong to the family of the Fagaceae, the Beech-Family, which comprises several genera and numerous species of trees with edible nuts, such as acorns and beechnuts.

They are at home in the temperate zone and shun excessively cold and wet regions. In Europe, their range extends as far north as southern England, but they are most comfortable in a Mediterranean climate, where they form quite extensive natural stands.

The North American native species (Castanea dentata) has largely been replaced by the Chinese species, which was imported in the early 1900s. Unfortunately, the imported trees were infected with a virulent blight that spread rampantly and wiped out almost the entire population of native Chestnut trees.

Sweet Chestnuts grow into beautiful tall trees, with elegant large, but slender leaves, with serrated margins. The leaves develop before the flowers appear in June. They form long golden-yellow catkins reminiscent of arboreal fireworks. The nuts develop in early autumn. They are protected by a very prickly outer shell (cortex). When the cortex splits it reveals two or three nutlets that are shaped like pixie-hats, with a pointed tip and tiny tuft of white hair. In natural stands, only one of the nuts develops fully.

Sweet Chestnut Flowers

Commercial Chestnuts are derived from a cultivated variety, in which the underdeveloped nutlets are missing altogether. The bulk of the commercial crop is grown in Italy, Spain, Portugal, and France, where chestnuts still play an important part in the traditional cuisine.

Foraging

If you are lucky enough to have a Chestnut tree in your neighborhood, the temptation to collect the very first nuts that fall to the ground in September is almost irresistible. But the early nuts are not yet fully ripe and are usually not worth the bother. It is better to wait for another couple of weeks. By October, the nuts are plump. The outer, bristly coats should be cracked open. Now it’s time to get busy, otherwise, the forest folk, the squirrels, and wild boar will beat you to it. The shells are really prickly, so thick rubber gloves come in handy. The easiest way to remove the cortex is by gently stepping on the nuts and rolling them around on the ground underfoot until the outer shell comes off by itself. Check the nuts for little holes. That would indicate that the worms are already feasting. Worms tend to be more of a problem after heavy rains or when the nuts have been lying on the ground for too long.

The most tedious part of the Chestnut harvest is not the collection, but the shelling. A fibrous membrane adheres to each nutlet beneath the shell. It clings to every crevice and cleft.

peeled chestnuts

There are several methods to remove this membrane, and the method of choice depends on how you intend to use the nuts.

But, regardless, the first step is to remove the outer husk. Cut a little cross on the bottom surface (of each nut. Without this precaution, they explode violently when being roasted. But even if you boil them, cutting the outer shell makes the process of shelling them and removing the membrane much easier.

To preserve Chestnuts for long-term storage you still need to shell them and to remove the inner membrane. Afterward, you can dry them quickly in the oven or dehydrator, to avoid mold. Once dehydrated, they need to be soaked in water prior to use. In France, a traditional method of curing the nuts was to spread them on the floor of a harvest hut and to smoke them for a period of time. Smoked nuts could be stored for up to a year.

Pan/Oven Method

Cut a cross on the flat side of each nut and place them in a heavy skillet. Add about half a teaspoon of butter per cup of chestnuts and roast at medium heat until the butter is melted. Put the pan in the oven at 475°F. After 10 – 15 minutes, remove the pan from the oven and take off the shells with a small sharp paring knife. It is a tedious process, but if done correctly, the inner skins will adhere to the outer shells, thus making the shelling process much easier.

Chestnuts are a wonderful, very nutritious wild food. Unlike most nuts, they are rich in both carbohydrates and proteins but contain very little fat and no cholesterol. This distinct composition has earned them their nicknames ‘l’arbre a pain’ in French, meaning ‘bread tree’ or the English equivalent, ‘the grain that grows on trees’. Their flavor and consistency are unique in that it lends itself very well to both sweet and savory dishes. A favorite is chestnut stuffing, but they can also be used in soups, nut loaves, cookies or desserts, or they can be ground into nut flour.

Recipes

 

Roasted Chestnuts

A simple and delicious way to enjoy Chestnuts is to simply roast them, either in the oven or on an open fire. In southern Europe, special chestnut roasting pans are used for this purpose, though they are not strictly necessary. They are basically frying pans that have holes on the bottom. But it is just as simple to roast the chestnuts in a regular pan. The important thing to remember is to make an incision on the bottom of each nut so that they don’t explode. Place in a pan and roast over a medium flame for about 15 min. The flavor is completely transformed by the process. Even if you intend to use them for other dishes, such as soups or stuffing, roasting them prior to any further processing is highly recommended. They also taste great straight from the pan or can be served with blue cheese and wine.

sweet chestnut roasting

Stuffing

Minced chestnuts are excellent as stuffing for birds, such as pheasants or goose. Roast onions and garlic, add boiled and minced chestnuts and rice along with chopped celery sticks and apples. Stir an egg into the mixture and season to taste, e.g. salt, thyme, sage, rosemary, mugwort. Add wholemeal flour, oats or wholemeal breadcrumbs until the mixture has the right consistency, neither too dry, nor too wet. Judge the amounts by the size of the bird.

Chestnut Loaf

The above-described stuffing can also be adjusted to make a nice chestnut loaf. The chestnuts can be mixed with other nuts, e.g. peanuts or walnuts. Mix roughly half and half nuts and rice, add grated or finely chopped vegetables, e.g. zucchinis, mushrooms, onions, and garlic either sautéed or raw, add an egg and flour until everything sticks together nicely. Season to taste. Fresh herbs such as thyme, rosemary, and a touch of sage are nice. Grease a bread pan and fill with the mixtures. Bake in the oven at about 375 degrees until a crust forms on the top and the dough no longer sticks when pricked with a wooden stick. Serve with steamed vegetables and mushroom sauce.

Glazed Chestnuts And Winter Vegetables

  • 2 large kumera (sweet potato)
  • 4 large parsnips
  • 4 small red onions, quartered
  • 12 whole garlic cloves, skin on
  • 1 tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves
  • 1 ½ cups peeled/blanched chestnuts
  • ½ cup maple syrup
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • salt, freshly ground black pepper

Cut kumara into large chunks. Cut parsnip in half lengthwise. Combine all ingredients in a baking dish; bake, uncovered in a hot oven (220°C) about 45 minutes or until the vegetables are tender and browned lightly. Turn gently halfway through cooking. Serves 6 to 8.

Curried Chestnut Soup

  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 2 carrots, thinly sliced
  • 1 zucchini, chopped
  • 1 apple, grated
  • 1 cup mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 cup roasted chestnuts, minced
  • vegetable seasoning
  • ½ pint milk
  • ½ vegetable stock
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • Curry powder
  • Pinch cinnamon
  • Chilies to taste

Sauté the onions and carrots until the onions are soft. Add zucchini and apple. Continue to sauté and stir. Add mushrooms. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of vegetable seasoning and a teaspoon of curry powder and a pinch of cinnamon into the vegetables and continue to stir. Add one pint of water. Bring to the boil and add the roasted and minced chestnuts. Stir continuously so as to avoid any of the ingredients sticking to the bottom. Press the garlic into the soup. Add 1/2 pint of vegetable stock and 1/2 pint of milk and simmer until all the vegetables are cooked. Season to taste with extra salt, coriander, cumin, and chilies. Adjust liquid level so the soup is creamy but not too thick. A tiny touch of honey can blend the flavors perfectly.

