Tag Archive: medicine


It’s not exactly nettle time yet.  Spring felt so early (two weeks ago. Now we’re back in deep freeze, yuck!) this year, I feel like I should be out harvesting already, but the nettles I have seen are up only a few inches and that seems a little too labour intensive to make it worth my time and bring back some bags full of prickly goodness. You could certainly harvest when they first emerge, they’re really at their best when small and young, but I want to collect quite a bit so I wait until they’re more like 6 inches high with a few more leaves.

Almost everyone knows how stinging nettle feels from accidental contact.  It’s not evil, it’s just protecting it’s incredibly nutritious self.  It’s high in protein, has a flavour similar to spinach, (and yes, that’s a bit like saying any new white meat ‘tastes like chicken’ 😉  it is rich in vitamins A, K and C, iron, potassium, manganese, and calcium.  If it were not covered in this effective defense system, herbivores would mow it to the ground for the food value, and it would not survive!

Stinging Nettle Urtica dioica. Wikipedia commons

Why does it sting? Stinging nettles are covered with countless tiny hollow hairs called trichomes. When something brushes against these hairs, their very fragile silica tips break off, and the remainder of the hair can then act like a needle. It pierces the skin, and releases a cocktail of various chemicals from the base of the hair, and it’s these that cause the sting. Not all compounds have been identified, but it definitely contains histamine, acetylcholine, and serotonin. Serotonin does not only make you happy. When injected by the stinging nettle it functions as an irritant, leading to pain. Acetylcholine is another neurotransmitter that also hurts when it comes in the form of nettles, and histamine we know well from allergic reactions, although it too has multiple functions in the body. Oxalic and tataric acid may also be responsible for the persistence of pain, although the study that showed this to be true was actually on Urtica thunbergiana, not U. dioica. Moroidin, leukotriene C4 and leukotriene B4 may also be found in nettle stings. How badly it stings is going to vary from place to place and season to season, full sun to shade.  Nettles quite likely have the ability to modulate what kind and how much of these substances they contain depending on the risk of being eaten.

Plantago major. Photo by Rasbak

What helps the sting?  If you get stung, first try not to scratch or rub it.  I know, ow, but you’ll only make it worse. Wash off the area, preferably with soap, to remove the hairs and chemicals responsible for the sting. You can use a piece of duct tape to pull out any remaining hairs. You can try chewing up a plantain leaf, Plantago major (which is usually pretty close by) and putting it on the sting.  This generally helps me right away.  Same goes for crushed jewelweed. (Impatiens noli tangere) I’ve seen dock recommended in a ton of places, but in my personal experience it doesn’t work very well. Maybe I have the wrong Rumex? Baking soda made into a paste helps soothe the area. Calamine does help, antihistamine cream, and aloe gel may all help with the persistent sting and redness.  Keep it cool, possibly with an ice pack.  Heat will make the reaction worse. No hot showers while it’s still hurting.

Getting Some Nettle. In general, ground that doesn’t run out of water seasonally, good, slightly acid soil, and the border between woods and fields is ideal nettle hunting country. Nettles love a dark, fertile loam and can be great indicators of areas where the soil is rich, maybe with old deposits of manure, deep leaf litter in fall, or old garden plots. Nettles like growing above ditches and streams, too. Just maybe avoid the ditch by the roadside.  Ick.

Harvesting Roots. Even if it’s a touch early to harvest the top parts of the plant now, it IS a great time to harvest the roots. I like harvesting roots while plants are at least semi dormant, and at least with a tiny frill of new leaves on top, you can tell where they are. Dig outside the foliage area and under the plant at least a foot to get the roots without damaging them. Also, don’t be an ass.  Ideally, a forager should be able to collect without damaging the patch or even making it obvious that you’ve been there.  Don’t take more than a quarter of any patch, space out your digs, fill in your holes and replace the duff. A casual hiker-by should not be able to tell what you’ve done.

