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'”.

 

 

Apple Tree

Apple Tree

Description:

The Apple Tree is one of the most anciently cultivated fruits of Eurasia. It is believed to have developed in central Asia, where the greatest genetic variation occurs in the wild. In cultivation, trees are usually trained and do not reach more than approx 5m in height to facilitate easy harvesting. When grown under natural conditions they can reach up to 12m.

The tree belongs to the Rose family. It has typical, highly conspicuous 5-petaled flowers growing in cymes and simple, ovate, alternate leaves, dark green on top and lightly downy underneath. The leaf margins are serrate.

A mature apple tree looks like a grandmother tree: small in stature, writhing limbs and with grey, crinkly bark. It does not exactly impress with its habitus, yet we learn to love it from an early age. Children not only love its wonderful fruits but also the inviting limbs that make it ideal for climbing and just about every child will sooner or later become intimately acquainted with it. In spring it is particularly noticeable and fetching. Before any leaves are beginning to show it is clad in a glorious dress of pinkish-white flowers and buzzing with delirious bees. Once the flowers have faded we pass it by without paying much attention, but come September, when it is laden with shining, red or golden apples, it is impossible to resist. Even crab apples, whose fruit are much smaller (and tarter), look tempting.

It is estimated that there may be as many as 20000 cultivated varieties, each with their own distinct flavour, shape, smell, crunchiness, and succulence, though nobody knows the exact number. Sadly, most of them are endangered heirloom species, confined to just a few gardens. The average supermarket only carries about 5 standard varieties.

Ecology:

Apple trees are an important source of food: they provide nectar for bees, and their apples are a welcome source of nutrition for many species of wildlife.

Distribution:

Apple trees are so widespread that it is almost impossible to pin down their origin. Charred remains of prehistoric crab apples found at archaeological sites throughout Europe are a testimony to the fact that wild apples had spread throughout much of  Eurasia by Neolithic times. The first cultivated varieties probably reached northern parts of Europe with the Romans. Today apples are grown in all temperate regions of the globe.

History & Mythology

The apple tree is perhaps the most mythical of all trees – is it not supposed to have been the demise of all mankind, way back at the beginning of time? Well, so the story goes, but it is actually highly unlikely that the forbidden fruit, which gave us knowledge of good and evil, would have been an apple since apples were unknown in Egypt and Palestine at the time when the earliest biblical accounts were written down. In these accounts, the story merely refers to ‘a fruit’. However, long before Christianity was ever conceived of, the apple tree was already a widely adored symbol of immortality. Its fruit was regarded as the sacred heart of the Goddess of Eternal Life. In Celtic tradition the paradise on the western horizon, where the souls of the Blessed go, was known as Avalon, the Isle of Apples, which was guarded by Morgan, Queen of the Dead.

While the Neolithic Lake-villagers of north-central Switzerland are known to have feasted on Crab apples, cultivated varieties reached central and northern Europe with the Romans. They too, associated eternity with the apple. Alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, the two poles that encompass existence, were represented by an egg, symbolic of the source of life (alpha), and an apple, the symbol of the immortality of the soul and its resurrection (omega). Thus, each of their feasts would start with an egg and finish with an apple. Wild boars (pigs and boars are sacred totems of the Great Goddess,) were roasted with an apple in their snout to represent eternal life and rebirth.

The apple is a fruit of Venus/Aphrodite and it bears her signature, the five-pointed star. Among gypsies, it is traditional to cut the apple horizontally to reveal this mystical insignia of the Goddess. Greek mythology involves the apple in a more tragic and fateful story, the story of Paris, who was assigned the impossible task to settle a dispute between three Goddesses and decide who was the fairest of them all. How was he ever to make such a choice? The youth was doomed and he knew it. But decide he must, there was no way around it. The chosen one was to receive a golden apple, inscribed with the words ‘to the most deserving’. In the end, it was Aphrodite who won him over by bribing him. She promised him the love of Helen, the most beautiful mortal woman alive on earth at the time. Alas. his choice turned out to be short-sighted and not very wise, as that beautiful young woman was already married to another. Nevertheless, Paris ran away with her, which inadvertently started the chain of events that eventually lead to the Trojan War.

In China, by contrast, the pictogram for ‘apple’ also means ‘peace’. Thus to present someone with an apple is a gesture of goodwill and peace.