Baked Apples With Chestnut Stuffing

Roast the chestnuts as described above, shell and mince. Mix with raisins, sultanas, oats, and honey. Core the apples and fill the hole with the stuffing. Place on a cookie sheet and bake in the oven until the apples are soft. Serve with vanilla ice cream.

Chocolate Chestnut Mousse

Chestnuts combined with cocoa and amaretto make a perfect ending for a festive dinner.

  • 2 pounds of Chestnuts, peeled and cooked
  • 12 Tbs. of sugar or honey or to taste
  • 4 Tbs. of cocoa
  • 4 Tbs. of amaretto
  • 16 ounces whipping cream

Shell and peel chestnuts as described above. Boil until tender. Drain and add sugar or honey, cocoa, and Amaretto. Blend in a food processor until smooth. Beat whipping cream until stiff. Fold into the chestnut puree. Divide among dessert glasses. Chill. Decorate with whipped cream and chocolate shavings. Serves 10.

The mousse can also be used as a cake filling. Beware: it is very rich!

Sweet Chestnut-Cocoa Mousse

All about the Elder-tree – its myths, magic, and medicine

All about the Elder-tree – its myths, magic, and medicine

The Elder tree – medicine cabinet of the country people

This much loved, bushy tree is a common sight throughout Britain (especially in southern England) as well as in most parts of central and southern Europe. Its multiple stems branch frequently, giving it a somewhat sprawling appearance. The light grey bark is fissured and covered with many lenticels (breathing pores). The branches are bendy and contain a core of very light, almost cork-like pith, which can easily be removed. Generations of children have taken advantage of this property, making pipes and pop-guns from hollowed-out twigs. The pinnate leaves have opposite, ovate leaflets with serrated margins and one larger terminal leaflet. The flowers appear in May, forming big umbel-shaped bunches of tiny 5-petaled, cream-colored star-shaped flowers. They exude a heavy, sweet, slightly intoxicating scent, especially at dusk. By the end of the summer they develop into drooping bunches of small purple-black berries that are extremely popular with the birds.

HABITAT:

As a nitrogen loving plant Elder commonly grows near farms and homesteads and thrives near organic waste disposal sites. Elder is often grown as a hedgerow bush, since it takes very fast, bends into shape easily and grows quite profusely, hence its reputation as an ‘instant hedge’. It is not fussy about soil type or pH level and will grow wherever it gets enough light.

HISTORY, MYTHOLOGY, AND FOLKLORE

SYNONYMS:

Pipe tree, Ellhorn, Black Elder, Bore Tree, Bour Tree, Eller, Holler, Hylder, Hylantree, Holunder (German), Sureau (French)

The name ‘Elder’ probably comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘Aeld’, for ‘fire’, which starts to make sense when we look at another old name for Elder, ‘Ellhorn’. This name derives from the use of hollowed Elder branches as blow furnaces.

Old names, like Holler, Hylder, Hyllantree, and the German word ‘Holunder’ all refer to an ancient vegetation Goddess known in Denmark as ‘Hylde Moer’. In the old days, Elder was considered sacred to this Goddess. Elders were often thought a little spooky. They were believed to be inhabited by a ‘tree dryad’, a kind of tree spirit that represents the soul of the tree, or even an aspect of the Goddess herself. If treated well and respectfully the dryad appeared as a most benevolent spirit that blesses and protects those who care for it. Elders often grow close to human habitations and since they never get struck by lightning, they were thought to protect the homestead against this danger as well. There has long been a widespread taboo against cutting down Elder trees or burning any of their wood. It was thought that the dryad would take revenge and punish the offender with bad luck – or, toothache (Romania). According to ancient folk beliefs, toothaches are seen as ‘supernatural’ and understood as a form of divine punishment. The only legitimate reason for cutting down an Elder tree or to take any part of it, was to use it for medicine, or as a protective charm. To this end, the dryad was asked reverently and asked for permission.

With the head bared and arms folded, the following was recited:

‘Lady Ellhorn, give me some of thy wood, and I will give thee some of mine when it grows in the forest.’

With the rise of Christianity and the subsequent persecution of any form of tree worship the sacred Elder tree became a witches tree and the old stories were reframed to suit the narrative of the new religion. In Christian mythology, Elder was portrayed as a tree of sorrow, because Judas was said to have hung himself from the branches of an Elder tree and this is supposed to be the reason for its stooped appearance and bendy branches: never again should anyone commit suicide with the help of an Elder tree. And to make matters worse, the cross upon which the Savior was crucified was said to have been fashioned from Elder wood. Such a disgrace the Elder tree could not bear and so it has never again been able to grow upright and tall as other trees do.

Nevertheless, some of the older beliefs have lived on and country folk continued to use Elder for protection of house and barn. They pinned the leaves above the doors to ward off evil witches, daemons, and other nefarious influences.

During the Middle Ages such folk magic was practiced all over Europe and many curious customs evolved as pre-Christian and Christian believes got muddled and merged. But without the proper context of the ancient beliefs they turned into superstitions, For example, it was thought that witches and sorcerers could be revealed if one was to cut the inner pith of the twigs to make flat disks. These were dipped in lamp oil and set alight to float them in a glass of water. However, the magic trick only worked on Christmas Eve.

Conversely, one could also use the Elder to enlist the devil for one’s own purposes. On the January 6th (Bertha Night), when the devil is said to go about ‘with special virulence’, one could try to obtain some of his ‘Mystic Fernseed’, which was believed transfer the strength of 30 or 40 men, to the keeper, protect furniture from woodworm, repel snakes and mosquitoes and cure toothaches. To obtain this magic substance, one must cast a magic circle for protection, the boundary of which one must not be broken under any circumstances. Further protection was offered by carrying some Elderberries that had been gathered on St. John’s night. But since Elderberries are not ripe at this time of the year this practice appears a little spurious. A more likely version of this ritual recommends casting the circle with a magic wand made of Elder wood.

Elderflowers

Elderflowers

Note: In the old religion the 12 nights of Christmas were regarded as the turning point of the year when the battle between light and darkness culminates and the Sun is reborn. They correspond to the 12 days of midsummer, at the summer solstice, which in the Christian calendar is celebrated on St John’s Day. These periods were the most important time in the ancient pre-Christian ritual calendar. It was said that at these times the veils between the worlds are thin and spirits come and go easily between the spheres of existence. It is for this reason that superstitious practices involving clairvoyance and fortune-telling were often practiced at these times.