Once you have your roots, thoroughly clean them in fresh water.  I do this in the sink with a drain sieve in because you’re going to have to scrub a fair bit to get every last bit of dirt off. Chop the roots into small pieces to use. The smaller the size, the easier it is to get everything out of them if you’re going to make tea or tincture. If you’re planning on freezing the root to preserve it you can leave it as whole as possible to keep it from losing vit. C and oxidizing. (drying is good too, the mineral content won’t degrade but freezing preserves the root in as fresh a state as possible with vitamins intact.)

Harvesting Aerial Parts. There’s a number of hacks to avoid getting stung.  #1 would be wearing gloves, of course, but if you’re like me you don’t remember to bring gloves when the mood strikes to jump out of the car and start bagging some handy herb. Very young nettles sometimes don’t sting- so now, when they’re 2-3 inches tall and just emerging, is the least annoying time to harvest.  However, the intensity of sting seems to vary WIDELY depending on where you are in the country or even in the same woods, so don’t depend on that.  If you’re near a stream, there may be clay around.  You can coat your hands in clay before picking, and it does help a lot. You can use big leaves to protect your hands but that’s very fussy and not great for a lot of picking. Knowing how to handle the nettle helps, if you’re careful.  Nettle hairs on the stem usually have a direction to them, so take a peek first. You can pick with bare hands if the only pressure is in the same direction as the hairs, pressing the hairs against the stem.  It’s tricky, but possible. My preferred method is a snip and flick one. I use scissors or pruners (whatever’s in my pocket) to snip off stems, pick the nettle up with the scissors, and flick it into the bag. Easy!

Photo by me -Leila Bee

Preserving the harvest.  You can dry nettles to preserve them for later, and I do- dry stuff packs down and stores so nicely! Dried, powdered nettle is great for adding to smoothies or stew. If you want the fullest range of benefits preserved, I would freeze it. Chop to get rid of stems, and blanch quickly (60-90 seconds) in hot water, put into a cold water bath to stop further cooking, then drain or squeeze out the excess water to freeze.  Chopping them up first means you get more in a bag. You can also make nettle pesto, and freeze it in ice cube trays which can be eaten as is or thrown into other recipes for a nutritional boost. Freeze drying is the ultimate method of preservation, but that either requires a fair bit of time or special equipment.

Mondo Medicinal Value

Nettle is a BIG subject with a long, long history of use, widespread distribution,  and has actually been studied extensively with hundreds of clinical trials to back up it’s numerous nutritional and medicinal benefits.  I’m going to try my best to put as many as I can here, so bear with me. It might get long. I’ll try not to be too dry.

I’ve heard nettles called both a man’s herb, and a women’s tonic.  It’s both and neither.  Nettle has clear benefits for hormone related conditions no matter which tackle you are packing, and plenty of nutrition for anybody.

Prostate Health. Nettle root can be used to treat benign prostatic hyperplasia, also known as an enlarged prostate, nettle root may provide relief from symptoms of this condition, particularly when taken in tandem with other medicinal herbs, such as saw palmetto. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, nettle root can help reduce the urge to urinate constantly, as well as reduce the amount of urine and dripping post-urination. But nettle root does not, unlike other medications, reduce the size of the prostate; it only provides some relief from the symptoms.  It also seems that when stinging nettle (along with other supplements) is combined with antibiotics to treat chronic bacterial prostatitis that the elimination of symptoms and long-term outcome is better than taking just an antibiotic alone. Nettle also has beneficial effects on androgenic alopecia (male pattern baldness).  So if your hair’s thinning, you may want to think about trying nettle root.

Side note- if you use pine pollen as a testosterone booster, combining it with nettle will compound the effects.

Menstruation, PCOS.  Taking nettle leaf as a vegetable or tea can reduce a heavy period to a more normal one and help prevent anemia with a large dose of iron that’s easily assimilated. Sufferers of PCOS (Poly Cystic Ovary Syndrome) may be able to use nettle root to assuage symptoms. There are several natural substances that bind to and stimulate sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG), which then binds some of the testosterone in our blood stream, which in turn reduces the hyperandrogenism of PCOS. The root of the nettles plant contains many lignans and these compounds have an affinity to SHBG in humans. Nettles root can also affect aromatase inhibition which could inhibit the conversion of the weaker testosterone to dihydrotestosterone.

