Last Updated on February 1, 2023
While many of us are familiar with herbs we can grow in a medicinal herb garden or forage for medicinal use, we often overlook the medicinal trees growing all around us. One big advantage of knowing which trees are used for medicine is that you can harvest remedies from many of them all year round.
Here’s what to know about the medicinal trees that may be growing in your area.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF MEDICINAL TREES?
But how often have you harvested your wildcrafted natural remedies from trees? Many amateur herbalists don’t realize the medicinal possibilities of the trees growing all around them. Familiarizing yourself with some common medicinal trees can open up new ways to source herbs for your herbal apothecary.
Ingredients sourced from medicinal trees have many of the same benefits you seek in other medicinal plants, rich in anti-inflammatory compounds, come can be used to treat fevers, relieve pain, or topically for wound healing, plus so many other uses.
Read on to find out some of the herbal benefits of many common medicinal trees.
HOW TO HARVEST FROM MEDICINAL TREES
In many cases, it’s the leaves, flowers, or berries we harvest from medicinal trees. In the case of deciduous medicinal trees, leaves will be harvested during the growing season and dried for later use. Many medicinal trees have leaves thought best harvested early in the season, though some, like mulberry, are typically harvested as late in the season as possible.
But conifers like pine and spruce have the advantage of needles available all year round. Other medicinal trees may have bark or roots that can be harvested much of the year, depending on the climate.
If you’re harvesting the bark, it’s important for the health of the tree to know what you’re doing, or you could introduce damaging pathogens. While we don’t need to worry about overharvesting fast-growing invasive wild plants like garlic mustard or Virginia waterleaf, trees take years to mature, and overharvesting can badly damage or kill them.
Avoid taking bark from the trunk of a living tree. You can harvest bark from recently felled trees, or prune a branch and harvest from that.
Take only what you will use, and harvest sparingly from any one tree.
–> Positive identification of any foraged plant is critical. Always consult a good field guide or go with an experienced forager to ensure sure you’ve correctly identified the medicinal trees you’re after.
These are the best foraging books I’ve found, and I consult them often when I’m exploring new medicinal plants.
If you’d like to add some excellent references on plant medicine to your bookshelf, these are my top recommendations for the best herbalism books.
If you’d like expert guidance on plant identification and wildcrafting, check out the Herbal Academy’s info-packed online foraging course.
CAUTIONS USING MEDICINAL TREES & OTHER HERBS
Always look up cautions and contraindications before trying a new herb for the first time. Many medicinal trees have strong actions that make them not recommended during pregnancy, while others could interfere with medications like blood thinners.
Many plants and trees that have edible and medicinal parts also have parts that are extremely toxic. Don’t assume, for example, that because the berries are used for food it’s safe to consume the leaves or roots as well.
HOW TO USE MEDICINAL TREES
Like other sturdy ingredients, such as roots and dried berries, barks need to simmer on the stove to extract their compounds in water. They can also be extracted in alcohol or vinegar.
MEDICINAL LEAVES & BLOSSOMS
Most leaves and blossoms are used like other herbal leaves, steeped in water as an infusion, or in vinegar or alcohol to extract medicinal compounds. Fresh leaves may also be used for poultices.
Now that we have the basics of harvesting from and using medicinal trees, let’s move on to the list of medicinal trees to consider foraging.
MEDICINAL TREES TO KNOW
Alder bark contains the same anti-inflammatory compound in aspirin, salicylic acid, which was originally derived from willow bark.
Alder leaves and bark can be used to make tea helpful for fevers or applied externally to help with wound healing. Native Americans used alder for a variety of purposes, including pain relief and treating skin conditions. Fresh alder sap may help relieve itching.
In addition to providing delicious fruit for your table (like this incredibly delicious apple pear fruit leather), apple trees have some medicinal possibilities as well.
Of course, there’s the whole apple-a-day wisdom. Apples’ antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds have medicinal value, and apple consumption has been linked to reduced risk of cardiac disease, diabetes, and cancer.
In their wonderful book, Wild Remedies, Rosalee de la Forêt and Emily Han note that the leaves and bark can be brewed into a tea useful for treating mouth sores or to tone tissues in the digestive tract. It can also be used externally for wounds, bites, and rashes.
Apple blossoms make a lovely tea considered helpful for digestion and skin health. Consume apple blossoms in moderation, though, as they’re thought to contain cyanide precursors.
Apple scraps can be made into apple cider vinegar, considered a top home remedy for all sorts of things, including fighting colds, preventing seasonal allergies, promoting gut health, as a home remedy for bug bites, and even for making homemade bug repellent.
The leaves, bark, seeds, and root of ash trees have been studied for their antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective, and antimicrobial properties. Native Americans have used ash in a number of ways, including to bring on menses and treat snakebites.