Elder’s reputation to offer protection against evil spirits seems to be ubiquitous and can be found from Russia to Romania and from Sicily to Scotland. A less common custom comes from Serbia, where Elder twigs used during nuptial rites, were believed to bestow good luck to the newly-weds. More recently, in Victorian Britain, it was thought that a couple who shared a glass of Elder-infused Ale would marry within a year.

The ancient vegetation Goddess presided over the cycle of life, from the cradle to the grave. However, she was also believed to bestow the power of regeneration and ultimately, of rebirth. Her rhythms were reflected in the waxing and waning of the moon and the cycles of the seasons. As above, so below, as within, so without. Naturally, her rhythms were also applied to the human life-span. Thus, the Goddess of life is also the Goddess of the Underworld, who protects and regenerates the souls of the departed. At funerals, green Elder twigs were often placed into the coffin for protection on the journey to the Otherworld. Christian and pre-Christian beliefs often merged into compounded folk customs with elements of both traditions. In Tyrol for example, Elders were planted on graves and trimmed into the shape of a cross. When the tree starts to flower, the soul was believed to be happy.

An interesting custom from Romania illustrates the Goddess’s power of regeneration. At Easter it was customary to sacrifice a pig. The pig’s inedible remains were given a ceremonial burial and an Elder-tree was believed to sprout from its grave in the following year. Easter/ Spring Equinox is the time of regeneration, the time when the Earth-Goddess awakens the land and blesses the people with her abundant gifts. Both pigs (as an emblem of self-sacrificing motherhood and the principle of nurture) and Elder trees were deemed sacred to this ancient Goddess on account of their obvious attributes of abundance and fertility.

In Denmark, Hylde-Moer, as the Goddess was known, presided over the fairy realm. Fairies are creatures of the Otherworld, but from time to time, especially at the summer solstice, they venture into our world. To watch them on their way to their Midsummer night’s feast, one could hide out in a grove of Elder trees. (Drinking ample quantities of freshly made Elderflower champagne whilst hiding in the bushes might enhance the experience).

Elderberries

The Elder tree has often been described as the medicine chest of the country folk. But even today modern herbalists employ many of its medicinal uses. In 1644 a book dedicated entirely to the virtues of the Elder was translated from Latin to English: on 230 pages the author sings its praises. The book was so popular that it ran through several editions in both its English and Latin versions. According to the author, every single part of the plant was deemed medicinally useful. It even references an edible fungus known as ‘Judas Ear’ (alluding to the above-mentioned myth), which grows on Elder trees. It should come as no surprise that its medicinal powers were said to be effective for quinsy, sore throat, and strangulation (!).

Judas-Ear

Judas-Ear fungus

 

The elder itself was considered a panacea capable to relieve almost any ailment, ‘from toothache to the plague’. It seems like a whole apothecary could be stocked solely from the many preparations that could be produced from its various parts: ‘a rob or syrup, a tincture, a compound mixture, an oil, or ointment, a distillation, and a distilled flower water, a liniment, an extract, a salt, or a conserve, a vinegar, an oxymel, a sugar, a decoction, a bath additive, a cataplasm, and a powder’, made from one, several, or all parts of the plant. However, in the old days, it wasn’t just the biochemical activity that was considered medicinally active. The plant’s subtle energy also played an important role, especially in the many folk healing practices that were based on sympathetic magic.

Rheumatism, for example, could be treated with a charm or amulet that was made by tying several knots into a young Elder-twig. This charm had to be kept close to the body to unfold its power. Elder was also believed to cure warts: the wart was to be rubbed with a freshly cut twig, which was not carelessly discarded, but buried in mud, where it was left to rot. Other, more forms of ‘transfer magic’ were also common. The imagination at the root of such practices was that trees in particular are much stronger and resistant than the feeble human body. They were thought capable of absorbing and thereby to neutralize the evil energies that were thought responsible for the disease. Many trees were used similarly, depending on the symptoms of the disease and the availability of various species of trees.

CONTEMPORARY MEDICINAL USES

Elderflowers and berries are still used modern herbal medicine but since heroic medicine went out of fashion, the use of other parts, such as the leaves or inner bark, has been discontinued.

PARTS USED:

Flowersdried or fresh

Berries: best preserved as cordial, syrup or wine

CAUTION:

The fresh roots of the American Elder (Sambucus canadensis), which closely resembles Sambucus nigra, are extremely poisonous and can cause death if ingested.

Native Americans value a close relative of Sambucus nigra known as ‘American Elder’ (Sambucus canadensis), with very similar medicinal properties. Many of its reported uses closely resemble those of S. nigra in the Old World.

elder flower

FLOWERS

HARVEST TIMES: Early summer

CONSTITUENTS: Triterpenes, fixed oil containing free acids, alkenes, flavonoids

ACTIONS: Diaphoretic, diuretic, anti-inflammatory, expectorant

INDICATIONS:

Elderflowers have long been used as a treatment for various inflammatory and congestive conditions of the respiratory system, especially when these are accompanied by fever. An infusion is given for cough, colds and flu, asthma, and hay-fever. The diaphoretic action helps to reduce the fever, which makes it useful in the treatment of infectious diseases such as measles, and scarlet fever. Externally, an infusion of Elder-flowers can be added to the bath-water for a wonderfully refreshing effect, to soothe irritable nerves, and to relieve itchy skin. Cooled, the infusion can be used as an eyewash for sore, itchy and inflamed eyes. Earache may be relieved by means of a poultice made from the flowers. For this purpose a small linen bag is filled with the flowers, dipped in hot water, and squeezed to press out any excess liquid before it is applied to the aching ear.

elderberries

BERRIES

HARVEST TIMES: late summer, early autumn

CONSTITUENTS: Viburnic acid, odorous oil, tyrosin, inverted sugar, tannin, vitamin C and P and B2

ACTIONS: Aperient, diuretic, source of nutrients and vitamins

INDICATIONS:

The berries are rich in vitamins and minerals and are best used as a tonic to ward off winter ailments, which boost the immune system. Vitamin B2  in particular is indicated as effective in the treatment of pneumonia. Elderberries are a valuable alterative remedy that can be used to combat rheumatic conditions. They also soothe sore nerves and help to improve poor circulation.

GENERAL USES

Hedging:

Elder is a familiar hedge plant. The bendy branches can easily be trimmed and laid, thus creating effective protection against wind and erosion.  Such a hedge also makes a wonderful wildlife habitat, especially for birds, who love the berries. Country lore testifies to the popularity of Elder as a hedging plant. An old proverb praises its durability:

‘An Elder stake and a blackthorn ‘ether will make a hedge to last forever.’

Tool-making:

Whilst the branches are bendy and flexible, the heartwood and rootstock are extremely strong and have been used for making handles, stakes, fences, combs, and even instruments. According to country lore, a stake of Elder wood driven into the ground will last longer than an iron stake of the same size. ‘The Latin name of the plant, ‘sambuca’ refers not to the high-octane alcoholic drink of the same name (although this too is a product derived from Elder) but to an ancient musical instrument that resembled a harp. It is likely that Elder wood was once used to make these instruments.