I can’t find a definite yay or nay on whether it’s good for pregnancy or not.  Some sources say yes, some no, because it does have an effect on hormones but is highly nutritious and has many benefits for someone with a higher demand on vitamins and minerals. (Personally I’d say it’s a good thing, but I’d ask your doctor, I’m no expert on pregnancy.) After the kid’s out though, definitely eat those nettles, as they aid in milk production in lactating mothers. They also help with a bunch of postpartum problems like bleeding, general nutrition and UTI’s.

Hemostatic. Due to the large amount of vit. K in nettles, which is required for regular clotting, it’s great for treating bleeding (It’s not a first aid measure though). Midwives often use it for spotting during pregnancy, it can regulate periods that are too heavy, counteracting persistent bleeding during menopause, and other types of excessive bleeding.  That being said- if you don’t know why you’re bleeding see your doctor, don’t just drink tea and hope for the best!

Allergies. Interesting that something containing histamine will help arrest or reduce allergic reactions, but it certainly does! A 2009 study also showed that nettle inhibited proinflammatory pathways related to allergic rhinitis by antagonizing histamine 1 receptor, inhibiting prostaglandin (PG) formation and inhibiting degranulation. This is great news for people who experience seasonal allergies, or who have histamine sensitivity. Works best for seasonal allergies if you start taking nettles before the known triggers start so the body is already less reactive to histamines by the time the pollen starts to fly. It will still help after, but proactive use gets better results.

UTI’s, Kidney Stones. Nettle is sometimes used to treat urinary tract infections (including chronic ones), cystitis, kidney stones and other kidney troubles.  It is diuretic, so yes, you will pee a bit extra if you’re taking nettle.  One note of caution if you’re using it to treat bladder or kidney problems, you have to do the harvest before it goes into flower. Calcium oxalate crystals form on the leaves after flowering and these will have the opposite effect, irritating the bladder and kidneys.  So spring collection only, for that!

Arthritis. Nettle can be used to treat pain in the muscles and joints. For the last 2000 years at least, people simply stung themselves with a handful of the aerial parts, which would certainly result in irritation and pain, but afterward reduces swelling and pain from the arthritis.  Now it could be that this is due to nerve distraction effect like capcaisin, but more likely the sting injects a histaminic substance and the body mounts an antihistaminic reaction, some of which goes to the sting, some to the other inflammation. We’re still not sure exactly how it works.  Nettle is most commonly used to treat osteoarthritis. A 2013 issue of “Phytomedicine” found that stinging nettle, including the root, when extracted into an oil-based solution, helped reduce inflammation. So even topically in salve, nettle could be of use! Great potential was indicated, but further study is still required. As usual, right?

Gout. Nettle lowers the concentration of uric acid in the blood, so is also helpful for gout.  It may help in the case of many types of joint pain by promoting the elimination of uric acid from joints with a gentle, alkalizing diuretic activity. Again, you want to harvest the pre flowering top parts to avoid calcium oxalate crystals.

Cautions. In addition to possible side effects, stinging nettle, as a supplement and as a foodstuff, may cause adverse side effects with certain medicines. If you are taking blood thinners or high blood pressure medication, be aware that stinging nettle can affect your blood’s clotting ability, as well as potentially lower your blood pressure, reducing and enhancing the effects of these medications respectively. Nettle may also increase the effects of diabetes drugs, diuretics and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications. Stinging nettle may make it harder for your body to rid itself of lithium as a result of its diuretic effect.

Young nettles with purple tints- photo Leila Bee

‘Let Food be thy Medicine’…. Eat them because they taste GOOD. Aside from all the carrying on about how great they are for you, nettles are simply a tasty spring green.  Sometimes I’ll just eat a steamed bowl of nettles with butter on it and nothing else. Nomnomnom. They’re a bit spinachy, but nettles have their own flavour and you’ll just have to try them and see. This is one time that taking your medicine will taste just fine. There’s a ton of recipes out there, but you can basically use them in anything you’d use a hearty green leafy thing in. Here’s a bunch of recipes to start with.

But Wait, There’s MORE!

