Old Ways Herbal

Vermont Herb School, Clinical Herbalist, Plant Remedies, & Herbal Farmcraft Wisdom.


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We Won!

I am so grateful to announce that our family farm, Riversong Farm in South Newfane, Vermont, has won an important regional business competition!  Last Wednesday we were awarded first place in the Windham Regional Business Plan Competition through Strolling of the Heifers, after presenting the business plan for our farm-to-table charcuterie line to a panel of judges.  The other finalists all have awesome businesses too, so it was an amazing surprise and we are so honored to have been chosen for first place.  The prize money will help us get our charcuterie products to customers and stores this fall, and we just can’t wait!

You can see the list of all the winners and finalists here.

Here is the link to our farm website, which is still under construction but will be updated this week.


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United Plant Savers Grant!

I just found out that United Plant is giving us a grant to build an at-risk medicine trail in our botanical sanctuary!  It will be along the trail to the classroom, so every student will get a close view of forest conservation in action.  More about this soon–too excited right now to do computer stuff, and it’s a beautiful day to be out in the gardens.  Today I am living a charmed life, thank you the universe (and especially the part of the universe that is United Plant Savers).


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Starting Seeds!

Starting seeds is a cornerstone of my herbal practice, not to mention my sweet sideline as homestead queen.  This article was first published in the spring issue of The Country Grind Quarterly, where I write a column about making and using herbal medicine.  Even though starting seeds is technically maybe a little off topic in that setting, I sent it in because it felt relevant for the spring issue.  It’s certainly involved in “making herbal medicine,” if higher on the food chain.  Also, it’s what I was thinking about at the end of February, and I was having trouble redirecting.  And now I will share it with all of you.  Pictures coming as I take them.

Tools:

  • Soil mix
  • Cells or pots
  • Quick-read or soil thermometer (optional but good)
  • Depth gauge, like a pencil or chopstick with a line drawn on it
  • Humidity cover or plastic wrap and duct tape
  • Heating pad
  • Grow lights or sunny window
  • Seedling watering can, or jar with a bendy straw

    You've got the moisture level right when the soil clumps in your hand.

    You’ve got the moisture level right when the soil clumps in your hand.

The basics are easy–it’s all about balancing light, water, and heat. Put the soil mix in a bucket and mix with lukewarm water until it clumps in your hand.

Let the soil warm up until it’s close to the seed’s germination temperature (use the thermometer). Fill the cells or pots and tap to settle the soil. Use the depth gauge to plant seeds to the right depth.

This pen is marked with 1/8", 1/4", and 1/2" so I can easily control how deep my seeds are planted.

This pen is marked with 1/8″, 1/4″, and 1/2″ so I can easily control how deep my seeds are planted.

Cover the tray and place on the heating pad. When seeds germinate, remove the cover and heating pad and put the tray in the window or under a grow light.

If you do that, you’ll be able to grow your own starts for most vegetables, flowers, and herbs. With a little more detail, though, you can get your germination rates close to 100% on almost anything you care to grow. Here goes.

Records, Resources, & Timing

Write stuff down—this process takes months and you don’t want to forget stuff or look the same info up repeatedly. Label flats with the name of the plant, date of sowing, and special considerations like “needs light to germinate” or “ideal germination temperature 60 degrees”. You think you’ll remember; you won’t.

Look through your seeds and identify cultural needs like stratifying, soaking, etc., as well as when to start them in your climate.  I often use the Fedco catalog, as their cultural information is relevant to us cold climate folks–also, they’re a worker-owned cooperative and deserve your money.  I also really like Eliot Coleman’s books.  For medicinal herbs, Horizon Herbs & Richo Cech’s book have a lot of great info, but if you live in a cold climate take things like “start in fall” or “overwinter outside” with a big grain of salt because Richo lives in a mild PNW climate and that type of thing doesn’t translate well for those of us with winter. Richter’s is a Canadian herb company that sometimes has helpful info for cold climates. I don’t know anything about warm climate resources, so if that’s you, sorry I can’t be of more help here–feel free to post your favorite resources in the comments, if you feel motivated.