Insect and vermin repellent:

Cattle appreciate the presence of Elder in their pasture and seem to instinctively recognize its insect repellent properties. Cows often rub themselves on the stem and branches and stay in its shade to discourage insects. In the past, when fieldwork was still done with the aid of horses, it was a common practice to fixate some Elder leaves to the harness to ward off flies just as fieldworkers fixed the slightly bruised leaves to their hats for the same effect. A decoction of the leaves can be also be used as an insect repellent. The smell of the leaves has been likened to that of mice nests. Mrs. Grieves (A modern herbal) mentions their use for repelling mice and moles.

Young Elder shoots are thought to be effective against blight. A recipe including Elder leaves, iron and copper sulfate, soft soap, nicotine, methylated spirit and slaked lime has been used for this purpose, although organic gardeners just use a decoction made from the young shoots as an insecticide to combat aphids and small caterpillars.

Cosmetics:

In Victorian times, distilled Elderflower water was a highly valued emollient lotion. It was said to cleanse the skin, keeping it young and free of freckles and blemishes. Hard to find, nowadays, but there has been a revival of interest in Elder products and Elderflower water is once again produced commercially.

Dyes:

The bark, leaves, and berries can all be used for dyeing. The bark yields a black dye, a decoction of the leaves with alum produces a green, whilst the berries with alum, dye purple or, if salt is added to the mix, produce a lilac color.

Fodder:

Not all domestic animals are keen on Elder as forage. Sheep and cows don’t seem to mind it, but horses and goats have no taste for it. Sheep suffering from foot-rot are said to deliberately seek out Elder trees for self-medication. Wild birds love the berries, but chickens do not take to them.

Culinary uses:

The best-known culinary uses of Elderflowers and berries are the many delicious drinks that can be made from them. Numerous recipes for country wines, syrups and cordials have never lost their appeal and are still widely used in country areas in Britain and Europe. Such drinks are not simply delicious but are also medicinally valuable.

Elderflower Fritters

The flower heads, dipped in batter and deep-fried, make delicious fritters and can be served with maple syrup and lemon juice.

Hedgerow Jam

The black, fully ripe berries can be made into a delicious hedgerow jam, but the green, unripe berries are poisonous and should be avoided. Even the ripe, fresh berries retain some of this poison, which it is recommended that the berries are not eaten fresh off the bush. They should be heated to 100°C prior to consumption.

elderflower-fritters
The Old Tree and the Carpenter

The Old Tree and the Carpenter

One day, a carpenter and his apprentice were traveling through the countryside. They came upon a beautiful ancient tree standing by an earth altar. The carpenter’s apprentice was admiring the ancient being but the old carpenter exclaimed: look at that useless old tree, it is no good for anything. If one was to cut it down to build a ship with it, the ship would soon sink or if one were to make tools from it they would soon rot, it’s a completely useless old tree.

Later that night the two retired at an inn nearby. During the night the old carpenter had a dream. The old tree appeared to him and spoke: You want to compare me with your domesticated trees, like hawthorn, pear, apple or cherry or whatever else bears fruit for you? No sooner as they produce their crop for you they are abused and violated. You cut their branches and slice their bark. Thus their generosity is their own demise. By merit of their gifts, they endanger their own lives and rarely reach their ripe old age. Such is common practice. Therefore I have long since tried to be as useless as possible. You, mortal! What if I had some use to you – I would never have reached this age and size, I would have been cut down for my wood a long time ago. And besides, you and I are creatures alike, why should one creature pass judgment upon the usefulness of another? What do you, a mere mortal and useless human, know about the ‘useless’ trees?

When the carpenter woke from his dream the next morning he thought deeply about its message. When his apprentice later asked him why this tree, in particular, came to serve at the earth altar the carpenter answered: quiet, now, let’s not speak about it anymore. The tree chose to grow there because otherwise, those who did not know him would have abused him. Had he not grown by the earth altar surely he would have been cut down for his wood and died.

We tend to place more value on the things that can be fashioned from plants than on nature herself, or the plants on which we depend. But, all of nature is sacred and has an innate and inalienable value, which it is not for us to judge. 

 

Why Hawthorn is your heart’s best friend

Why Hawthorn is your heart’s best friend

Plant Profile: Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)

When the Hawthorn dapples the hedgerows with its pinkish-white blossom, we know that spring is here to stay. Typically, Hawthorn starts to flower at the end of April or the beginning of May, which is why it is also sometimes known as ‘Mayblossom’ or simply as ‘May’. Linnaeus originally named the species Crateagus oxyacantha, a combination of kratos, meaning ‘hardness’ (of wood), ‘oxus’ which means ‘sharp’ and ‘akantha’ for ‘thorn’. But there is ambiguity over which precise species Linnaeus meant and thus this old name has been rejected. The new name is Crataegus monogyna, which refers to the fact that this particular species only has one seed.

Description

Hawthorn grows as a small, hardy tree that rarely grows to more than 30 ft. It is a member of the rose family, in the extensive genus of Crataegus. Taxonomists still argue over the actual number of species that belong to this genus, but conservative estimates range from about 200 to 300 species. Hawthorns are quite ‘promiscuous’ which results in many cross forms that some botanists consider mere variations, while others deem them separate species.

During the flowering season in late April or early May the small, white five-petaled flowers grow in showy clusters that cover up almost every inch of the tree. The deeply cut, 3-lobed leaves are about 3″ long and appear before the flowers. They are dark green on top and paler bluish-green underneath. In September, an abundance of bright red ‘haws’ glow in the hedges, looking very much like ‘mini rose hips’. Although edible and attracting much wildlife they are not especially palatable to humans.

Habitat and Ecology

The genus is most diverse and widespread throughout North America. But it is well represented in the entire Northern Hemisphere, including all parts of Europe, northern Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and even China. Crataegus monogyna is not native to North America.

Hawthorns are most familiar as hedgerow trees. They are undemanding as far as soil conditions are concerned, but prefer full sun. They may be found in open woodlands, along their edges or, most distinctively, as lone trees on open hillsides.

For wildlife, a hawthorn hedgerow is an ideal habitat: the thick, dense and impenetrable tangle of thorns provides a safe habitat for many small animals and birds.

Crataegus monogyna is not native to North America, but it was introduced there as a hedge plant, in the 1800s. Birds have been instrumental in distributing their seeds far and wide. They seem to prefer these berries to those of the native varieties. The advance of industrial farming in North America has pushed Crataegus into decline. No longer valued as a hedgerow plant bordering fields to protect against soil erosion it is now viewed as problematic and invasive.