In A Modern Herbal, Maud Grieve writes that ash leaves
have diuretic, diaphoretic and purgative properties, and are employed in modern herbal medicine for their laxative action, especially in the treatment of gouty and rheumatic complaints, proving a useful substitute for Senna, having a less griping effect… The distilled water of the leaves, taken every morning, was considered good for dropsy and obesity.”
She recommends gathering ash leaves in June and drying before storing in airtight containers.
Grieve notes that “The fruits of the different species of Ash are regarded as somewhat more active than the bark and leaves.”
The leaves of beech trees have antibacterial properties, and were used externally by the Iroquois for treating burns. They also used a decoction of bark for tuberculosis.
Grieve reports that beech “tar” (presumably resiny sap) has been used as an expectorant for chronic bronchitis and externally for skin problems.
In Backyard Medicine, Julie Bruton-Seal notes the medicinal properties of birch sap, which has been used as a tonic for supporting kidneys Birch has been used by Native Americans for treating gastrointestinal problems, as an analgesic, and to soothe skin conditions.
In their excellent foraging guide, Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs, Steven Foster and James Duke note that in addition to the easily recognized paper or white birch, the twigs and bark of which were also used for medicine, black or sweet birch was also commonly used. Tea was made from bark, twigs, and leaves and used for fevers, stomachaches, and skin diseases. Here’s how to make birch tea plus more on foraging birch.
If you’re lucky, you might find some of the medicinal fungi that grow on birch, like chaga and birch polypore.
CEDAR (CEDRUS, CALOCEDRUS, THUJA, JUNIPERUS VIRGINIANA)
The name ‘cedar’ is used for a number of different trees besides those in the Cedrus, or true cedar, genus.
Thuja occidentalis, also known as white cedar or arborvitae, is rich in vitamin C and is puportedly what saved Jacques Cartier’s crew from scurvy in the sixteenth century. Numerous Native American tribes used arborvitae as a cold remedy, to treat wounds and burns, and for several other ailments. Western redcedar (Thuja plicata) was used in very similar ways by western tribes.
Eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) was used by many tribes for colds, coughs, and fevers.
Incense cedar, or Calocedrus decurrens, was less commonly used for medicinal purposes. The Paiute made an infusion of leaves that they used as a steam for colds or for gastrointestinal problems.
Wild cherry bark is an antispasmodic and is often used to alleviate coughs. Maud Grieve reports that the bark of the root is the most medicinally powerful, though bark from branches and the trunks are also valuable. She recommends collecting it fresh each season, as its medicinal compounds degrade after a year.
You can purchase wild cherry bark or syrup made with it online as well.
Depending on what type of elderberry you have growing in your area, you may think of it as a tree or a shrub. Sambucus nigra and cerulea tend to take more of a tree form, while Sambucus canadensis is more of a bush. Whatever its form, you probably know that elderberry is a highly medicinal plant, and historically not the just the berries, but the flowers, bark, leaves, and root have all been used medicinally.
Note that the uses for the bark, leaves, and roots have mostly been for external applications or as emetics (i.e., they’ll make you vomit if taken internally). Be forewarned that consumption of these parts of the elderberry can make you very ill!
But the lovely flowers and delicious berries are another matter entirely. You can harvest elderflowers to make delicious elderflower tea or use it many other ways, including in skin care. Just leave plenty on the tree to make elderberries! Here’s what to know about elderflower benefits and elderberry identification.
Elderberry leaves have also been used for skin care and wound healing but should not be taken internally.
The most famous medicinal elm is the slippery elm, the inner bark of which is used to make herbal medicines for soothing sore throats and intestinal linings. Other elms have also been used medicinally by Native Americans as a cold remedy and treatment for digestive issues.
Maud Grieve writes that slippery elm “is considered one of the most valuable remedies in herbal practice, the abundant mucilage it contains having wonderfully strengthening and healing qualities.”
She notes that a decoction of the dried inner bark of common elm appeared in the British Pharmacopoeia, used as a tonic, diuretic, demulcent, and astringent. Used internally as well as externally for treating skin issues. She also writes that the flowers were brewed into a medicinal tea.
If you’d rather just buy slippery elm, it’s readily available online.
GINKGO OR MAIDENHAIR
You’ve no doubt come across ginkgo as one of the many supplements that’s gained popularity in the last few decades. Rich in antioxidants, ginkgo is anti-inflammatory, protective of brain function and cardiac health, and is being studied for many other possible health benefits.
I’ve always admired the graceful shape of ginkgo’s easy-to-identify leaves, but only recently did I put together the supplement ginkgo biloba with the pretty trees growing in my neighborhood.
Mostly you will find male ginkgo trees growing in residential areas, as the fruit of the female tree is notoriously stinky. Apparently the seeds are worth gathering if you can get past the stench of the fruit, but they must be roasted before eating.