Cordage and Fibres for Weaving. So far it’s been all about the spring harvest.  When it comes to using them for the fibre, you actually want to wait until late summer or early fall, when the stems are at their tallest and stretchiest, because if you want to use them for weaving or cordage you want the longest strands you can get. Small tip- shade grown nettles are taller, sun grown have stronger fibres. rather than put the whole process in this post, I’m going to give you a link to a step by step instruction with pictures here.

Dye. Nettles make a good dye, and although the colour is fairly muted it’s also surprisingly lightfast for a vegetable dye. You’re not going to get an emerald green, although a little copper in the dye bath will turn up the green a bit. Here’s a good tutorial on nettle dye.

Animal Fodder. Although they won’t generally touch it in the field, farm animals who like vegetative matter quite enjoy nettles once dried, blanched, or baled into hay.  It’s as good for them as it is for us, so if you’re at all concerned that your animals aren’t getting enough nutrition, try adding dried nettles to their feed. The abundant carotenoids give egg yolks a punch of colour, so try adding some nettle to the chicken feed in the cold months when there’s not a lot of fresh green around. Enhancing milk production works for goats, sheep and cows as it does for us, so nettles for your livestock is a great addition during baby season.

Compost. Nettles are an excellent compost accelerator, especially if you’re a little heavy on the carbon in your heap. If your heap is a little sluggish, try turning the layers over with a few armfuls of nettle. Stems are fine, although chopping everything a bit helps speed up decomposition.  No roots, unless you want a nettle forest!

Biodynamic prep #504 is made with nettle. Steiner said that using the compost prep nettle is “like an infusion of intelligence for the soil” (Agriculture, 100) For this prep, collect nettles before flowering, dry them, and bury them stuffed into clay pots or wooden boxes laid mouth to mouth in the soil, in fall. They’re supposed to stay there for a full year.   (note- I like a lot of things about biodynamic farming, and I’ve seen things work when I can’t really quantify WHY, but I’m very attached to being able to prove results and reason out how they work, so I’m a little reticent to start talking about enhancing the ‘intelligence of the soil’.)

Fermented Nettle for Liquid Feed: This is more like a Korean Natural Farming technique, but Victorians used it in steam heated glasshouses too.  It works.  It stinks, but it WORKS. Make some fermented nettle liquid fertilizer by filling a large jar or bucket with the leaves and stems, bruising the foliage first. Weight down the nettles with a rock or whatever you have laying around and then cover with water. Only fill three-quarters of the bucket with water to allow room for the foam that will be created during the brewing process. Use non-chlorinated water, possibly from a rain barrel, and set the bucket somewhere you won’t smell it. Leave the mix for one to three weeks to ferment, stirring every couple of days until it stops bubbling. Finally, strain out the nettles and dilute the concoction at one part fertilizer to 10 parts water for watering plants or 1:20 for direct foliar application. Use leftovers in compost, or keep the bucket going now that you have a fermentation ‘mother’ by adding new bruised plant material and water.

Butterflies! Nettles are essential food for a few types of butterflies, as the sting keeps grazing animals off the plants and the caterpillars safe until they pupate. If you like Peacock, Red Admiral, Painted Lady, Small Tortoiseshell or Comma butterflies, don’t take down that patch on your property.

That’s…not even everything, I’m sure.  Whew.

After all this delving I’ll be sure to be on top of my nettle harvest this year.  With all these benefits, I really don’t want to run out again. (Shakes last bag with a handful of sad dried leaves in it.)

Happy Harvesting!

 

 

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Disaster

Sometimes the best laid plans don’t play out.  Sometimes they crash in a flaming, sticky, horror inducing heap that’s got you wondering what the hell you can salvage from this.  And maybe you can’t.  Maybe you have to walk away with the smoldering remains of your shirt on your back and scrape up some kind of sustenance with your bare hands out of the dirt.

Luckily, that’s just what we ‘preppers’ or ‘survivalists’ are prepared to do.  We can get plants to eat. We can treat some medical issues with no doctor around. We can salvage, invent, manage.  (At least we think we can.  You don’t really get put to the test as a general rule.) The only part of this that doesn’t get discussed very often is dealing with the emotional fallout when everything goes wrong.