Hawthorn berries

History

Hawthorn is so common throughout the country that it hardly needs a description. Unassuming and inconspicuous, its petite and straggly appearance does not really inspire awe. Like an old familiar friend it waves its windswept branches from the top of a hillside or greets us as we pass it on the old familiar track. Yet, there is something quintessentially British about this tree. It is hardly surprising that its ancient roots are deeply entwined with the myths and folklore of our ‘Dreamtime’.

Etymologically, the name at first seems to indicate nothing more than a utilitarian function for which indeed it is still very commonly employed: Hawthorn makes a superb and quickly setting natural defense. A dense thorny Hawthorn thicket is quite impenetrable. Its fast development (appropriately it is also known as Quickset or Quickbeam) aids this purpose, as does the fact that its branches become increasingly dense the more they are cut or eaten.

But in the mindset of the ancients, a hedge was more than just a living fence. A hedge signified the boundary between the known, safe, and civilized world and the wild, mysterious wild yonder. The word ‘hedge’ derives from the old English ‘Haga’ also found in Hagathorn’, which is another name for Hawthorn. Both share the same Germanic root ‘hag’.

Etymology

In old English, a ‘hag’ was not just an old, ugly woman, but is cognate with ‘haegtesse’ – a woman of prophetic powers, and ‘hagzusa’ – spirit beings and ‘hedge riders’. These wood sprites were thought to reside in the ‘between worlds’, ie, between the worlds of everyday reality and ‘the otherworld’. As spirit beings, these sprites could easily traverse the boundaries between the worlds. Likewise, their human counterparts were the healers, seers, and soothsayers who were also thought to be able to travel between these worlds. Thus, Hawthorn signifies protection, yet it is also seen as a gateway to the spirit world.

In folk medicine, its primary use is for protection against all manner of evil spirits, and demons who were apt frighten hapless passers-by. Carved hawthorn amulets were worn for protection or hung above doors to keep bad spirits at bay.

Mythology

Hawthorn features in both pre-Christian and Christian symbolism. In Christian mythology, it is said that the crown of Christ was made of Hawthorn. Some authorities have claimed that the Holy Spirit has a certain peculiar affinity with thorn trees. The burning bush apparition mentioned in the Bible is thought to have been a thorn tree.

In British Christian mythology, the most famous Hawthorn is the Glastonbury Thorn, which could long be seen as a lone figure on the slope of Wearyall Hill. (Sadly, vandals have destroyed this tree.) According to legend, Joseph of Arimathea, an uncle of Jesus, had traveled to Britain with the intention of finding a place to bury the holy cup (grail) that had held the blood of Christ at the crucifixion. When he first set eyes on the Holy Isle of Avalon, he struck his staff into the ground on Wearyall Hill. At once it burst into flower. Joseph of Arimathea took this as a sign to establish the first Christian Church of England right there, where today lies the little market town of Glastonbury.

Descendants of that original miraculous walking stick have been transplanted as cuttings and now decorate various Christian sites around the town. To this day, these special trees burst into flower not once, but twice a year: first in May, when it is right and proper for all Hawthorn trees to flower, and then again at Christmas, to mark the birthday of Christ.

Hawthorn Blossom

Folk Traditions

Hawthorn is also associated with the old Beltain custom of ‘fetching the May’. Beltain, which takes place on May 1, is a celebration of spring and the return of the life-force that rejuvenates the land. Hawthorn’s abundance of flowers that burst into blossom just at the right time seems eminently suitable to mark this glorious time of the year. People would tie colorful ribbons into the branches of the tree to symbolize their prayers and wishes.

The flowers exude a peculiar smell that is often likened to the odor of rotting meat. Hawthorn is fertilized by insects that are attracted by the smell of carrion, a smell that has also been associated with the plague. This is why, despite the fact that Hawthorn is very much loved, it is never brought inside the house.

The scent has also been associated with the perfume of sexuality, which better fits its fertility connotations in association with the Beltain celebrations. Whatever one might associate with the scent, it is unlikely it will go unnoticed as the flowers announce their presence from afar.

Food uses

The flowering tops can be used for making a heart-friendly breakfast tea (see below). 

In the autumn, the tree is laden with hard, red berries that look like miniature rose hips. Unfortunately, Crataegus mongyna is rather mealy and not very tasty. The meager pericarp layer is extremely dry and almost devoid of flavor. There are, however, related species with much better-tasting fruits. Some are even juicy enough to process into a jelly. If need be Hawthorn berries can be dried and ground into a kind of flour substitute. However, as they contain no gluten this is not a flour to make bread with. 

Medicinal Uses:

From an ethnobotanical perspective, Hawthorn is a very interesting plant. Since it is a very large and widely distributed genus people from China to Europe to North America have used their specific native species in similar ways.

Parts used:

Flowering tops, ripe fruits, leaves

Collection:

The flowering tops are harvested in May. Dry quickly in the shade to avoid discoloration. The berries are collected in the autumn. Dry quickly and thoroughly to prevent mold.

Constituents:

Fruit: saponins, glycosides, flavonoids, cardioactive glycosides, ascorbic acid, condensed tannins.

Flowers: cardiotonic amines

Crataegus does not contain any single active constituent that phyto-pharmacologists will get excited about – it sports no ‘super compounds’ that can be developed into new drugs. Instead, it is the unique synergy of its composition that creates its marvelous effects – and which so far has defied replication in the laboratory.

Hawthorn is most valued for its tonic action on the heart. It has an undisputed regulatory, or tonic effect that provides an immensely useful and safe remedy for beginning cardio-vascular disease. Heart disease is the leading cause of death, particularly in developed countries.

The flowering tops as well as the berries are medicinally active. They regulate the blood-pressure via a dual action: they stimulate both the coronary arteries and the heart muscle itself. They dilate and relax the blood vessels, thus lowering blood pressure, while gently stimulating the heart muscle, increasing the pulse rate. This takes the pressure off the heart muscle and thus improves its overall efficiency.

Hawthorn relaxes the nerves that supply the heart, which helps to relieve the symptoms of stress, tightness in the chest and angina. It also regulates an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) and palpitations. Hawthorn is a valuable supportive long-term remedy for the general weakness of the heart caused by infectious diseases such as diphtheria or scarlet fever. It improves the overall function of an aged and tired heart muscle. It may be used preventatively and is especially recommended for people who are under constant pressure and stress, or remedially, for those recovering from a heart attack.

According to Chinese and Japanese studies, Hawthorn clearly shows a positive effect on the whole coronary system and can reduce ‘bad’ cholesterol, one of the most significant contributing factors of heart disease.

Hawthorn improves the peripheral blood flow, thus improving oxygen supply to the limbs and to the head. In combination with Gingko it has a beneficial effect on memory.

Hawthorn has also been used for nervousness and as a digestive tonic to help ‘move’ stagnant food (Chinese medicine) and to aid the digestion of fatty foods. It is also considered useful as a diuretic and a urinary tonic. The old herbalists seemed to value this aspect of Hawthorn’s healing virtues especially highly.