Note when your resources recommend setting out plants: as soon as the ground warms, late spring, after danger of frost, etc. Then count backwards to figure out when to start seeds, adding 1 week for hardening off. For really long season crops that might be hard in your climate—for me it’s habeneros and watermelons—count the “days to maturity” backward from your fall frost date, to make sure you get them going early enough.

Soil

You can make or buy a seed starting mix. There are a lot of ethical issues surrounding growing media like sphagnum, peat, and perlite, so chew that over before you buy the detritus of what was once mountains and wetlands. I’m not going to reprint recipes here but they’re easy to find. I use a DIY version of Eliot Coleman’s soil block recipe from New Organic Grower.

Humidity

Humidity covers mimic the rain cycle for better germination.

Humidity covers mimic the rain cycle for better germination.

 

Humidity is the combination of water and heat, and is essential to good germination rates.

Cover your seed trays with either a commercial cover or plastic wrap and a seal of duct tape. The warmth from the heating pad evaporates water in the soil, which then condenses on the cover and rains back on the soil.  This gives even moisture and nutrient dispersal across the seedbed and simulates the spring rain and dew cycles. You lose moisture and warmth when you remove the covers, so no peeking until you see green.

Temperature

Seeds: Seeds need warmth to germinate; look up the ideal germination temperature for your seeds. Heating pads really increase germination rates, and they sell ones specifically for seeds that are waterproof and don’t get too hot. That said, you can use a regular one, just be careful with water around it and know that it may get too hot. Test it first by putting it under an empty seedbed for 24 hours and then temping the soil.

This soil is nice and warm for my ashwaganda seeds.

This soil is nice and warm for my ashwaganda seeds.

Plants: In the beginning keeping trays warm can be a challenge, but as the plants grow they put off their own heat so make sure you have a way to cool down the room if necessary. A fan can prevent fainting on warm spring days. If you’re growing plants with different temperature needs, do it in stages: brassicas first, then move them to a cold frame as the nightshades start setting true leaves, etc.

Water

Seeds: Watering is risky: seeds can rot or get dislodged, or soil gets muddy and cracks when it dries so seedlings can’t push through. If the soil dries out under the humidity cover, use a spray bottle, or fill 1 cell with water to increase the humidity.

Plants: Once your seedlings have unfolded, remove the cover and give them a drink without knocking them over. Soil should be dry but not baked. Under-watering twice a day is better than overwatering once a day, to avoid damping off. More water is usually not the solution to any problem, unless the plants have bent over away from the light in a deep bow, in which case a little sip will perk them right up. Less is more with water!

Light

Seeds: Window light is enough for light-dependent germinators. If grow lights are turned on before germination, the soil can get way too hot.

Plants: When plants are up, remove covers and position lights several inches above seedlings so they don’t get leggy. If you’re using a window, back it with a mirror so the plants get light from both directions. There’s a lot of discussion about how many hours a day seedlings need to flourish, and the answer is it depends on the plant and the kind of light. I give them my day, because they’re going to have to make it in my climate anyway.

Simulating Natural Conditions

This is where it gets complicated. A lot of herbs, especially the at-risk ones, are fussy germinators—they just won’t grow under normal conditions, or you get a terrible germination rate. The key is to ask yourself what natural conditions the seed would be exposed to in its natural environment. Many resources have this information, but I’ve found that many seeds benefit from these treatments even if the books don’t mention it. Again, those of us in harsh climates do things a little differently than our more temperate counterparts.

Allow space for intuition: watch how and when wild plants grow, and build an understanding of their needs. The following techniques cover most natural conditions that can be a limiting factor in germination.

Stratification mimics the freeze-thaw cycle of winter and spring. For wet stratification, wrap seeds in a moist paper towel or rag, then put it inside a plastic bag in the fridge, away from high-moisture foods like tomatoes and apples (and then take your tomatoes and apples out of the fridge before you destroy the nutrients, goofball). For dry stratification—this is less common—put the seeds in a pot with a little soil, again in the fridge.

Stratify fussy germinators that are native to places with winter. Some seeds need a long time, like 3 months of wintery conditions. Others need multiple stratification: cold for a month, then room temperature, then cold again for a few weeks, room temperature, cold for 1 week, etc. to really simulate spring; I do this routine for our fussy woodland natives, as well as difficult-to-germinate cold climate natives from elsewhere. It’s generally the first thing I try if I don’t know what to do.