I’m not fooling myself about this eventuality.  It’s frightening. I can’t get my head around the totality of it, and it doesn’t even compare to the times when I’ve felt immense loss due to some smallish disaster in my own life.  The collapse will not only be about survival, but also mourning, depression, terror, and brutality. And yes, we’re putting up with that now, but it’s nothing compared to what could be.

Unless you’ve been a refugee, you probably don’t know what it’s like to lose EVERYTHING. You may feel like it though.  Maybe you’ve lost a partner, a child, a job, that makes you feel like you have lost it all, everything that supported you and provided meaning to your life.  That can be more devastating than the thought of having to back-to-the-land-it because society has collapsed or some disaster cuts off your precious smart phone or there’s no government infrastructure.  The really, really frightening thought is losing people, not things.  We know that, but until it comes to the crunch, we don’t think about it a lot.  Because it’s scary as hell.

It’s one thing to say you can do first aid, even quite informed first aid (let’s assume you’ve been a paramedic or something), and another to do surgery, care for a person with a progressive disease like cancer or alzheimers, or care for an injury like a severed limb or spinal injury.  How about dentures?  Quite likely you’ll lose fillings eventually, and then teeth.  Dealing with your wild diet is going to suck (literally) with no teeth. What about when you simply don’t know what’s wrong and someone slips towards death while you watch helplessly?

Welcome to pre technology. Doesn’t sound very Eden-like right now, does it?

I think I was supposed to have a point here.  This is kind of bleak.

The other side of the coin, in case of total disaster, is that we may very well have less fear and stress in our lives even while we do have to fight for every calorie.  This world of instant communication means we take on every worry we hear about, including when it has NOTHING to do with us. You’re in a constant state of fear, worry, painful empathy, danger danger danger that may very well be a half a world away.  It’s not actually your danger. At least while I’m trying to care for someone who fell down a cliff, it’s MY danger.  Those blissful moments when you’re belly’s full and you’re warm and cuddling your child or partner in your shelter, you may actually get some kind of peace.

We talk a good game about gratitude, but the kind of really intense gratitude that you feel when you’ve got a full meal after starving for a few days, or a hot bath after being dirty for weeks, or enfolded in another’s arms after enduring enforced solitude.  You have to get deprived of the good things to REALLY feel grateful for them when they’re there.  Much like the feeling of being vibrantly alive after almost dying.  It wears off though, unless you’re usually in that state of deprivation. We don’t go to those lengths if we don’t have to, because people like comfort more than they like being grateful for it.

I feel like much as I might imagine it, and have some experience of going without other people around, or showers, or eating decently, I’ve really got no idea. Really having no resources is as scary as much as it’s a freeing thought. I’m always going to be interested in being as independant as possible, knowing how to butcher, grow, build and wildcraft for my needs.  But really, it’s just in case, it’s in a way a luxury, (if you sell such goods) and I’d rather do it in a world where if I’m truly desperate I have some other options. I think it’s important and personally satisfying to be prepared for anything, but I’d prefer that it takes place in a world that has emergency services. Maybe if we all take on a little more personal responsibility for basic needs it’ll make it easier to keep those essentials.  I hope so.

cottonwoods fallen budsCottonwoods seem to get a whole lot of bad press and not enough praise.  As soon as the fluff starts to fly in late spring/ early summer people seem to want to gripe about it. Oh sure, some do enjoy the warm season snow, delicate as goosedown, swirling, lofting and icing the sidewalks. It’s a little magical when the flurries are a-fly. I promise  it is not making you sneeze, it’s just what you see in front of you while other tree and grass pollens play merry hell with your sinuses. Cottonwood pollen is released long before the flurf flies- that’s actually the mature seed with a silken sail attached.

There’s also the abundant branch shedding, of course.  It’s not a tree for the obsessively tidy. It’s branching is abundant, even shaggy, and the wood snaps easily in high winds, leading to littered landscapes.  (But if you have a chipper, or are a wizard with the shears, lots of lovely ramial wood chips for soil improvement.)  It rots quickly and also makes great mushroom logs if you have larger diameter fallen branches to dispose of.