Hawthorn is the best overall heart tonic available in the herbal pharmacopeia. It is even recognized in allopathic medicine and is included in the ‘Commission E’ list of medicinally useful plants. Its gentle, tonic action and safety record make it an ideal and safe herb for conditions afflicting an aging coronary system and heart. But it is an alterative and tonic remedy, which means best results are achieved when it is taken over long periods of time. Instant results should not be expected. It contains no digitalis-like compounds or other cardio-active constituents that build up in the body over time. There is also no record of drug interference, even with other cardio medicines. Thus, Hawthorn tops or berries taken as a tea or tincture can be taken over long periods of time without ill-effects. (Of course, allergies are always possible, but with this herb, they form a very small exception to the rule.)

Ref: Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) in the treatment of cardiovascular disease

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3249900/

UPLC-ESI-Q-TOF-MS/MS Characterization of Phenolics from Crataegus monogyna and Crataegus laevigata (Hawthorn) Leaves, Fruits and their Herbal Derived Drops (Crataegutt Tropfen)

https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Nikolai_Kuhnert/publication/320325764_UPLC-ESI-Q-TOF-MSMS_Characterization_of_Phenolics_from_Crataegus_monogyna_and_Crataegus_laevigata_Hawthorn_Leaves_Fruits_and_their_Herbal_Derived_Drops_Crataegutt_Tropfen/links/5b1926700f7e9b68b4255af3/UPLC-ESI-Q-TOF-MS-MS-Characterization-of-Phenolics-from-Crataegus-monogyna-and-Crataegus-laevigata-Hawthorn-Leaves-Fruits-and-their-Herbal-Derived-Drops-Crataegutt-Tropfen.pdf

PHENOLIC CONTENT AND ANTIOXIDANT ACTIVITY OF CRATAEGUS MONOGYNA L. FRUIT EXTRACTS

https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/8193/140b3f344ce5633451fe0e5d63499cd1a40f.pdf

Heilpflanzenpraxis Heute, Siegfried Bäumler, Elsevier 2007

The  Camphor Tree

The Camphor Tree

Camphor constituent: essential oils

Parts used: essential oil, waxy crystalline flammable substance

Medicinal actions:

Used in ‘cold creams’ as an anti-aging ingredient. Stimulates the production of collagen and elastin.

Anti-inflammatory – applied to sore, inflamed skin (not on broken skin)

Pain relief for arthritic, or rheumatic pain

Antifungal – can be applied to toenail fungus. (Needs persistence. It can take up to 48 weeks  before positive impact is noticed).

Decongestant and cough suppressant – evaporate in oil diffuser during the night

Antispasmodic – can be used to relieve muscle aches and pains, cramps, sprains

Anti-viral – used to treat infectious fevers such as typhoid, influenza, and pneumonia.

Medicinal Action and Uses—Camphor has a strong, penetrating, fragrant odour, a bitter, pungent taste, and is slightly cold to the touch like menthol leaves; locally it is an irritant, numbs the peripheral sensory nerves, and is slightly antiseptic; it is not readily absorbed by the mucous membrane, but is easily absorbed by the subcutaneous tissue- it combines in the body with glucuronic acid, and in this condition is voided by the urine. Experiments on frogs show a depressant action to the spinal column, no motor disturbance, but a slow increasing paralysis; in mankind it causes convulsions, from the effect it has on the motor tract of the brain; it stimulates the intellectual centres and prevents narcotic drugs taking effect, but in cases of nervous excitement it has a soothing and quieting result. Authorities vary as to its effect on blood pressure; some think it raises it, others take an opposite view; but it has been proved valuable as an excitant in cases of heart failure, whether due to diseases or as a result of infectious fevers, such as typhoid and pneumonia, not only in the latter case as a stimulant to circulation, but as preventing the growth of pneumococci. Camphor is used in medicine internally for its calming influence in hysteria, nervousness and neuralgia, and for serious diarrhoea, and externally as a counter-irritant in rheumatisms, sprains bronchitis, and in inflammatory conditions, and sometimes in conjunction with menthol and phenol for heart failure; “

Mrs. Grieves, A Modern Herbal

Camphor Tree – The Dragon’s Brain

The characteristic scent of Camphor is familiar to anyone who has had a close encounter with VapoRub, but few have ever seen the pure, white crystalline substance from which the scent derives. Still, fewer are aware that this mysterious substance is entirely natural and comes from a tree that is native to southern China, southern Japan, and Taiwan. The Camphor Tree (Cinnamomum camphora) is closely related to the Cinnamon Tree, (Cinnamomum zeylanicum), with which it is sometimes confused. However, the unmistakable scent of the leaves immediately reveals its true identity.

In China, Camphor is known as ‘long nao xiang’, ‘the dragon’s brain’, but it is unclear whether the name makes reference to its powerful brain-fog blasting effect, or whether the use of Camphor may originally have been the privilege of the emperor, who is often referred to as the (imperial) ‘dragon’.

Camphor trees can become very old – up to several hundred years, in fact. Such tree veterans are a majestic sight to behold. They can reach up to 40m in height and develop a truly massive base. One tree, recorded in the prefecture of Nagasaki, was recorded to measure a staggering 16 m of girth. Hardly surprising then, that the evergreen tree is seen as an icon of vitality and longevity.

In China, Japan and India Camphor trees are sacred. They are planted for protection near dwellings, temples, and monasteries, and Camphor is burnt as incense in purification rituals or in pujas. Its pure, bright and smokeless flame is seen as a representation of Shiva.

During the 13th century, while traveling through China, Marco Polo reported seeing ‘great forests where the trees are found that give camphor’. At that time, Camphor had already been introduced to Europe, along with other exotic spices such as Cinnamon, Pepper, Cardamom, and Wood-Aloes. But the Camphor tree itself was virtually unknown. The precious substances reached Europe via the Spice Route and first found its way to the spice markets north of the Alps during the 10th century.

However, it took several centuries more, until the latter half of the 17th century, for the first trees to be introduced to Europe. But then they took the eminent Botanical Gardens of Europe by storm: They were planted at the Botanical Gardens of Padua, Leiden, Dresden, and the Chelsea Physic Gardens. Many of them are still standing now. Their import to Europe has had no ill effect on the local environment, but in more favourable climatic conditions, Camphor trees have been known to spread prolifically. In some parts of Australia and the southern United States, they are now considered an invasive pest.

Camphor Tree

In the Orient, Camphor is highly valued and has a long tradition of medicinal and culinary use. It is mentioned in various Arab and Indian cookery books, and in India, it is an ingredient of the Betel quid, a popular chewing stimulant.

In the West Camphor is better known for its medicinal properties. It is valued for its antiseptic and cooling properties and its ability to relieve pain and swelling associated with inflammatory skin conditions, chilblains, burns, and anal fissures. It is also used as a counter-irritant and applied topically to painful arthritic or rheumatic joints.