Scarification mimics the physical breakdown of the seed coating in an animal’s digestive tract. Just sand the seeds a little, or if they’re big enough, nick them with a knife. Think about which plants rely on animals to spread their seeds, as well as seeds that have really thick, impervious coatings, so they can last a long time in the soil before germinating. Usually scarification is combined with a second treatment, like compost or soaking.

Fire is pretty specific to prairie natives, although I bet there’s a bunch of plants that would like this treatment out on the West Coast where they have all those forest fires–I don’t know because I don’t grow any, but if you do, let me know if fire improves your germination! Anyway, spread the seeds on a baking tray or something else that won’t catch fire and use a grill lighter to burn them (gently! gently!).  Some people plant the seeds first and then burn the soil, or even build an actual fire on top.  This is often followed by soaking—if you’re Echinacea pallida, your spring routine is ruled by flood and fire.

Soaking is probably the most common and combines well with most other treatments. It mimics rain and spring flooding, a biological alarm clock, and softens hard seed coatings, making it easier for the seedlings to poke through. Use non-chlorinated water and soak the seeds for a day or so. If you really have to use chlorinated water, let it sit on the counter for 24 hours before you put the seeds in.

Compost gives a nutrient boost to seeds that have to pass through an animal’s digestive tract before germinating. It’s almost always combined with scarification. Put a little compost in the bottom of the seed tray with your regular soil mix on top. The water cycle within the seed tray will disperse the nutrients slowly and make them accessible to the seedlings. Most seeds do not need this, and in fact can be burned by compost, so only do it if it’s actually necessary.

Overwintering is appropriate for cold climate natives, if you get to it in the fall. It provides the benefits of stratification and soaking that so many plants need. Prep fertile garden beds in the fall, direct seed, and mulch well—think dead prairie grass or goldenrod, really protective. In mild climates, people overwinter seeds outside in pots, but in cold climates that’s unreliable because there’s no natural insulation that the ground would normally provide. I’ve had this work occasionally, but really only with plants that are actually native to a place that routinely has 4+ feet of snow. A shed can work, but then you have to remember to water it in the spring.

Good luck, hooray for spring, and send me your success and failures!


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The Battle Over Fire Cider

I challenge you to sign the petition, honor the boycott, and make your own fire cider: keep your family and our herbal & local food community healthy!

At the end of December, I wrote this summary of the battle between the herbal community as a whole and one selfish, short-sighted national company as a little aside in a full-length magazine article on infused vinegars.  They declined this section–it was off topic–so I’m publishing it here with some additions (anything that seems angry, because I am).

Fire cider is a spicy, immune-boosting infused vinegar that is traditionally taken in the winter as a cold and flu remedy. The concept is old, but the name “fire cider” was made up by herbal pioneer Rosemary Gladstar in the 1970’s, and published in a copyrighted book in 1994. Rosemary has been a pillar of the herbal community for decades and has taught so many herbalists that her ideas have become part of the common parlance. Fire cider is now a generic term with many recipe variations, produced in kitchens around the world.

However, a heated debate has arisen over the use of the term fire cider.  A Massachusetts-based company, Shire City Herbals, has started manufacturing wholesale fire cider for national distribution and has trademarked the name, claiming it as their own invention–despite it being a well-known traditional, generic term, previously published in books and produced by hundreds of small companies.  As Tradition Not Trademark says, it’s like trademarking “pizza.”

Since the trademark went into effect, Shire City Herbals has pursued many individuals and small, local companies with threats of legal action and bullying on social media and sites like Etsy, despite claims that they have no intention of “persecut[ing] folks making home remedies and selling their remedies on a small scale” (from the Shire City Herbals blog).

Despite their name, Shire City Herbals is not a local herbal company; they have national distribution of their only product, fire cider, and have been called “a small national company working to corner an industry with a single product” by Free Fire Cider.  In other words, they are not one of the thousands of companies run by community herbalists trying to make a living doing what they love; instead, they’re doing what they can to destroy the livelihoods of others.