I notice when I look up cottonwood trees, everyone writes as if the local tree is ‘THE’ cottonwood.  In fact, it’s a large number of populus that people call “Cottonwood”. In the West coast of North America, my ‘hood, it’s Populus trichocarpa. Most widely distributed is Populus tremuloides (mainly Canada, but found as far south as central Mexico.) Populus deltoides mainly from the central and East USA, but a bit into the Southern Canadian prairies. Populus grandidentata in the East in a swoosh from the Great Lakes to the coast. There’s a whack of them. If you care to make a precise ID of your particular poplar (yes, I also mean cottonwood)- check the ranges. Google ‘Populus’ with your state or province and you should be able to figure out which one you’re looking at. It also hybridizes easily where ranges intersect- just to throw a curveball into your I.D.  It’s not limited to the Americas either- Europe and Asia have plenty of poplars, too.

All varieties can be used in much the same way, though, and while one variety might be medicinally superior, I don’t know which. I’d need a lab and USDA level access to fresh samples. The spring bud resin of any can be used to make a soothing anti-infammatory salve.  Also called Balm of Gilead, use of cottonwood bud salve is very old and very widespread- you can find it in Culpeper’s Compleat Herbal, Russian formulas using bear grease, the Salish peoples of the Pacific Northwest-essentially, everybody who has had access figured out this tree’s resin was a storehouse of medicinal power. Collecting windblown buds in early spring seems the epitome of ethical wildcrafting!cottonwood buds

Poplars grow fast. I guess you might need to, when your substrate is quite likely to shift without the stabilizing influence of your roots. They prefer moist soils, rivers and lakes in most varieties, but definitely abundant surface moisture when the seeds sprout, since they are viable only for a short time.  Water probably distributes as much seed and live material as the air filled with ‘snow’. My nearby Fraser River has large islands in the middle of it essentially made of cottonwoods alone, catching the suspended silt and sand. They shift position stealthily on dark nights…. well, maybe not that fast, but they do creep around. Cottonwood roots easily from dropped branches in spring, and sprouts vigorously from deer and beaver-girdled young trees, it’s a very vigorously alive tree.  Propagation is ridiculously simple.  A tilted log may become a mother of thousands.

The classic river or lakeside profile of the local cottonwood is crowded, shaggy, swoopy- classic cottonwood profilethe branches seem to sag under their own weight, and then optimistically rise up at the tips, almost making an ‘s’ with longer branches. When older, trunks grey and fissure, growing corky. When young they grow in gregarious groups, but are very shade intolerant trees, so tend to grow in groups of similar age.  Young seedlings soon expire in the heavy shade of abundant parent trees.

Cottonwoods can live a few hundred years- as much as 400, but usually don’t.  Typically cottonwoods succumb to rot, or undermining by water, or some other accident at 70-100. Living on riverbanks can be precarious.  They often break records for girth within their span, however.  The largest trees in both Manitoba and Saskatchewan are cottonwoods.

Early settlers would keep an eye out for cottonwood when travelling, as it’s presence indicated water.  They made frequent and widespread use of the fast growing tree for windbreaks, fenceposts, firewood and basketry. Wherever cottonwood is found, the people living among them have a history of use.  The Salish called it ‘The Tree of Life’, the Mojave people used it for practically everything one might use a tree for, the Hopi carved the roots into Kachina dolls. It’s a symbol of benevolent spirits and abundant life wherever it grows. The cambium is edible, and even tasty when the down is flying.cottonwoods branchy br

Other Uses

The wood of the tree itself isn’t as soft as the breakable branches might imply, and makes a very serviceable lumber. It’s fairly soft for making furniture with but oiling it helps prevent scratching and denting, and using it for things like trim or moldings is just fine. Since it grows so fast, that makes it quite a good choice for agroforestry projects. The trees can be coppiced for animal fodder. The wood holds inks unusually well, and makes excellent boxes and baskets, cut thin. Approved by the FDA for food containers and very workable, cottonwood also makes good bowls and cups. It’s light and ideal for models and children’s toys. As firewood it makes 16.8 million BTU’s per cord- not great, actually-but abundant! Cottonwood that has fallen as a result of rot smells a little funky though, so you might want to save that for outdoor fires.

