Early Spring, Trees, and True Love

Here is a bit that I wrote about some of our local tree medicines for the Hawthorne school…

The Hawthorn School of Plant Medicine

Early Spring, Trees, and True Love

Early Spring is a spiritually potent time of year, a time of renewal and letting go of the things that are no longer helpful in our lives in order to make room for all the new life that is ready to burst forth. We clean out our houses, clean up the gardens, plant a bunch of seeds and start getting ready for things to be busy and life to be full.

Early Spring is a great time to fall in love, and an easy time to become re-enchanted with the landscape and life in general. Springtime can also often be a time of anxiety for a lot of us. I liken the re-awakening that takes place in Spring to getting up first thing in the morning, sometimes it makes me grumpy and frazzled.

Luckily, just as we are waking up from our Winter’s slumber, the plants are also waking up, and a few of them are ready to be harvested for medicine. This is a great time to harvest some roots, fresh greens, and tree products. The focus of this writing will be on harvest and use of four local trees: Cascara Sagrada (Rhamnus purshiana), Red Alder (Alnus rubra), Black Cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa), and Pacific Dogwood (Cornus nuttallii). These trees can be really helpful both energetically and physiologically with having a graceful transition from the sleep of Winter into the awakening of Spring.

Cascara Sagrada, which means “sacred bark” in Spanish, is a native to the PNW and has a long history of use in this area by both indigenous folks (the name for this plant in Chinook jargon is “chitticum” or “chitem”) and by colonizers. The primary use of this medicine is as a laxative, indeed it is one of the most effective natural laxatives that we have available to use in herbalism. Cascara bark was used in commercial laxative preparations by the U.S pharmaceutical company Parke-Davis starting around 1877, and by 1999 cascara made up more than 20% of the laxative market in the U.S, with an estimated value of $400 million. If you talk to old-timers in the area, especially older men who lived in the country, many of them would harvest cascara as a side job, and some did it basically full time.

Unfortunately, people did not have as good a sense of sustainable harvesting in those days, and the cascara boom caused a lot of damage to the native populations. These days it is pretty rare to find a full cascara tree, most of them are growing in thick stands as a result of being cut down and then coppicing. Often people would simply peel all the bark off of the main trunk, which dooms the tree to a slow death.

These days we know better, and so we try to look for branches that have been broken by winds or cut to clear trails when we are looking to harvest. In some cases where the tree has been coppiced and is growing in a thick mass of small trunks, cutting out some of the trunks will actually help the rest of them grow, and this is a good harvest technique also. The bark peels off very easily, especially if you harvest when the baby leaves are first showing themselves up until they are about half grown. Under the bark is bright green, which shows the presence of the hydroxyanthracene glycosides that are responsible for the plant’s laxative effect. Fresh bark is extremely purgative if ingested, and must be dried and aged for a minimum of a year before it can be used as medicine.

Once the bark has been aged, it can be used as a tea (bitter!), in capsules, or as a tincture. The medicine is taken before bed (1-2 grams powdered bark, 30-50 drops of the tincture) to produce a nice poop in the morning. The bark should not be used for more than seven days as it can prove to be habit forming. A physiological dose like this could be nice for folks during the Spring, as we often experience digestive weirdness during the transition from hearty winter meals to lighter summer meals. Having a nice deep poop can help to clear out things that have become stuck, get things moving.

Energetically, Cascara is useful in a similar way to it’s physiological function. We work with Cascara to let go of things, to relax and release the things that are no longer serving us or are bogging us down. Cascara can sometimes be somewhat harsh in this process, getting at things that are buried pretty deep and flushing them out. This is not always the case and Cascara can also be a gentle but deep cleansing to the heart and the psyche. To work with the plant energetically it is common to take just one drop of the tincture, sit with the plant out in the wild, or keep a piece of it on your altar, by your bed, or on your person. Working with this plant can help to purge unwanted things from yourself as step one in Spring cleaning. Out with the old, in with the new.

Red Alder is another native tree to this area with a long history of use by humans who occupy this land. Alder is especially important to the ecology of this land in it’s role as a reclamation species and as a nitrogen fixer. Alder will rapidly cover areas that have been burned, clear cut, or otherwise damaged by big events. The alder then fixes nitrogen in it’s roots with the help of symbiotic bacteria while also providing a nitrogen rich mulch in the form of it’s leaves which it sheds yearly. While alder will initially out compete evergreen trees such as Douglas Fir, it is a relatively short lived tree and will build up the soil so that once the alders start dying the evergreens have nice rich soil from which to grow.

Alder has been used medicinally in many cultures for a long time, usually as a blood cleanser, for lymphatic disorders, for skin eruptions, and for tuberculosis. Alder is coming to be more and more recognized as a highly efficient lymphatic by the current herbalist community. It is also known to be helpful externally or internally for pain and infections. Alder also seems helpful to digestion and the assimilation of foods/proteins. I like to take some alder when I drink water as I feel that it helps the water to penetrate deeply into my body.

The general picture for a condition that would be helped by Alder is red, swollen tissues that are painful to the touch, swollen lymph nodes, and skin disorders. My favorite Alder story involves a young Mama visiting me with her baby. The baby had a large, red, swollen bump on their face that was the result of an insect sting that got infected. The Mama was already giving Oregon Grape as an anti-microbial, but wondered what I would suggest. I recommended Alder bark tincture, 3-5 drops every few hours. She came back the next day to tell me that the swelling and redness had started to fade after the first dose, and that everything was back to normal by the next day.

