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Exploring the Medicinal Uses of Tree Bark

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tree bark and a jar
Bark is the outermost layer found on trees. It is the coat that protects the delicate tissues of the tree from disease and environmental factors like weather and insects. Over the years, bark has been harvested from trees and used by people for many different purposes, from making blankets and clothing, to baskets, mats and even canoes. Indigenous populations have been using Australian native trees for their food and therapeutical benefits for centuries. However, one of its most common uses it has today is in medicine. In this article, we explore the medicinal benefits of bark, including how it’s used, and where to find it.

Tree bark as medicine

The uses of bark in medicine are endless. It can be used to treat a wide range of ailments, from inflammation, arthritis, and high blood pressure, to even being used in some cancer treatments. For example, the anti-inflammatory compounds, phenolics, are found in the bark of the Scotch pine (Christmas tree) and have been used to treat arthritis. While lower back pain can be treated using the bark from willow trees, due to it being the main ingredient used in aspirin. Bark is also a key feature in herbal medicine, including wound washes and poultices, salves, and tinctures.

Harvesting tree bark

Before bark can be used in medicine, it must be harvested. Bark can be harvested at any time of the year, but is most commonly done in autumn, as the sap and energy moves more freely through the trunks while the trees are preparing for winter.

It’s important to know which trees to harvest bark from. The most common medicinal species of trees include the willow, cherry, hazel, witch, sassafras, black haw, and birch. To tell if a tree has strong medicinal properties, pull a piece of bark from the tree, chew it until you can taste the flavour, then spit it out. You will notice that bark with plenty of medicine in it will affect your mouth, for example, willow will absorb all the saliva, whereas sassafras with make your mouth feel wet.

Once the right tree is found, look for small branches and identify the collar (the fatter part at the base of the branch). Use a saw to cut the branch just above the collar, cutting parallel with the collar. Avoid letting the wood crack or split, as a clean cut will allow the part of the branch you are leaving behind to heal. Next, shave the bark. Use a knife to shave down the length of the branch, removing long bark strips. You want to make sure you’re getting the cambium, so when you’re done, there should only be wood left on the branch.

Tree bark can be taken home and used immediately, or it can dried and saved for later use. It’s important to also only take what you need, to ensure the longevity of the tree.

Using tree bark

The medicinal benefits of tree bark are found in the greenish yellow layer of the bark (the cambium), just beneath the outer surface. Once harvested, it can be used at home to make a number of herbal remedies. Here are the top herbal medicines you can make yourself at home, using tree bark.

1. Wound washes and poultices

Start by simmering roughly two teaspoons of bark with one cup of water for 20 minutes, leaving the lid on. Strain the water and allow to cool. The bark can then be used in bath water to treat skin irritations like rashes, eczema and psoriasis, or can be made into a poultice to apply to frostbite and burns. To make poultice, use a blender to mix the bark into a mush, then add more bark (elm is the best for this) until the blend turns doughy. Spread the mixture onto a clean cloth and apply to the wound for about an hour. The poultice should be discarded after use.

2. Salves

Salve is an ointment used to treat skin irritations like boils, ingrown toenails and splinters. To make bark salve, place the bark into a non-aluminium pot and cover it lightly with olive oil. Simmer for 20 minutes with the lid on. While this is being done, melt beeswax in a separate pot and allow to simmer for 20 minutes (the ratio should be 3 tablespoons of beeswax to every one cup of olive oil). Stir the two ingredients together and allow to cool and harden before storing in a sterilised glass jar.

3. Tinctures

Tinctures are also used to treat damaged skin and can be made using the roots, bark or buds from a tree. If using bark, chop into small pieces and place inside a glass container. Cover the bark with 80 proof or higher alcohol (vodka is the most popular choice) and cover the container. Let the mixture sit for eight days, shaking occasionally each day. After the eight days, add one cup of water and one teaspoon of vegetable glycerin, then strain. The tincture should be stored in cool, dark place, in a glass bottle.

4. Tea

Bark tea can be used to treat headaches, congestion, sore throats, and lower fevers. It’s also high in calcium, helping to increase the healing of injured bones. To make the tea, start by heating water to a boil. Add 1-2 teaspoons of willow bark for every eight ounces of water. Allow the bark and water to simmer for 10-15 minutes. Next, steep for around 30 minutes. Willow bark is the best choice for bark tea as it contains salicylic acid, the same ingredient found in most pain relievers.

Embrace the benefits of tree bark

Tree bark has so many amazing medical benefits, particularly when it comes to relieving pain, healing damaged and inflamed skin, and reducing the symptoms of colds and flus, and for that reason it is used in many products today. It’s also pretty easy to put together your own herbal medicines at home using tree bark, so why not test out your harvesting skills and try brewing a pot of bark tea?

Need tree advice? Get in contact today with the Treescience experts and find out how our arboricultural consulting services can help deliver the right solution for your project.

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