Added to a steam inhalation Camphor can clear congestion of the lungs, bronchi and nasal passages. In the past, it was used internally as an antiseptic digestive aid. Thanks to Samuel Hahnemann, the ‘father of Homeopathic medicine’ it became a lifesaver during the outbreaks of Asiatic cholera in 1831/32 and 1848/49. Having received first-hand reports from Russian colleagues, he treated victims at frequent intervals with a homeopathic tincture of Camphor – apparently with great success. Even allopathic doctors admitted that it was about the only thing capable of halting the progress of this lethal disease when administered during the early stages.

Camphor is an antidote to Opium and recipes found in ancient Arab manuscripts often combine both substances to alleviate some of Opium’s negative effects. During the Victorian era, camphor became popular among members of the upper classes, particularly in the UK, the US and in Slovakia. It was combined with milk, alcohol or consumed in pill form as a stimulating recreational drug. The effective dose is very small and said to produce a warm, tingling skin sensation, a sense of mental clarity, or ‘a rush of thoughts chasing each other’, sometimes accompanied by euphoria.

However, the bad news is, that larger doses can produce quite unpleasant effects: confusion, giddiness, accelerated heart rate, headaches, and even death. Thus, many countries have regulated Camphor. Today, most commercially available Camphor is synthetically produced and not fit for internal use at all. It is regrettable that a beneficial and medicinally useful substance such as Camphor should be disgraced and forgotten, despite the eons of safe use, just because some people have overindulged in it – to their own detriment.

Caution: Only Camphor that is clearly labeled as edible may be taken internally, and then only in tiny doses. Quantities of more than 2g can be fatal to adults. The lethal dose for children and youths is significantly lower.

During pregnancy and lactation, it is advised to avoid camphor products altogether. Due to its toxicity at a low dose, it should also be kept away from children. Some people have reported contact dermatitis from handling Camphor.

Birch (Betula sp.)

Birch (Betula sp.)

Description:

The graceful birch tree has always held a special place in our hearts and minds. Traditionally she was perceived as a youthful Goddess of love and light. Yet, her soft feminine and almost fragile appearance belie her hardy nature. Birch is a tree of northern latitudes and unforgiving climates – common from Siberia to Scandinavia, Scotland, and England as well as North America, the Himalayas, China, Japan, and North Korea. Some species have traveled south, to the more temperate regions of the Mediterranean and beyond – almost all the way to the equator. But in the southernmost regions of her range, she prefers mountainous terrain. Humble and undemanding in her soil requirements, she will even make herself at home in sandy or stony ground. Yet, her special affinity lies with water and her preferred habitat is boggy terrain. Birch is a pioneer tree, who happily settles where other trees fear to set root. Over time she ‘cultivates’ such terrain, making it more arable and preparing it for other species to follow in her steps.

Her silver-white bark gives her a striking appearance. In youth, the papery bark peels off easily. It is thin, yet tough, and in the past, has in fact served as paper. As the tree matures the bark begins to form a layer of cork that provides excellent insulation and protects her against the cold. The young twigs and branches are reddish brown and very elastic. Early in the year, she is one of the first trees to put on her spring-gown of luminous and delicate lime-green leaves, triangular or heart-shaped in appearance and conspicuously serrated margins. Early in the spring, when the leaves first unfold, they feel sticky and are covered by a resinous aromatic substance with a balsamic scent.

Birch catkinsThe flowers are known as catkins. Both male and female flowers are present on the same tree, though they develop separately. The male flowers begin to develop in the summer, endure the winter and wait until the female flowers appear in spring. They court the wind as pollinator and distributor of their tiny winged seeds, which are so light that they may be carried for several hundred miles.

Birch trees can reach a height of up to 30m. They reach maturity after about 50 years but can live to about one hundred years.

HISTORY, LORE AND MAGICAL USES

The people of northern Europe have long been very fond of this beautiful, slender tree with its white, shining stem and graciously flowing branches. To them, it evoked the image of a beautiful young woman, which they identified with Freya or Frigga, their Goddess of love and fertility. The Celts, who were equally fond of Birches, identified her with the virgin Goddess Bridha or Brigid. Etymologically the name, ‘Birch’, derives from the Sanskrit ‘bhura’, meaning ‘shining tree’ – no doubt an allusion to the striking white bark and bright, golden autumn cloak.

In Siberia, Birch was regarded as the sacred world-tree and presented a bridge between this world and the realm of spirits and Gods. At first this may seem an odd choice, given the modest statue and strength of an average Birch tree. But it may be at least partly explained by the fact that in those remote regions Birch frequently was the commonest, if not the only tree around. Another reason may have been its universal usefulness: Birch provides medicine and nourishment and its bark and wood can be fashioned into a large number of utensils, from birch bark containers to coverings for lodges and even garments and shoes.

 

The sap is rich in nutrients and the inner bark can be ground into a flour to make ‘cakes’. This is considered famine food, the last resort when nothing else is available. But deer, and most importantly, reindeer relish this inner bark, which is their life-saving winter forage. In turn, the nomads depend on the reindeer, the sacred center of their world which provided them with almost all the essential gifts that made life possible in these inhospitable regions. The reindeer was a spirit guide and totem animal – and it also showed the people where to find their most important sacrament, the Fly Agaric. This conspicuous toadstool with its bright red cap and white dots atop forms a symbiotic relationship with Birch and are often found growing near them. Reindeer love this toadstool as much as the Siberian shamans do, who consider them as a sacred food of the Gods. They partook of it on special occasions, while honoring the Gods in ecstatic celebrations, or prior to going on a spiritual journey to ask for help and advice from the Gods. Thus, the Fly Agaric and the Birch tree have become closely associated and both are shrouded in mystery.

Some legends portrait Birch as a manifestation of the Goddess, who offers her milk to the shaman as an elixir of life, and some scholars regard the sacred mushroom as the breast of the Goddess from whence her milk flowed – and perhaps even the source of the fabled Soma, the sacred elixir of life and nectar of the Gods.

Fly Agaric

As one of the first trees to put on her spring-dress it is only natural that the Birch has always been associated with the life-giving power and has featured prominently in fertility rites and magic. Birch signals the arrival of spring and traditionally farmers observed her progress to determine when to sow their wheat.

In pre-Christian times, Birch played an important role in Beltain celebrations, which are traditionally held on the eve of May 1st. Throughout Europe, faint echoes of this pagan festival have survived to this day as rural May-Day festivals and pageantries. May-Day is the celebration of spring, of love, life, and fertility. On this day, the whole community, or sometimes just the young lads and lasses, go out into the woods to fetch the ‘May-tree’, which more often than not, is a Birch sapling. Much fanfare accompanies the procession upon their return to the village. The tree is decorated with colorful ribbons, shortbreads, and other goodies and is fixed to the top of a pole which is erected on the village square. In the old days, the raucous feast went on all day and often through the night, with much eating, drinking, singing, dancing and general merrymaking – much to the dismay of the church authorities. They tried hard to suppress these quaint old pagan celebrations but in vain. The dance around the Maypole is still popular in many rural areas, though modern celebrations are tame compared to those of the past and nowadays have been sanctioned by the church.