Often thought of as a ‘waste’ tree, cottonwoods are in fact a storehouse of medicine, fast wood, wildlife support and great permaculture potential. See if you can find some at a river near you!

Fun Fact: Pando is a clonal colony of Populus tremuloides in Utah so big that it’s the heaviest (and at an estimated 80,000 years, one of the oldest) known organism.

The Oaks of Song and Story

oak-tamm_koluvere_jarve_kaldal

Photo by Aleksander Kaasik

Few trees have the immense history, the personality, and garner the reverence that Oaks do. Oaks are legendary. Although they are not the world’s longest lived trees, they may stand for many centuries, even a millennia, and reach great height and girth.  Some have  become well known as individuals, standing impassive through the rise and fall of man’s short ages and empires, shading one generation after another.

Notable Oaks

The Ivenack Oak  in Mecklenburg, Germany is 1200 years old, and called the King of German Oak Trees. France’s sacred Chapel Oak (Chêne chapelle) has two chapels that were

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Chene chapelle photo by Ji-Elle

built into the hollow trunk in 1669 and a staircase encircling the base of the tree. Hit by a lightning strike when it was about 500, the center burned out but the oak continued to grow, the local Abbot Du Detroit and the village priest, Father Du Cerceau, determined that the lighting striking and hollowing the tree was an event that had happened with holy purpose. So they built a place of pilgrimage devoted to the Virgin Mary in the hollow.  In later years, the chapel above was added, as was the staircase. The Rumskulla Oak of Sweden is acknowledged as the widest Oak in Europe at 14.4 metres, and the most famous tree in Poland is the Bartek Oak, which sheltered King Casimir III (1310–1370) and his court, as well as King Jan III Sobieski, who rested under the oak on his way back from the Battle of Vienna (1683)

There are multiple notable Oaks in Britain, the Sherwood Forest Major Oak, famous for it’s connection to Robin Hood, the Bowthorpe Oak with a hollowed centre capable of holding a dinner party of 20 people (for which it was used in the past), and several Oaks believed to be older than the country of England itself, within the boundaries of Severnake Forest,  the only privately owned ancient forest in England.

The Oak is sacred to many people, although perhaps most famously in western culture to the Celts. When one mentions the sacred Oaks, the prevalent imagery is of a grove of ancient Oaks venerated and whispered to by druids, yet there are Oaks as esteemed and sacred on the opposite side of the globe we easily forget.  In the Oley Valley, Pennsylvania there is a great Chinkapin Oak looked upon as the shrine tree of the Lenape people who were the original inhabitants of the region:

According to legend, a beautiful woman, the wife of a powerful chief, became very ill. All the tribe’s medicine men were called in; they administered many medicines, to no effect. Slowly, the chief’s wife became weaker and sicker. Finally, desperate for a cure, the young chief traveled to the Sacred Oak and there prayed to the Great Spirit for his wife to be saved. When he returned to camp, his wife was well again. Several years went by and the tribe was threatened by a hostile tribe. Once again, the chief traveled to the Sacred Oak and prayed to the Great Spirit, who gave him guidance. The warring tribes smoked the peace pipe together under it’s canopy.  Horticulturist Rachel Theis, who owns the land the Oak sits on, estimates the age of the tree as 500+ and most notably the Oak is of a species not found in the region, an aberration that may have been a trade item, making it all the more special.