The herbal community has risen up in resistance to the dangerous precedent this trademark sets, along with local food aficionados and do-it-yourself enthusiasts, as the trademark forbids the use of a long-standing generic term and recipe, and violates the principles of a community based on cooperation and shared knowledge.  Beyond the lack of ethics here, the long-term dangers to the herbal community are significant, as Free Fire Cider explains:

“[T]his could set the precedent for the trademarking of generic, traditional terms by national companies and could lead to a huge change in the grassroots herbal product industry, nationally and internationally. With national companies potentially bullying smaller herbal producers with the legal system, forcing them to stop using generic, cultural, historical herbal terms, so that they can capitalize off of the term, and monopolize the industry with the standardized product. A scenario like this could lead to restricted access to quality, small batch, herbal remedies made locally and distributed locally.”

There is legal action pending against Shire City Herbals to revoke the trademark as well as a boycott, an online petition to the US Patent and Trademark Office to get the trademark revoked with over 9,000 signatures (please add yours), and many free and fabulous recipes available all over the internet.  I really love Mountain Rose’s recipe, and these charming variations from Rosemary Gladstar.

The herbal community urges everyone who cares about small-scale local production and an economy of cooperation to make their own fire cider this year!  There are as many recipe variations as there are cooks and it’s likely to change based on what you have in the kitchen, but here’s a place to start.

If you’d rather buy top-quality fire cider instead of making it, consider supporting one of these small, hand-crafted herbal companies: Herbal Revolution, LaLa Earth, & Good Fight Herb Co.

Juliette’s “Winter is Coming” Fire Cider Recipe

Based on Rosemary Gladstar’s original, Juliet Blankespoor’s guidance, my family’s taste buds, and the availability of ingredients in December in Vermont.

1.  Chop or grate, and combine in a quart jar:

  • ½ cup fresh ginger
  • ¼ cup fresh horseradish or a ½ cup prepared horseradish
  • 1 onion
  • 1 bulb garlic
  • 2-4 cayenne peppers
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 orange
  • 2 Tbsp each: rosemary and thyme
  • 1 Tbsp cinnamon
  • 1 quart raw apple cider vinegar (or whatever will fit)

2.  Cover the mouth of the jar with waxed paper or cloth before putting on the lid. This prevents the lining of the lid from corroding due to the acidity of the vinegar.  Label with the date and ingredients, and store in a cool, dark place.

3.  Shake the jar daily (or as often as you remember). The motion helps extract the medicinal properties more thoroughly.  The longer your vinegar infuses, the stronger it will be.

4.  Strain in 1-3 months.  Pour through a fine strainer or cheesecloth into a clean jar. Squeeze out the last, strongest goodness before discarding.

5.  Add ¼ cup raw honey, or more to taste.

Take 1-2 tablespoons per day to keep your immune system strong, or 2-4 tablespoons a few times daily as a remedy for colds and flus.  It’s very strong-flavored, so dilute in water or honey as needed.


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Homegrown Tea

As the snow piles up and icicles grow from the eaves, tea becomes a central part of my life. Drinking a steaming, fragrant cup of last summer’s bounty in front of the woodstove on these long winter nights is a cold weather ritual that resonates to my bones. I love the seasons; I love how the most basic ways I spend my time change throughout the year in perfect rhythm with the world around me, and how just when it starts to feel a little stale—say, April snowstorms—the earth is changing to its next phase, as the earliest plants push their way towards the sun. But now it is only the beginning of the season, when the smell of woodsmoke and the silence of a snowstorm feel like coming home after too long away. In honor of this season of joyful homebodiness, of planning next years’ crops and spinning wool by the fire late into the night, here is an explanation of how to make a truly beautiful cup of tea.

tea

A Good Start Tea is the backbone of herbal medicine and it is often the easiest way to get herbs into your daily life. If you have wanted to fiddle with herbs but are having trouble finding the rhythm to actually do it, try drinking a cup of herbal tea every night after supper, when the day’s tasks are complete and you can relax with a book or guitar and just be. This practice helps put the days’ worries to rest, soothes us after overeating at supper, makes up for that last beer, and settles our minds for sleep. It’s surprisingly effective at giving us a good start tomorrow, and it’s an easy stepping-stone to inviting herbs into your life.

