The Forest Pharmacy
(Article from The Laker)
November 25, 1988
The Forest Pharmacy
by R.H. Anderman
For about ten years, I have been doing research and experiments with the medicinal qualities of local Trees, prompted by plain curiosity about the effects and safety of nibbling while strolling in the forest. I have always been interested in the healing properties of herbal plants in general, and like the annual and perennial small-sized herbs, the Trees have a folk legacy of being helpful healers for human kind. And when the seasonal climate puts Nature's herbal pharmacy under a blanket of snow, what's the alternative? The Forest Pharmacy.
You might imagine my delight and surprise when I learned that nearly all our local Trees can be nibbled safely and are medicinal to one degree or another. We live in the bioregion of the North American Northeastern Woodlands, pretty much at the northern limit of the hardwood forest. Over 25 Tree species make their home here, with many varieties within species expanding the quantity.
The Native people who lived here first were in tune with the properties of the Trees. They passed on much of their herbal knowledge to the Europeans, who combined it with their own herbal legacy to insure their survival.
The first medicinal quality of this region 's Trees to be noted by Europeans was the antiscorbutic property of the Hemlock: Native people offered a trees worth of needles to Cartier's crew to cure their scurvy - which it did, along with clearing up their venereal diseases. Actually there's a question as to whether it was Hemlock or Spruce that did the job - both are quite capable. During the Second World War, when supply lines were threatened, Canada's government assayed the Ascorbic Acid content of boreal Trees and found that all the evergreens have significant Vitamin C content, with highest quality in Pines, Spruces, Firs and Hemlock. Recent studies show that three year old needles growing in full sunlight have the most 'C', while less light and more or less age yield reduced levels.
Teas made by steeping a handful of needles in nearly boiling water are the most common ways of getting the Vitamin C from evergreens. Chewing needles, inner bark, young twigs and spring buds are other possibilities.
A cautionary note must be inserted here about the poisonous thuyone content of the White Cedar. Medicinally beneficial in small quantities for arthritis and rheumatism, and containing Vitamin C, White Cedar is poisonous when taken regularly in sizable quantities.
Red Cedar, an evergreen of the Juniper family, contains podophyllo toxin along with quantifies of Vitamin C. This is very dangerous and has been used to commit suicide and abort babies. Not a tree to dabble with lightly.
And Hemlock, being very astringent, should also be taken cautiously. Large quantities can constipate, cause stomach unrest or disturb pregnancy.
White Pine, on the other hand, was and is very commonly used for coughs, colds, respiratory problems, etc, with no adverse effects recorded. Like many trees it was listed in the Pharmaceutical Dispensatory of the United States at least up to the 1947 edition. My favourite tasting evergreen tea is made with the needles of the White Pine. The spring buds and male pollen flowers are certainly a nibbler's treat.
Spruce also was a common beverage ingredient in the forms of both tea and Spruce beer. The People's ready source of Vitamin C in a land devoid of Citrus.
As you requested, I've tried putting together bits of my life that are relevant to my authorship of The Healing Trees book. I hope the following answers the needs