Much easier: Gathering leaves from male ginkgo trees, which can be steeped into tea or extracted in a tincture. Here’s more on foraging ginkgo biloba tea.
Gladstar reports finding ginkgo “wonderfully effective as a tea.” She notes ginkgo “must be used with consistency and in adequate amounts, for several weeks or months before any benefit is noticed.” She blends it with sage, rosemary, and gotu kola for improving memory, and with hawthorn and lemon balm for heart health.
Some sources recommend not consuming ginkgo in large quantities.
Renowned for its benefits for the heart, the flower and berries of the hawthorn tree have long been used to support cardiac health.
In Making Plant Medicine Rico Cech recommends harvesting leaves and blossoms in the spring early in the flowering stage. Berries are best harvested after the first frost.
Leaves, flowers, and berries can all be tinctured or used to make tea. Cech also notes that the berries are very tasty fresh and can also be made into a syrup. Find out more on identifying and using hawthorn in this post on hawthorn berry tea.
Like many other nuts, hazelnuts are rich in antioxidants and healthy fats that have been found to support heart health, cognitive function, and lower disease risk.
Native Americans used the bark to treat wounds and the husks of the nuts for parasites.
HOPHORNBEAM (OSTRYA VIRGINIANA)
Also known as ironwood, hophornbeam trees produce catkins that resemble hops.
In Native American Ethnobotany, Daniel Moerman reports that decoctions of bark and wood have been used to treat sore muscles, toothache, and coughs and colds.
Dozens of species of dense, hard trees around the world are called ironwood, so check the Latin name to be sure which medicinal tree you’ve got!
A south Asian tree known as ironwood, mesua ferrea, also has many medicinal uses. Flowers, leaves, roots, and seeds are used medicinally in India.
HORSE CHESTNUT (AESCULUS HIPPOCASTANUM)
A lesser-known medicinal tree, horse chestnuts have several parts that can be used medicinally. Rico Cech reports that leaves, bark from twigs and roots, resiny buds, and nuts can all be used medicinally, He writes that “resiny buds and bark are best harvested in the early spring, as the sap begins to rise, but before the tree leafs out.” You can harvest leaves throughout the growing season, though Bruton-Seal recommends getting them in spring.
Cech reports that horse chestnut tincture used at low doses works as a tonic for the circulatory system and “helps shrink boggy tissues” and prevent clotting. Note that is shouldn’t be taken with other blood thinners, and should only be used under supervision of a professional health practitioner.
Seeds can be tinctured and leaves, bark, and buds can be infused in oil for topical use. Bruton-Seal reports that the leaf oil can help with varicose veins.
The nuts are also a good source of saponins, the soapy substance that makes “soapnuts” useful as cleaner. You can derive your own zero waste shampoo and laundry detergent from horse chestnuts if you’re so inclined.
The linden is a fantastic medicinal tree to know, as its beautiful and abundant flowers and leaves taste delicious and have numerous herbal uses. An antispasmodic and nervine, linden is an excellent herb for coughs or to add to evening tea blends with herbs for sleep.
Rico Cech says linden “is probably the best herbal treatment of all for helping bring down children’s fevers.”
Maples aren’t just about deliciously sweet syrup! A researcher at the University of Rhode Island has found that the sap, bark, and leaves contain anti-inflammatory compounds. Native Americans used these parts of the maple to treat a variety of ailments.
Maple sap is rich in minerals, and has been studied for its beneficial effect on ulcers, blood pressure, and bone density. In South Korea, maple sap is known as “tree good for the bones” (gorosoe) and is consumed in great quantities every spring.
Map sap also has antimicrobial properties.
The farmers who run our beloved CSA use fresh-tapped maple sap to make an elderberry drink in spring filled with health-promoting antioxidants. You can find their recipe (and more than 60 additional ones, along with growing and foraging info, herbal uses, and the science behind elderberry) in my book, Everything Elderberry.
MOUNTAIN ASH (SORBUS AMERICANA)
Not a true ash, mountain ash (also known as rowan) is in the rose family. Raw berries are very astringent and are considered toxic, as are the seeds. Once frozen or cooked, however, the flesh of mountain ash berries is used in jellies and pies. Here’s more on what to know about foraging and using mountain ash berries.
High in antioxidants and vitamin C, mountain ash berries have been used to address scurvy, which is caused by vitamin C deficiency. A traditional diabetes remedy, mountain ash has also been used to promote heart health and reduce inflammation. Maud Grieve recommends it as a gargle for sore throats.
Mulberry trees produce abundant berries that have been studied for their anti-inflammatory properties as well as beneficial effects on blood sugar, cholesterol, cancer, and more. In addition to the health benefits of the delicious fruit, mulberry leaves contain anti-inflammatory compounds linked to heart health, chemoprotective effects, and more.