Many folks who drink medicinal tea as part of their daily routine like to make a large amount at once to drink throughout the day.  To do this, make a quart jar or 2 of tea, let it cool, and refrigerate. It’s good for 24 hours.

Healing Ritual The ritual of drinking tea plays a powerful role in healing and maintaining health.  Tea as a medicinal form is a full sensory experience that can be extremely soothing.  That deep breath of fragrant steam when you first lift the cup contributes to relaxation, promoting health and healing. As all the yoga folks will tell you, deep breathing engages the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing our bodies time to ruminate and heal from the hectic go-go-go of our cortisol-fueled lives. Taking the time to make and drink a cup of tea can be very grounding, a short break from our obligations and to-do lists.  The ritual of tea drinking is a powerful one that can’t be discounted in any conversation about tea.

Unique Medicine Some health conditions can be best served by tea, as hot water has its own medicinal attributes in addition to whatever herbs you add.  People who use herbs to help with anxiety find the ritual of tea drinking very soothing, and it is a safe, reliable ritual to engage in (as opposed to the ritual of smoking cigarettes, for example).  The same can be said of herbs to enhance sleep: the tea itself is relaxing.  For cold and flu, tea soothes sore throats and rehydrates us, in addition to whatever medicinal stuff you threw in there.  The heat of tea is wonderfully soothing to belly aches.  For folks concerned about chronic kidney stones (did you drink Beast Ice for 10 years?) or urinary tract infections, the more you pee the better, so take your herbs in tea.  The list goes on, but the point is to consider how hot, fragrant, medicinal water can benefit your health when you are deciding how to take an herb.

Drying and Storing Herbs

It’s obviously the wrong time of year to be drying herbs for tea, but it’s the right time of year to be planning next year’s garden. As you consider companion plants, culinary herbs, and general bounty, think about what herbs you might add for tea.

Drying herbs is easy. For most herbs, hang them in bunches or dry them flat on screens or stretched pieces of lace or muslin. Some herbs—the very dense, resinous, or gooey herbs like mullein, calendula, and comfrey—are harder to dry without molding, but there are tricks like using a fan, leaving them in the sun for a few hours before bringing them in, etc. that can be found online.

Store dried herbs in resealable bags, containers, or jars, in a dark, cool place. I have a ton of dried herbs, so I store mine in bags inside of those giant light-tight plastic containers (there are 6, and they’re alphabetized…) but if you don’t have too many, jars in a cabinet works great. Just don’t store them over the stove or fridge, where they’re exposed to heat and humidity, or they’ll get stale or moldy.

If you’re a gardener, storing your own herbs is effortless and rewarding. Blending your own tea is a natural extension of consuming your garden’s bounty that will continue throughout the year. If you’re not gardening, you can buy dried herbs online or from a local herbalist and still blend your own tea.

Choosing Good Tea Herbs

Taste There are some herbs that taste truly terrible. Don’t torture yourself. You get 0 points for suffering through a cup of valerian, kava kava, and spilanthes. If it tastes gross, make a tincture (see Country Grind #1 or my blog for instructions if you don’t know how).

Solubility Tea is appropriate for herbs with water-soluble medicine (constituents).  That means the medicine comes out in water, as opposed to alcohol.  All plants contain both alcohol- and water-soluble constituents; it’s just a matter of the best way to extract the medicine you’re trying to use.

Picking water-soluble herbs is easy—just think of what you’ve drank before. Any of the herbs that are generally sold in commercial tea blends are high in water-soluble constituents, for example mint, hibiscus, chamomile, dandelion, rosehips, oatstraw, raspberry leaf, and holy basil.  Any herbs that are gooey (demulcent) when you taste them are high in water-soluble constituents, too, like violet, mullein, and borage.  Likewise, very aromatic herbs do great in tea, like ginger, elecampane, lemon balm, hyssop, prickly ash, and licorice. Also, food herbs such as nettles, burdock, and chickweed are high in water-soluble constituents. Right there is a reasonable list to get you started and I bet you can name half a dozen more off the top of your head.