The fertility and life-giving powers of the May-tree Birch served as a ‘village charm’. A procession of singing and dancing folks carried it from house to house to bestow blessings and protection to all the village folk, their and their animals. Later, the custom evolved into a form of flogging, often referred to as ‘quickening’, which was based on the belief that the mere touch of the Birch twigs would bestow luck and fertility to those who came in contact with them. Thus the men of the village would take it upon themselves to ‘bless’ the women with these fertilizing powers by hitting them with birch twigs. All female inhabitants, women, girls, cattle and farm animals, all received the same treatment. Eventually, though, the custom changed and only children, mentally retarded people, and delinquents were given the Birch twig treatment, which was supposed to drive out the ‘evil spirits’ that evidently possessed them. Of these, the practice of chastising children possessed with the ‘demons of disobedience’ with Birch switches, has persisted the longest.

Birch regarded as a protective tree, able to ward off all kinds of daemons and witches. In a milder form of exorcism than that described above, Birch twigs were often pinned above entrances in house and barn to protect against and avert the evil-doings of witches and demons and to undo their spells and curses – especially those that caused impotence or made the flow of milk dry up.

In magical folk medicine, Birch was associated with ‘transfer magic’, and used to alleviate the pain of rheumatism. Three days before the new moon the sufferer had to go and plead with the Birch tree to relieve him from his pains. Certain prayers were solemnly recited and a wreath was wound by tying knots into the bendy birch twigs. It was believed that in this manner the painful knots of arthritis and rheumatism were transferred to the Birch tree, while the patient would find his limbs nimble and bendy, like Birch twigs.

GENERAL USES

Birchwood is light and rots easily, which makes it rather useless for construction work. However, the bark is extremely water resistant, a quality, which Native Americans have long put to use for waterproofing the roofs of their huts. They also fashioned special lightweight canoes as well as various domestic items, such as pots for collecting sap, or cribs to carry babies, shoes, lampshades and even toys from this versatile bark. In Europe, the twigs have mainly been used for thatching and wattle work or for making brooms. The brush ends of brooms, including those of witches’ brooms, were also partly made with Birch twigs.

In early spring the sugary sap rises in the stem. To tap it much the same technique is used as for tapping Maple syrup: a hole is drilled into the stem (1/2 cm wide and 3 cm deep), and a glass tube is inserted. One should not take more than 2-3 liters at a time and only ‘milk’ the tree once every two years. The hole must be sealed with special tree wax to protect it from bleeding to death. Ordinary candle wax is not sufficient, as it will just get pushed out again. This is best left to an experienced person as otherwise, the tree may suffer great damage or it may even kill it.

Birch trees also yield a resinous substance called ‘Birch tar’, which can be extracted from the bark. It is very rich in tannins and is used for curing leather. It makes an effective (and smelly) insect repellent and can also be used as a balsamic healing agent for all manner of skin sores including insect bites.

The inner bark is rich in sugars, oil and even contains Vitamin C. It provides welcome winter forage for deer and other rodents when everything else is covered under a blanket of snow. Native Americans used to prepare a type of flour from the inner bark, which could be used for baking. Birch is not often utilized as firewood, as it burns too quickly, but the bark makes excellent kindling and will even burn when wet. The smoke is a powerful disinfectant and when burnt as incense it ‘smoke off’ infectious micro-organisms. Native Americans often burnt thin pieces of birch bark in their ‘medicine tepees’, where the sick were isolated, in order to purify the air and kill off germs.

MEDICINAL USES

PARTS USED: Leaves, inner bark, sap

HARVEST TIMES: Spring

CONSTITUENTS:

Leaves: flavonoids, saponins, volatile oil, tannin, resin

Bark: betulin (birch camphor), glycoside, volatile oil, tannin, bitter substances, resin

Sap: Sugar, organic acids, amino acids

ACTIONS: diuretic, bitter, slightly astringent

Birch leaves are very useful for their diuretic properties and can be used to help in the treatment of rheumatism, arthritis and gouty conditions. They also have a reputation for dissolving stones. In Russia, an old folk remedy for rheumatism was to completely cover the patient with Birch leaves, which resulted in a cleansing sweat and subsequent relief. The diuretic action also helps to relieve oedematous conditions and urine retention.

CULPEPER SAYS…

‘It is a tree of Venus. The juice of the leaves, while they are young, or the distilled water of them, or the water that comes from the tree being bored with an auger, and distilled afterward; any of these being drunk for some days together is available to the stone in the kidneys and bladder and is good also to wash sore mouths.’

A decoction of the bark can be used as a wash for impurities of the skin. Birch tar is often used as an ingredient of ointments for psoriasis and eczema.

The sap is a wholesome elixir that can be taken as a spring tonic. However, it has a tendency to ferment easily and is thus not suitable for long-term storage. It should be kept in a dark bottle and stored in the fridge. Adding some Cloves and a piece of Cinnamon also helps to prevent fermentation.

A compound tincture of Birch leaves can be used as a tonic hair rinse to promote healthy growth of hair.

  • 2 handfuls of Birch leaves
  • 1 spoonful of Arnica flowers
  • 1 spoonful of Nettle roots
  • 2 spoonfuls of Nettle leaves
  • 4 Cloves

Cover with 70% alcohol, steep for 3 weeks, strain and bottle. Massage into the scalp and hair as a conditioner.

Or, make a strong infusion with the leaves and add 1 part apple cider vinegar.

Native Americans prepared a mushy paste by boiling and pounding the bark so it could be spread on inflammatory skin conditions, ulcers cuts and wounds. This reduces swellings and prevents infection. They also extracted oil by boiling the wood and bark. It is very effective in fighting fungal and parasitic skin conditions.

The North American species are different from the European White Birch. Their bark tends to be darker and has a distinct wintergreen flavor. In spring,

New Englanders enjoy a type of ‘root beer’ made from the twigs and sap, which apparently is very powerful. Euell Gibbons gives the following instructions:

“Measure 4 quarts of finely cut twigs of sweet birch into a bottom of a 5-gallon crock. In a large kettle, stir 1 gallon of honey into 4 gallons of birch sap and boil this mixture for 10 minutes, then pour over the chopped twigs. When cool, strain to remove the now expended twigs and return the liquid to the crock. Spread 1 cake of soft yeast on a slice of toasted rye bread and float this on top of the beer. Cover with a cloth and let it ferment until the cloudiness just starts to settle. This will usually take about a week, but it depends somewhat on the temperature. Bottle the beer and cap tightly. Store in a dark place, and serve it ice cold before meals after the weather gets hot.” He also says, “Don’t’ have more than a couple of glasses of this beer as it has a ‘kick like a mule'”.

 

 

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