Both mulberry leaves and mulberry bark are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Here’s more about foraging mulberry leaves for mulberry leaf tea.
Here’s more information on mulberries as well as some yummy mulberry recipes to try.
Oak bark, leaves, flowers, and nuts (aka acorns) of many varieties of oak have been used medicinally for centuries. Antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory, oaks have been used to treat gastric complaints, infections, inflammation, and wounds. A traditional diabetes medicinal, research suggests infusions of oak leaves can help regulate blood sugar.
A source of antioxidants, scientific research is exploring oak for inhibiting cancer and protecting cognitive function.
How to use oak? One research study used oak leaves to make kombucha, which they reported as an excellent beverage for reducing oxidative stress.
Pine trees are best known for their needles, which are used to make a simple pine needle tea. Rich in vitamin C, pine needles can be harvested all year round to make tea, pine needle tincture, or pine needle syrup that’s considered useful for addressing coughs and colds. Pine needles are also rich in antioxidants.
Pine resin can also be used to relieve pain, treat wounds, or as an expectorant.
If you’re not sure how to tell pine from other common conifers, here’s a guide to identifying spruce vs fir vs pine.
The genus populus includes trees usually called poplar, as well as aspen and cottonwood.
Native Americans used a number of poplar species medicinally as a cold remedy, antirheumatic, pain reliever, and skin healer.
Like alder and willow, the Populus trees called cottonwoods are a source of pain-relieving salicylates. De la Forêt and Han highlight the usefulness of cottonwood resin for wound healing and pain relief. Helping to quell inflammation and speed healing, cottonwood can be made into a salve that may also soothe muscle or joint pain.
A tincture of cottonwood buds is sometime used as an expectorant and mixed with honey may help soothe a sore throat.
Like pine, spruce has many medicinal uses. Foremost among them is spruce tea made from the needles, a vitamin C rich drink considered helpful for fighting off colds.
Native Americans also used the bark, resin, and wood to treat coughs, skin problems, and digestive issues. Spruce was also used as a disinfectant.
Herbalists use unripe black walnut hulls for fungal infections and intestinal parasites. In her Family Herbal, Rosemary Gladstar suggests using powder hulls in foot powders and soaks or for washing skin infections. Tinctured black walnut can be used for gastrointestinal problems or applied topically to cold sores. She warns that it’s a strong remedy which should be used with caution and is not for long-term use.
Willow bark contains salicin, the active ingredient in aspirin. Studies suggest that like the aspirin it inspired, willow is useful for pain relief, though it contains far less salicin. Herbalists believe many other compounds in willow are involved in its usefulness as a pain reliever.
While white willow is what herbalists typically recommend, Foster and Duke note that other willow species may “contain up to 10 times as many active constituents as White Willow.”
Willow is also used as an antimicrobial and wound healer. It’s also often used to make a homemade rooting hormone by soaking willow twigs in water for day or two, then using the water to root new plants. Perfect if you want to try growing elderberries from cuttings.
You can make tea or tincture from the inner bark, harvested from twigs in spring. According to de la Forêt and Han, willow leaves may also be brewed and added to a pain-relieving bath.
WITCH HAZEL (HAMAMELIS VIRGINIANA)
Foster and Duke call witch hazel “One of the most important American medicinal plants through history and today.” The leaves, twigs, and bark of witch hazel help reduce inflammation and speed wound healing. Infusions of leaves were used by Native Americans as a cold remedy and externally as a dermatological aid.
Witch hazel extract is a popular skin toner, its astringent action helping to control blackheads and pimples. In Herbal Remedies from the Wild, Corinne Martin suggests adding a tablespoon of dried witch hazel leaf, bark, or twigs to one cup of boiling water and steeping for 20-30 minutes to drink as a treatment for diarrhea.
OTHER MEDICINAL TREES TO EXPLORE
The medicinal trees above will probably give you plenty to work with, but there are additional trees that have been used medicinally to investigate if you’re curious. Just do your research and make sure you understand how to use them safely. Some of the other trees that have been used medicinally are:
- Chaste tree
- Honey locust
- Kentucky Coffeetree
- Tree of Heaven
Have you used medicinal trees? What are your favorites?
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Medicinal trees photo credits: xiefei, Slatan, bgwalker, Emilian Robert Vicol, Eckhard Helmecke, KateJoanna, Annette Meyer, dexmac, xiefei, Slatan, Konevi, a-lesa, Emilian, Gerhard_Romero, Lex20, bgwalker, scrisman, Manfred Richter
Susannah is a proud garden geek and energy nerd who loves healthy food and natural remedies. Her work has appeared in Mother Earth Living, Ensia, Northern Gardener, Sierra, and on numerous websites. Her first book, Everything Elderberry, released in September 2020 and has been a #1 new release in holistic medicine, naturopathy, herb gardening, and other categories. Find out more and grab your copy here.