Composition of the Perfect Cup

teapot

Blending your own tea seems a little daunting, but it’s really pretty straightforward—and then you have fresher, higher quality tea tailored to your needs, and at a fraction of the store price. What Celestial Seasonings knows and most of us don’t is essentially just balancing flavors in an intentional way. A knowledge of herbal energetics really helps with this, but that’s a little complicated for now—suffice it to say there is more to this that you can learn if you want.

It’s totally okay to throw one herb in your cup and call it good; mint tea is a standard for a reason. But if you want to do some blending, choose a few herbs using these general guidelines, or make up your own. What it really comes down to is activating all your senses and taste buds at once.

Purpose What is your tea for? Emotional balance, digestive problems, immunity, overall health? Start there and think of a couple herbs you could use. Try to identify if they are warming or cooling, drying or moistening in your body, and use that to narrow down your choices based on what you want.

Use All Your Senses The fragrance and appearance of the tea have a huge impact on how much you enjoy drinking it. Bright colors glow among clumps of green leaves, so think of fruits like rosehip, schisandra, prickly ash berries, and tiny dried flowers like lavender. Large dried flowers will open in the cup to be little bright surprises, like calendula, rose, and red clover. This is in addition to the medicinal qualities, taste, and fragrance they add.

Balance Your Blend Now pick an herb that is very fragrant, an herb that is tangy or sour, an herb that tastes great, an herb that looks beautiful, and an herb that is sweetly mild tasting. That last one is essential: it will give your tea depth of flavor and provide a backbone for everything else; it’s the central element that holds everything else together.

Like So…Okay so maybe my beautiful herb is red clover, fragrant herb is hyssop, tangy herb is rosehip, incredibly delicious herb is holy basil, and mild herb is oatstraw. I’ve made a blend that will increase overall health, tonify my endocrine system, lessen depletion or adrenal exhaustion, balance my cycle, protect me from toxins, nurture my nervous system, mood, and sleep cycle, protect against sickness and infection, and is high in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. I can make a month’s worth of this tea for the cost of a few days supply of good loose tea at the store, if I buy dried herbs; considering I have these herbs dried from my garden, it will be free. It will also look, smell, and taste wonderful—which is really the point, anyway.

Actually Making Tea

There is more to life than teabags. If you separate your tea ingredients into infusions and decoctions, you will have much stronger medicine and fuller flavors, as tough plant parts need more oomph in their boil than delicate parts (this is true of people too).

Infusions

An infusion is usual tea: hot water, herbs, done.  We make infusions of delicate plant parts like leaves and flowers—think chamomile, mint, lemon balm, etc. They’ll fall apart to mush and shreds if you boil them.

To make an infusion, boil water in the kettle. Crush dried plants between your hands or chop fresh plants to release the fragrance and increase surface area for the water to do its thing.  Use 1 to 2 Tablespoons of dried herbs or 2 to 4 Tablespoons of fresh herbs per cup of water, adjusted for taste and strength. Or use a pinch of this and a dab of that, which is how I do it.

Pour boiling water over herbs.  Cover and infuse until it cools to a non-tongue destroying temperature; the longer it infuses, the stronger the medicine will be.  Strain and consume in massive quantities.

Decoctions

A decoction is when herbs are simmered, as opposed to having water poured over them.  Decoctions are used for denser, tougher plant parts, which need more time and bubbling power to extract the deep goodness.  These include roots, barks, fruits, and seeds, like ginger, burdock, fennel, elderberry, and black birch.

To make a decoction, simmer water in a small saucepan.  You want to add a little extra for evaporation.  Chop or grate fresh herbs.  Crush dried herbs between your hands.  Use 1 to 2 Tablespoons of dried herbs or 2 to 4 Tablespoons of fresh herbs per cup of water, adjusted for taste and strength (or a pinch and a dab).

Add herbs to the simmering water, reduce heat, and cover.  Allow herbs to toil and trouble until the room is fragrant and your tea is a rich, dark color, 10-20 minutes, then strain and feel really good about your herbal prowess.  Be careful not to burn decoctions or you’ll have to start over due to unavoidable grossness.

Have a beautiful winter and happy kitchen witching.

This article originally appeared in The Country Grind Quarterly. 


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Bark Harvest & Ethical Wildcrafting

Autumn is the season for bark harvest, one of the most fulfilling medicine making tasks. A walk through the woods on a crisp fall day followed by several hours in the sun as the days grow shorter and the world goes to sleep—it is definitely worth the effort, and a few trees will provide a lifetime’s medicine.