In western tradition, apples became associated with erotic love and sin – thanks to the misinterpretation of the church fathers. For centuries it was thus used metaphorically in ecclesiastic art. However, as Christianity became ever more fanatical, focusing on the evils of the flesh and condemning women as witches, the apple came to symbolize temptation and evil; a symbol of sinful, carnal love and even the devil himself. Which is how they became known as ‘malus’, (=bad), and the tree was reinterpreted as a ‘witches’ tree.’

Apple trees are also the most common host species of Mistletoe, one of the most sacred plants of the Druids. However, they favoured Oak as a host-plant for Mistletoe, which is far rarer.

Once upon a time, when Halloween was more than a spooky fun day for kids, it marked the pagan New Year,  a time when the life-force retreats into the womb of the earth, where it would regenerate and restore its powers, ready to be reborn the following spring. Apples are the sacred fruit of the season symbolic of eternal life and resurrection. Apple bopping games and other customs are remnants of such ancient pagan traditions, which allude to the eternal life of the soul.

apple harvest

During the time of the apple harvest farmers traditionally engaged in the custom of ‘wassailing’, a kind of tree blessing that was meant to invoke their innate fertility, chase off evil spirits that might make off with their fruits and to give thanks for the harvest – an occasion that was celebrated with good quantities of cider, apple cake as well as with fireworks or gunfire.

Apples have also sometimes been used as a form of divination. Young hopefuls believed they could tell their prospects in their pursuit of love and happiness. The procedure required the person to cut the apple horizontally. The fortunes were revealed by interpreting the numbers of seeds and whether, or how many of them were cut or damaged in the process.

Cider, hot spiced apple wine, and baked apples or apple crumble all featured strongly among seasonal favourites at this time of year. But not all apple traditions are as old as ‘ye old heathen times’. The most famous ‘apple hero’ of all times was born in the American legendary figure of Johnny Appleseed. Johnny Appleseed is said to have spent his life planting apple trees across the land, pursuing his vision of a country filled with these glorious trees. He is also said to have talked to animals and never carried arms, even when walking alone in unknown territory. He was accepted by the Indians and respected by settlers, mediating various conflicts between these two sides. He certainly lived an eccentric life, but in the end, his dream was fulfilled.

Apples are very healthy fruits and the English adage ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’ still carries a lot of merits. But more about that below.

 

Medicinal uses:

Parts used: Flowers, Fruit, Peel

Harvest: Flowers in spring, when they are fully open and free of dew,

fruit in September/October, when they are ripe.

Traditionally, farmers will harvest apples in the last quarter of the moon to extend their shelf-life.

This old farmer’s wisdom makes sense, since water levels within organisms are highest at the full moon and lowest at the new moon, thus making it less likely that the fruit will rot.

Uses:

Apples are a wonderful ‘health food’, easy to digest and capable of correcting over-acidity of the stomach. They are particularly rich in pectin, a soluble fibre that forms a jelly-like substance, as any jam-maker will know: purified Pectin is used to help ‘set’ marmalades and jams. Not so well known is the fact that it helps to regulate digestion, forms a protective coating in the intestines and soothes inflamed tissues. Thus, apples can be used to treat both diarrhea and constipation. Apples are also said to balance blood sugar levels, as they can prevent dangerous spikes and lows. They are regarded as cooling and anti-inflammatory, which can be wonderfully refreshing and thirst quenching during convalescence, or when suffering from feverish conditions, coughs and colds. Apple tea, usually prepared by infusing minced fruit or peels (organic, please!) in hot water, is not only a delicious drink but also increases the elimination of uric acid and is helpful as a supportive remedy in the treatment of arthritic and rheumatic conditions as well as in rheumatoid kidney and liver disease. An apple diet is recommended for gout, constipation, hemorrhoids, bladder and kidney disease. Eaten at bedtime it improves the quality of sleep and helps to control night sweat.

The petals can be infused as a tisane to treat feverish conditions, especially those affecting the upper respiratory tract. Apple blossom tea also soothes and calms the nerves.

Apple cider vinegar is also excellent, and not just in salad dressings. It is very rich in calcium and can help to improve calcium deficiency related problems such as loss of concentration and memory, weak muscle tone, poor circulation, badly healing wounds, general itchiness, aching joints and lack of appetite. Apple cider vinegar cleanses the system by supporting the eliminative function of the kidneys. Thus, it is a supportive measure for arthritis, gout, rheumatism and various skin conditions. It is also said to be beneficial in cases of sinusitis, high blood pressure, migraine, chronic exhaustion, and night sweats. To make use of this healthful elixir, dilute one tablespoon of apple cider vinegar in 6-8 oz of water. This may be sweetened with honey.

