Oak trees may be one of the most iconic old fellows of the forest. The acorn and the oak are rich with symbolism and magic much used and appreciated by many, many cultures worldwide. Acorns feed us in the fall, and there is also much to be said about the incredible edibility of these abundance sources of food in our temperate forests. Check out my friends Amber and Osker over at Glorious Forest for information about how to eat and enjoy acorns. Osker has taught me so much about the mighty oak. As the deep chill of winter has settled like a silver mantle over our shoulders, I think about what I can forage and nourish myself with.
Right now I dine on bittercress, wild onions, and bark. Yes! Bark. I am a bark eater, and perhaps you are too? Abby Artemesia and I are teaching a class on Edible and Medicinal trees at the end of the month, and it got me thinking. Learning how to harvest barks without harming the tree is very important, as well as processing methods and more. I am also curious as always, as to where the magic of these beings enters into the foodways? I want to talk about oak and how it is used in Appalachian folk medicine and magic extensively, as well as a surprising use in food in times past.
Quickly, let’s meet oak:
“An oak is a tree or shrub in the genus Quercus of the beech family, Fagaceae. There are approximately 600 extant species of oaks. The common name "oak" also appears in the names of species in related genera, notably Lithocarpus (stone oaks), as well as in those of unrelated species such as Grevillea robusta (silky oaks) and the Casuarinaceae (she-oaks). The genus Quercus is native to the Northern Hemisphere, and includes deciduous and evergreen species extending from cool temperate to tropical latitudes in the Americas, Asia, Europe, and North Africa. North America contains the largest number of oak species, with approximately 90 occurring in the United States, while Mexico has 160 species of which 109 are endemic. The second greatest center of oak diversity is China, which contains approximately 100 species.”
Here in Appalachia we have quite a few species. White oak, Northern and Southern Red Oak, Black oak, Swamp oak, Chestnut oak...the lists goes on depending in what specific climate you dwell in here. While oaks are best known among foragers for their robust harvests of nuts, the bark also has a fantastical history of use in medicine and magic. As we often see, there is a thin line between the two.
Medicinally in the mountains white oak bark tea was used by Pennsylvania Germans as a Spring and Fall tonic for children. The direction from which the bark is harvested also depends upon the season: The bark is taken off the north side of the trees in the spring and off the south side in the fall. I often, when possible, like to involved directional magics in harvesting to bring in the fire of the south or the cooling earth of the north, this can energetically and magically enhance a recipe.
It was also used in charms for toothache. In Alabama is was said to cure a toothache you should go into a lonely part of the woods with someone of the opposite sex, who should carry an ax. The bearer of the ax chops around the roots of a white oak, cuts off, with a large jack knife, nine splinters from roots of the tree, then cuts around the roots of the aching tooth with the knife, dips each of the splinters in the blood that flows from these cuts, and finally buries the splinters at the foot of the tree from which they came. While doing this a secret charm was spoken. The water from a white oak stump was also used to wash away warts, so long as you aren’t seen by anyone while doing it. This same water was also said to remove freckles.
Red oak bark was more often used in Southern Folk medicine. Alabama herbalist Tommie Bass suggested boiled Red oak bark to soak the feet in it to remove hard calluses. He also suggested 2-3 cups of red oak bark tea a day for cirrhosis of the liver, often in combination with wild cherry bark. All oaks contain differing amounts of tannins, sometimes enough to tan leather. These were useful medicinally for a variety of ailments and sometimes as tonics. It was used as a tea to both bathe in and drink for rheumatism. It was also used as a tonic to keep the blood cool in the spring, and fevers down, specifically by using the bark peeled from the north side of a red oak tree. The same keeps the fires going in winter. The rise and fall of the blood is a foundational modality in Southern Folk medicine and its best to think of blood in a person like the sap of a tree.
Further medicinal uses in folk medicine aided by red oak’s astringency are for boils, make a poultice of fresh red oak bark between the outer rind and the tree, boil, and mix with corn meal. A poultice recipe from North Carolina called for red oak bark and sage made into a tea, mixed with borax, sulphur, and honey for boils. For diphtheria, take red oak bark and boil it to make a tea and rinse out the throat. (In diphtheria a terrible whitish coating comes over the throat). Red oak bark tea is was also a cure for dysentery, which perhaps speaks to it’s astringent powers best. Sometimes just chewing red or live oak bark or buds was enough. The tea mixed with honey was also used for sore throats to tighten the inflamed tissue as well as in a muslin bag boiled hot for a bleeding tooth socket after an extraction.
Red oak bark as also included in remedies for malaria with the fevers and chills that accompanied this dreaded disease, especially by black medical practitioners in the more coastal southern regions. They would sometimes mix other herbs in live privet roots and Jerusalem oak. In slave communities the red oak bark was also used generally for fevers and chills, sometimes mixing it with horehound and black snakeroot in whiskey.
Magically, the rich history of wart whispering and charming is often reliant upon the oak. It is said to cure a wart, prick it, and wipe the drop of blood off with a rag; then bore a hole in a white oak tree, and put a peg in to hold the rag in place. Then whisper to the wart every night for nine nights, 'Be gone,' and it will disappear. This transference magic is seen with different tree species, but very often, the lone, shading oak which stood beside a farmhouse was pocked with marks from holes bored to secret away various bits of folk cure paraphernalia. This same measuring and plugging technique was used for diseases like asthma and other childhood conditions by plugging a lock of an affected child’s hair into a hole bored on the tree marking their height. When they outgrew the hole, they would outgrow the disease.