Bark is highly potent, as it is constantly growing and changing based on the needs of the tree and the influence of its surroundings. Interacting with the wider world makes for strong constituents—as in “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”—so we make medicine from plant compounds generated to ward off pests, disease, sun damage, etc. Trees are part of a larger system, so they’re forced to interact and protect themselves, making strong compounds along the way. Bark contains the growing cells of the tree, as well as the cells required to transport water and sugar for photosynthesis—on a cellular level, bark is always interacting with the rest of the organism, the mycorrhizae in the soil, and changes in its surroundings, so it contains quite a lot of plant magic.

Ethical Wildcrafting

Ethical wildcrafting is the practice of harvesting plants and trees conscientiously, to avoid damaging the health of the population or the overall ecological system. It’s especially important here because if you don’t harvest bark properly, you’ll kill the tree, which is like killing a chicken for the eggs. The basic principles are simple: don’t kill something when taking part of it will do; don’t take more than you need; and don’t take more than the population can stand. This issue is close to my heart, as I’ve watched plant populations decline as people violate the sanctity of the natural world in the name of greed. Ignoring the longevity of other creatures is buying into the mythos of man as supreme ruler over the birds and fishes—which solidly places us on the path toward unwitting acceptance of large-scale corporate rape and pillage of the natural world, violating the basic principles of land stewardship and of simply being a decent person. Harvest intentionally and teach the people around you, so our natural world stays awesome.

Don’t Kill It This is an issue with any wildcrafting or wild foods harvest, but it’s blatantly obvious when you harvest trees. Trees are keystone species, meaning they form the center of the complex ecological web that surrounds them, from plants that only grow in soil with the pH maintained by that tree’s leaves, to the lichen on its branches, to the birds that eat the bugs that eat the wood, to the foxes that eat the birds…you get the idea. Trees are important fellows among their woodland brethren, so it’s easy to imagine the impact of removing one for a shitty reason, like by accident. The most common way this happens in wildcrafting is by girdling, or removing a section of bark around the trunk of the tree. Girdling kills the tree because the leaves and roots can’t trade water and sugar, leaving the tree to starve to death. Girdling is one thing if you’re carving a homestead out of the wilderness—it’s a time-honored way of clearing forest—but it’s something entirely different if you’re just doing it because you don’t know any better. Girdling is specific to trees, but the overall principle applies to any plant: don’t kill it if you can avoid it. For example, instead of taking the whole root of a perennial, cut off most of the root, then replant the root bud where the stem comes out so the plant will grow back. If you’re harvesting leaves, cut the stem above a leaf node so it will easily regrow, instead of cutting it off at the ground. This is an easy habit to get in to.

Take What You Need… There’s no reason for wildcrafted herbs to end up in your compost. It’s better to go back for more than it is to take too much the first time.

…But Not Too Much When harvesting wild plants, take about 1/5 of the population, max. I’ve heard this explained as “1 each for the animals, birds, fish, plants, and people,” and “1 left for each of the four directions,” but those are maybe a little out-there for me. I just don’t take more than 1/5. It’s easy—if you’re really not sure, count to 5 and take the 5th plant. It’s especially important not to take too much when you’re harvesting from a small population, a rare or threatened plant, or at a place that’s really popular for wildcrafting— in these situations, you might decide to harvest far less to avoid having a negative impact. The United Plant Savers website has great resources to tell you if a plant is threatened.

How to Harvest Bark

Tools:

  • Small handsaw
  • Pruners
  • A small, sharp knife, not serrated
  • Quilt or bed sheet, spread on the ground in a sunny spot

Timing Harvest bark when nights are cool and days are warm and crisp, as the leaves change and fall. You want the tree’s energy to be focused on shutting things down for winter, so it’s heavily present in the moving part of the bark. Bark harvest is best done in a group, since the yield is high and it’s more medicine than you really need just for your family; together with friends, it takes on an air of cider-pressing or finishing a quilt, celebrating community and the work of your hands.