There are two main parts of the tree that can be used to make medicine: the bark and the twigs/catkins. I like to make both, but by far my favorite is the twigs and catkins. They are much sweeter, and have a lovely floral taste. They taste like bitter roses to me. Harvesting the catkins is less damaging to the tree, however Alders are often cut down in this area since they are often considered ‘weeds’ or ‘trash trees’ by folks (jerks) and in this case you can strip the whole tree of bark and have enough medicine for your whole community for years. I prefer Alder in all it’s forms as a tincture, made with shade dried material, for internal use. All of the above parts, and even the leaves can be infused in oil for a nice topical pain reliever.

Energetically, Alder is all about letting things flow as they will, not grasping. I find that Alder can be really helpful during times of emotional upheaval as a tool to keep from getting stuck, obsessive, or fixated on whatever is going on that is causing trouble. Often times this stuckness brings about feelings of depression or melancholy, a sort of brittleness, and Alder helps to keep things loose and flowing. It brings in fresh water and a sweetness to places that are stagnant swamps, or areas that have been traumatized and clear cut, allowing them to become full of life.

Black Cottonwood is the sweetest of all the trees. The smell of cottonwood on the Spring air will gladden anybody’s heart. Cottonwood is one of the fastest growing trees in this area, and also one that does not live to a very old age, which is different from the cottonwood species that grow in other areas of the country. It is most often found around rivers and wet areas, especially up on the Peninsula. Cottonwood has been traditionally used as lumber for construction projects, and medicinally primarily as a pain killer and wound healer.

There are two main parts of the tree that are used medicinally. The leaf buds that form over the winter are harvested in the very early Spring when they get swollen with a delightfully fragrant resin, known as Balm of Gilead. This balm is rich in salicin and populin, both of which function as anti-inflammatories and anodynes similarly to salicylic acid or aspirin. The buds are extracted into some kind of oil which can be either used straight or mixed with bee’s wax to form a salve. Cottonwood oil or salve is one of the best medicines for deep seated muscle pain brought on by overwork. A great time to use your cottonwood oil is after you have been weeding and digging around in your garden after not moving your body very much all winter, and you get so sore. The oil or salve is also super helpful for helping burns to heal, promoting tissue repair while also disinfecting and serving as a painkiller.

The buds may also be extracted into alcohol as a tincture. The tincture is great to loosen up lung crud in the late stages of a lung infection, and is also coating and healing to the gums and throat. The tincture makes a great mouth wash for those with inflamed or bleeding gums.

The buds are also used to produce essential oils and concretes, which are then used as perfuming ingredients. The smell of cottonwood is the smell of spring, is the smell of the sun. It is a smell that will make most anybody smile, and the smell in itself is deeply medicinal. It brings a lightness and a gladness to gloomy souls.

The bark and twigs of Cottonwood may also be used medicinally in a similar way to the use of Willow or Quaking Aspen, as a simple cooling pain killer or anti inflammatory.

The energetics of Cottonwood is bees buzzing about, young love and sunshine. Cottonwood is a joyful tree, you can see it in the way that the leaves shake and dance at the slightest breeze, or even when it seems like there is no breeze at all. Going out with someone in late February to hunt Cottonwood buds is a really great date. This love and light, however, is deeply rooted in the earth. It is not scattered or superficial. Working with Cottonwood helps us to know this taste of love and light in a deep and lasting way. Good way to start out the year.

Pacific Dogwood is thought of by some of us as the Queen of the Forest. This plant is another native that has a long history of medicinal use but is rarely worked with these days. It is the hardest to find in our area of all the above listed trees, and is only becoming more scarce due to a widespread fungal infection (Discula destructiva is the name of the fungus) that is killing off the trees in the wild.

Dogwood is hard to identify when it is not in flower, but the flowers are beautiful, white beacons that are mostly pointed towards the heavens and are hard to miss when the tree is in bloom, which occurs around May. It is a low growing tree with gnarled and looping branches.

The part of the tree that is used medicinally is the bark. The ‘King’s American Pharmacy’ of 1898 listed dogwood bark as “tonic, astringent, and slightly stimulant” for use with “ periodical fevers, typhoid fevers, and general exhaustion”. Dogwood bark was widely used by the early European pioneers in the treatment of fevers, a use that they learned from the indigenous people around them. During the Civil War access to ports was restricted to prevent the colonists from having access to the Peruvian cinchona tree which was used as a source of quinine to treat malaria. The local Dogwood was used in place of cinchona and found to be as effective a medicine.

Today Dogwood is used in much the same way, as a cooling and bitter antipyretic, and it is also often used to soothe headaches and other aches and pains that may be thought of as hot in nature. The bitter principals in Dogwood can also be very useful to cool and soothe an inflamed or upset stomach.

Energetically, Dogwood is used to promote easy visioning. Dogwood is the first plant that ever helped me to have visionary state that was not a classical psychedelic. Dogwood is thought to open up the third eye and to serve as a bridge between the human ingesting it and the other plants that are growing around them.

Working with Dogwood helps us to get in touch with the more celestial realms, as shown by the flowers which point skyward. Working with Dogwood can also help us to be more open to the subtle communications of other plants that we wish to commune with. Dogwood can also help us to embody the energetics of the Queen of the forest, and to be filled with self love and beneficence.