Madame Grieve speaks to it’s other ethnobotanical uses,
“The bark is universally used to tan leather, and for this purpose strips easily in April and May. An infusion of it, with a small quantity of copperas, yields a dye which was formerly used in the country to dye woollen of a purplish colour, which, though not very bright, was said to be durable. The Scotch Highlanders used it to dye their yarn.”
Harvesting bark is an important skill when making herbal medicine. It is, however, one of the harvesting techniques in which the most care is needed. You can easily damage or even kill a tree with improper harvesting. Here's a look at harvesting bark in general.
Picking a Tree or Shrub: Often, the best time to harvest barks is in fall. As the tree or shrub draws its chemicals and other compounds into its roots, they will be more readily available in the bark. It can be a lot of work, so make sure if you’re going to the effort to harvest bark, that you have enough time and energy to see it to completion. Also, pick a tree or shrub that is small so you can reach it easily and so you don’t have to cut the whole thing down to get a branch.
Medicinal Trees and Woody Shrubs: Some include willow, cherry, witch hazel, sassafras, birch, , spicebush, black haw, alder, hawthorn, pines, bayberry root bark (use like goldenseal), blackberry root bark, prickly ash, slippery elm, cramp bark, cottonwood and many others.
The Harvest: Choose a small branch no larger than your arm. Locate the collar, or the fattest part of the branch, at a point where the branch branches or against the trunk as shown in this image. Use a saw to cleanly cut the branch beyond the collar, NOT INTO IT pparallel with the collar. This can damage the tree and cause rot. You can cut bottom (cut 1) up first if the branch is large, then down (cut 2) as in the picture above to ensure water won’t pool in your cut and cause rot either.
Processing the Bark: This is best done on sunny, dry days to ensure your bark doesn’t get wet on a tarp or cloth so you can catch all your bark pieces. Start out by removing any small twigs not worth shaving the bark off of, as you can save those for medicine whole, with your pruners or knife. Next, saw your branch into manageable pieces, not
too small so you can hold them easily, and not so big they are unwieldy. Brace them on the cloth or tarp in front of you and, using your sharp knife, slice away from you in slow, even cuts to take off strips of bark as well as the cambium which is the moist inner bark. Make sure not to cut too deep and take off lots of wood with your strips.
Using Bark for Medicine: You can dry bark and store it for later in airtight jars, or you can tincture it dry or fresh. Dry it on sheets or screens out of direct sunlight in a place with good ventilation, making sure to stir it up every day/ couple of days to ensure it dries evenly and doesn’t mold. Barks are denser than other plant materials so tincture the bark at 1:3 or 1:4 for a fresh tincture or 1:4 or 1:5 for a dried tincture. Most barks do best with a lower alcohol content: 50% 60% alcohol for a fresh tincture or 40% 50% for a dried tincture. Dried bark is useful for tea, poultices, baths, salves, or to save for making syrups or tinctures when needed.
Oak bark apparently was sometimes eaten as well. Check out this Rice Porridge recipe from Tudor England.
To make fine Ri(c)e Porredge.
Take halfe a pound of Iordyn (Jordan) Almon(d)s, and halfe a. li. of Ryce (Rice) and a gallon of running water, & a handful of Oke (Oak) barke, and let the bark be boyled in the running water, & the Almons beten with the hulles and all on, & so strayned to make the Rice Porrege withal.
-The treasurie of hidden secrets, by John Partridge, published in 1573.
Cavender, Anthony. "Folk Hematology in the Appalachian South." Journal of Folklore Research, 1992. 23.
Cavender, Anthony P. Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
Cavender, A. "Folk medical uses of plant foods in southern Appalachia, United States." Journal of Ethnopharmacology 108, (January 1, 2006): 74-84.
Covey, Herbert C. African American Slave Medicine: Herbal and non-Herbal Treatments. Lexington Books, 2008.
Davis, Donald E. Southern United States: an Environmental History. ABC-CLIO, 2006.
Light, Phyllis D. "A History of Southern and Appalachian Folk Medicine." Journal of the American Herbalists Guild, vol. 8, no. 2, Mar. 2008, all pages.
Moss, Kay. Southern Folk Medicine, 1750-1820. University of South Carolina Press, 1999.
More Web Resources on Barks!
https://oldwaysherbal.wordpress.com/2014/11/04/barkharvestethicalwildcrafting/ http://www.skillsforwildlives.com/2010/06/responsiblyharvestingwoodcraftmaterials/ http://joybileefarm.com/willowbarkforherbalremedies/ http://www.saforestrymag.co.za/articles/detail/sustainble_management_of_bark_harvesting_for_tra ditional_medicine
http://www.blueridgeschool.org/blog/2015/05/01/timeforbarkharvest http://www.motherearthnews.com/naturalhealth/blackberrymedicinaluseszmaz92aszshe.aspx https://theherbarium.wordpress.com/2009/03/08/harvestingmakingspecifictinctures2/
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PY6jJt4_teU making cherry bark medicine https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I89v8FwHIdM edible and medicinal trees
To support us in our research and work, please consider donating. Every dollar helps!