Pick a Tree Common species that make great medicine include willow, cherry, witch hazel, sassafras, birch, black haw, and many others. It’s easiest to find the trees in the early fall, so you can positively identify them when they still have leaves, and come back when the time for harvest is nigh. Choose a smaller tree so you can reach the branches.

Next, taste the tree: cut off a little twig, the smaller the better, chew on it until you get a real good sense of the flavor, then spit. With a little experience, you’ll be able to tell how strong the medicine will be from this tree. Even if you’ve never tasted this medicine before, know that strongly medicinal bark will effect your mouth: willow sucks up all the spit, sassafras makes your mouth feel wet, black birch tastes like root beer, cherry tastes like nasty almond air freshener (or cyanide…) so if you don’t notice anything, even if you don’t know what it should taste like, move on.

If you’re not routinely tasting the plants you harvest, get in the habit. Medicinal content changes throughout the season and from year to year, based on where each tree is in its growing & reproductive cycle, and what its life has been like this year. Triumphing over adversity makes us all stronger, but sometimes it takes a while for our personal strength to recover from a major life-changing setback, so even if that particular tree isn’t strong enough this year, come back next year and see what it says to you.

Harvest So now you’re sure you’ve got the right tree, and it tastes great/terrible so you know it’s got some magic in it. The next step is to harvest the bark. Choose a small branch, maybe the size of your arm or smaller. Find a place where the branch branches, then identify the collar, or the fatter part at the base of the branch. Use your saw to cut the branch just beyond the collar; if you cut into the collar itself, the tree won’t heal right and can rot. Make your cut parallel with the collar, so water won’t collect in the cut. Don’t let the wood split or crack, cut it cleanly so you don’t hurt the part of the branch you’re leaving behind; if necessary, cut part of the way through from the bottom up, then finish by cutting from the top down. Remember that the priority is to not hurt the tree: don’t take more than the tree can spare, don’t take more than you can use, and don’t make cuts that will hurt the tree long term.

Process Bring the branches to your blanket in the sun. Look them over carefully and wipe off any dirt, lichen, insects etc. Use the pruners to remove tiny twigs and pile them up—they’re medicinal but you don’t need to shave them. You can cut the branches into smaller pieces at this point to make them more manageable, 3-foot sections work well. When you’re ready to shave bark, sit on the blanket with one end of a branch in your lap, and the other braced on the blanket in front of you. Use your knife to shave down the length of the branch, removing long strips of bark. You want to make sure you get the cambium, the inner bark that contains all the good stuff, but not the wood. Cambium can be white, green, yellow, even pink, and is generally smooth, moist, and clearly alive—it’s the part that splits into the cells responsible for all that transport and growth stuff. If you’re shaving off wood, make your cuts shallower; if you’re leaving the cambium on the wood, go back and shave it again. If you’re struggling to shave the bark, try switching knives—sometimes a different size or shape blade does the trick. When you’re done, the branch should be all wood, no bark visible. The bark will have fallen on your nice clean quilt, so it’s easy to gather.

Making Bark Medicine

To make bark medicine, you can tincture it fresh or dry it for later use.

Dried Spread the bark in a single layer on a drying rack in a cool, dark place, and stir regularly until dry, a few days. Once it’s dry, store in jars, bags, or containers, in a dark place. Dried bark is useful for tea, poultices, baths, salves, or to make syrups or tinctures later.

You can build a drying rack in a few hours by screwing 1×2’s into rectangles, attaching legs, then stapling lace or muslin over the frames. Alternatively, pin the corners of large pieces of lace to the ceiling, then place the herbs you want to dry on top.

Tinctures Bark tinctures best at a lower ratio, like 1:3 or 1:4 for a fresh tincture or 1:4 or 1:5 for a dried tincture, because it is so fibrous and dense—it needs more liquid to extract all the medicine. Most barks prefer lower alcohol content, too, so use 50%-60% alcohol for a fresh tincture or 40%-50% for a dried tincture. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, please look back at the article about making tinctures in Country Grind #1 or read about it on my blog.

I hope you decide to give this a try—it’s really satisfying, especially in January when you clear up that cough with your own cherry bark, or fix a brutal headache with willow you processed yourself. I love hearing your successes & failures with medicine making, so let me know how it goes!

This article originally appeared in The Country Grind Quarterly.