Practical Uses

Acorns have long been an important carbohydrate source for people who still forage for food, and we are coming back to that as we try to find alternate sources of carbs that don’t require massive monocultures or ridiculous inputs to grow them.  Oaks are a prime example of hundred year + planning when designing a permaculture landscape, in fact a hundred year old oak is just a baby. You will have to wait a bit if you’re planting young oaks-they generally take about 20 years to produce acorns. Oak will eventually give you and all the nut-eating animals around you a large amount of available calories if you care to put a little time into the shelling, leaching and grinding. Excellent instructions on how to eat acorns, and which varieties are best for what, can be found here at Hunter Gardener Angler Cook. You may need a whole lot of space to process enough for large amounts of flour. The foragers I know who do this use an entire, tarped room to collect and sort the acorns.

acorns

Acorns photo by Norman Walsh

Wood is, of course, an excellent reason to grow oak. Many of the massively wide and incredibly twisted forms of ancient oaks were created by pollarding, the practice of cutting off the top part of a tree to produce a regrowth of a dense and bushy crown, generally for firewood or livestock feed. One year’s growth makes ‘tree hay’- small branches of fairly even size in abundance, while waiting five years or so produces many branches of even size that can be used in woodworking or light construction.  Strong, durable, easy to work and rot-resistant, oak is an extremely useful wood to have handy, and makes excellent firewood (White oak will produce 26.4 million BTU’s per cord.) Big boards require big trees, but firewood for rocket stoves and wood for durable furniture and tools are easy to come by with a few oaks available to sustainably harvest.

Medicine is another reason to utilize oak.  Oak possesses the following healing properties: astringent, fever reducing, tonic, antiseptic, anti-viral, anti-tumor, and anti-inflammatory actions. In addition, oak has been used to get rid of worms and other parasites. Number one use on my list, which is also kind of a cautionary tale, is stopping diarrhea. A simple tea made of the leaves or a bark decoction will also certainly constipate you if you’re not running to the john, so fair warning. Go easy on the internal use until you have some idea of how much it’s going to bung you up. This is another reason why most acorns require quite a bit of leaching before they are ready to be eaten.

A fast poultice of oak leaves can be used to bring down swelling and reduce irritation due a wide variety of problems like insect bites, poison ivy, or (ahem) hemorrhoids. 

The abundant tannins lend themselves to a whole host of other uses around a homestead.  Tanning hides with oak is old as the hills, although certainly not the only tree you can use.  Braintan.com has done a great job explaining how to go about the process.  Oak chips and leaves can be used to clarify and flavour beer or wine. Oak galls can be used to make a good dark ink. Oak leaves take forever to break down, (usually two-three years) so shredded leaves added to a compost pile are more a’brown’ material than ‘green’, but help to make a very stable mulch. Yes, they are acid, but it’s a weak organic acid and composting down oak leaves isn’t going to seriously affect your soil pH, unless you pile up a literal ton of fresh leaves in one spot.

Oak makes good mushroom logs (highly recommended for shiitake), and also is a host tree for delicious boletes, chanterelles and (nomnomnom) truffles.

Acorns make excellent pig and goat food, right around the time you might want to fatten them up.  An oak tree sited to hang over their pen, or being allowed to forage under oaks in acorn season adds nutrition and easy carbs to their diet without any work from you.

Oak makes microclimates. An old oak tree can be BIG- really, really big.  A hundred foot spread is an entirely reasonable expectation. Keep that in mind when siting a new tree or creating guilds.  One large tree can pump out a huge amount of water into the air via transpiration, change the nature of the ground under it with shading and yearly mulch, keep plants from the harshest of winter damage, even while leafless, and provide windbreaks and shelter in a field.

I’d like to make some notes about guilding with oaks here, but in reality your first considerations should be root competition and shade when guilding, because oaks are pretty convivial. Toby Hemenway did some research on the Oregon White Oak community and came up with these natives growing with White Oak: California Hazelnut, Pacific Madrone, Mazzard Cherry, Black Hawthorn, Saskatoon Serviceberry, Creambush Oceanspray, Round-Leaved Snowberry, Thimbleberry, Trailing Blackberry, Sweetbriar Rose, Broad-Petaled Strawberry, Poison Oak, Yerba Buena, Sweet Ciceley, American Vetch. From that, I’d say you’re safe with hazelnuts, any kind of Prunus, Amelanchier, strawberries, any Rubus, Ribes or Rosa, and leguminous ground covers. Ramps should work well in the dappled shade underneath. Garry Oak Ecosystems data may be useful in creating effective guilds as well- I know I’d sure love to see more mass Camas plantings!

Hope this helps you in valuing your Oaks, if you have some, or inspires you to try something new with them. Happy gardening!