Recipes

There are dozens of delicious recipes that turn apples into countless sweat or savoury dishes or drinks. But even plain, straight from the tree – apples are simply delicious.

Baked Apples:

A simple way to enjoy a quick apple treat is to bake them whole. Take out the core and fill it with muesli. Sprinkle a little Cinnamon on top and dribble some honey on top. Place on a baking sheet and bake until the apple is soft enough to spoon. Serve with plain yogurt.

Grated Apple

A wonderful side salad: grate an apple and a couple of carrots. Add freshly squeezed lemon juice over it and add some currents to the mix. Simply divine.

Spiced Crab Apples

  • 3lb good crab apples
  • 2lb sugar
  • 1-pint vinegar
  • 1 root ginger, grated or bruised
  • Pared rind of half a lemon (organic)
  • 2-inch cinnamon stick
  • 2-3 cloves
  • 1 tablespoon pimento (allspice) berries, whole

Wash the crab apples well. Place the vinegar and sugar into a saucepan. Heat the liquid while stirring continuously, taking care not to burn the sugar. Add the fruit. Put the spices into a muslin bag and tie well; add to the fruit. Cover the saucepan and cook on low heat until just tender. Remove the fruit with a siphoning spoon and pack into sterilized jars, leaving a little space at the top. Remove the muslin bag from the vinegar and strain the liquid. Return the liquid to the heat and continue to simmer, uncovered, until it has the consistency of syrup. Pour over the fruit in the jars while still hot so it covers them by ½ inch. Seal tightly and store in a cool, dark place for 6 weeks before use.

Ginger and Apple Chutney

  • 2 dozen large tart apples such as Bramleys or Boscopp
  • 1lb sultanas or raisins
  • 2 lb brown sugar
  • 3oz mustard seed
  • 1 fresh chili, seeded
  • 1 level dessertspoon turmeric pdr.
  • 1½ oz ground ginger
  • 1lb Spanish onions, cut in half and sliced thinly
  • 4 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed with a little salt
  • 1½ pints vinegar

Peel, core and slice the apples and slice the chili. Put all ingredients into a saucepan and simmer on low heat for 11/2- 2 hours until cooked to a pulp. Allow setting overnight.

Other uses: Applewood is valued for its strength and fine grain. It is a dense and heavy wood and makes superior smoke wood. Bees love the nectar-rich apple blossom.

Annatto (Bixa orellana)

Annatto (Bixa orellana)

Description:

Annatto, or Achiote, as it is commonly called in Latin American countries, is a tropical shrub that can grow up to about 20 meters high. The pinkish-white flowers develop into a bright red, heart-shaped and exceedingly bristly fruit, which is inedible. When ripe the fruit capsule breaks open and reveals an abundance of seeds embedded in an orange-red pulp. Achiote produces a prolific amount of fruits: a single tree can yield up to 270kg.

Distribution:

Annatto is widespread throughout tropical regions of Central and South America, where it is native. It has also become naturalized in other tropical regions, such as the Philippines.

History and Mythology

The Latin name ‘Bixa orellana’ does not give much of a clue regarding its properties. Some believe that the genus name is derived from the Portuguese ‘biche’, meaning ‘beak’, which may allude to the beak-shaped seedpods. Others believe it is a phonetic rendering of a Carib word for the colour red, which makes more sense. The species name is far more straightforward – it is given in honour of Francisco de Orellano, a Spanish conquistador of the 16th century, who accidentally ‘discovered’ the Amazon.

The tree has a wide range of surprising uses that are mostly of local significance. Although Annatto fruits are inedible, the fruit pulp yields a bright red dye, which has a long history of use, both as body paint and as a dye for textiles or food. The ancient Mayas and Aztecs regarded it as a symbolic substitute for blood and thus held it sacred. It was also used to make ink. Virtually all ancient Mayan scriptures were penned in annatto juice. Indigenous people still use the pulp for ‘cosmetic purposes’, as hair dye or lipstick, hence the English common name ‘Lipstick tree’. The pulp is also said to repel insects and to protect against sunburn due to the UV-filtering properties of the carotenoid pigment known as Bixin.

Annato seed pods

Rigues [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Its use as a food dye is just as ancient and persists even today. In fact, it is probably one of the most ubiquitous of all food dyes used by the food industry. It lends its reddish tint to cheeses, butter, and spreads, candy, and custards. It is also still used as a traditional food dye for meats. (The bright red colour of Chinese poultry, however, is due to treatment with a caramelised malt solution.) This use is most prevalent in the Philippines and in Central America and Mexico. The Aztecs were known to add Annatto to their sacred xocolatl brew and other foods.

To process the fruits, the seed pods are washed in order to separate the pulp from the seeds, which are used separately as a mild spice. A spice paste, known as ‘Achiote Recado,’ is a popular flavouring in Yucatecan cuisine (southern Mexico). Meats are marinated in the paste and wrapped in banana leaves. Fish, chicken and especially pork, or suckling pig can be treated this way.

Annatto is one of the most widely used food colouring substances of the food industry, which is somewhat problematic as many people appear to be highly allergic to. There are campaigns to get it banned, but the FDA considers it exempt from regulation. The way in which commercial annatto is processed as a dye involves hexane extraction, which just may possibly have something to do with these reported allergic reactions. Furthermore, the colouring agent, known as Bixin can now be produced by bio-engineering. Scientists have figured out the biochemical pathway and manipulated E.coli bacteria to produce Bixin. It might be interesting to conduct a comparative study of a) completely naturally processed annatto (see recado recipe below), bio-engineered bixin or commercially extracted annatto dye.

Annatto dye is also used in hair-oils, shoe polish, floor polish, nail-gloss, furniture, brass-lacquer, soap, cosmetics, and pharmaceutical ointments as well as for textiles, wool, leather, and calico.

Medicinal uses:

Parts used: Seeds, leaves, bark, roots, shoots

Although commercially only the seed and seed paste are available, in tropical regions where Annatto is grown, other parts of the plant are also used for medicine. Particularly the leaves have a wide range of applications. The shoots and young leaves are used for feverish infections including gonorrhea, dysentery, and hepatitis. They are believed to protect the liver and reduce cholesterol. The leaves and seeds are also used to soothe irritable indigestion caused by excessively spicy food. An infusion of the flowers is said to be a useful expectorant for newborn babies. In some parts of the Amazon Annatto is used as a treatment for snakebites. Internally it is given as an anti-parasitic that can reduce pain associated with intestinal parasites. Externally the seed extract is applied as an insect repellent and to protect the skin against the ultraviolet rays of the sun. It is also used as a general skin tonic and to heal skin conditions.

The leaves have a marked effect on the urinary system. They increase the volume of urine in cases of renal insufficiency or cystitis. They are also said to reduce benign prostate hyperplasia and are thought to have anti-tumor activity. These are believed to be due to the high antioxidant activity of the carotenoid compounds Bixin and Norbixin, which are also the source of the red pigment Annatto is known for. These carotenoids have also been found to lower blood sugar levels and are used in the treatment of diabetes in traditional medicine systems of the tropics.

Recipes:

To obtain an orange-yellow food dye simply heat some cooking oil and stir in some annatto seeds. Remove the seeds from the oil before adding other foods for stir-frying. While the seeds would not spoil the taste, they would not add much flavour either. For flavouring, they are best when processed as a recado paste – see below:

Achiote Recado

‘Achiote recado’ is a typical spice paste of southern Mexico that is used to marinade meats, poultry, and fish. This recipe is based on a traditional recado recipe that utilizes the juice of bitter oranges (Seville oranges). As these are difficult to get this version is an improvisation.  A ready-made product is available at most Mexican stores. Making it from scratch takes time and effort, but, one can taste the difference

  • 2 tablespoons annatto seeds
  • ½ cup of water
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground allspice
  • 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ cup ancho chile powder
  • 4 teaspoons salt
  • 1 tablespoon toasted and ground dried Mexican oregano
  • 3 cloves garlic, whole, pan-roasted until brown and soft, then peeled
  • ½ medium-sized white onion, thickly sliced, pan-roasted until brown and soft
  • ¼ cup pineapple vinegar or apple cider vinegar
  • 1½ cups freshly squeezed orange juice
  • ¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

Makes about 2½ cups

In a small saucepan combine the annatto seeds and water. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Take off the heat and allow to steep for 2 more hours or until soft. Discard excess water, place in a food processor along with the remaining ingredients. Whizz until smooth. Use immediately or cover tightly. It will keep in the fridge for about 5 days.

To dye textiles

For best results use oxalic acid or tartaric acid to get golden yellow, with alum mordant, yellow, ochre with copper mordant, brown, with iron mordant, orange, with tin mordant. Best on cotton, linen, and other cellulose fiber. Fair light-fastness. Also known as Achiote, or Lipstick Tree. [Mexico] (SW: 4 oz)

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