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LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Looking for local stories on using trees for herbal medicine

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Dear Editor,
About thirty years ago, I was walking in the woods and realized I was thirsty. With no water nearby, I thought of chewing on a tree twig to get some moisture moving in my mouth. However, being still quite new to area (10+ years), and being acutely aware of how much there is to learn about living in this area, I was not sure which tree’s twigs were safe to chew on.
Thus began a project that saw me researching in over 50 books, including the herbal library at Madonna House (which was graciously opened to me for three days), to gather information on the edible and herbal qualities of over 25 local trees. To put it simply, there’s more to a tree than just lumber and firewood.
I trust that most people know that the common aspirin was the second pharmaceutical drug on the market, and that it was derived from salicin, or salicylic acid from willow or aspen bark. These trees both have a long history of being used for pain and headaches by people living on the land (and in cities) before the drug industry took over the market.
While most immigrant and Native peoples used herbs for medicine until relatively recently, I’ve discovered that the local trees offer great herbal assistance for many maladies AND they are available fresh all year round. The immigrants had the challenge of learning new trees and new herbs, yet did so out of necessity. Thankfully, many trees were similar.
I grew up with “wild black cherry” cough drops commonly available in the store. Then, when I moved to the Killaloe area, I went into Murray’s General Store in Barrys Bay and saw several health “remedy” bottles on the shelf, including ones for cough that contained Wild Black Cherry and White Pine.
In many history books it’s well told how Jacques Cartier received help from the Native people to cure his whole crew’s outbreak of scurvy (vitamin C deficiency disease) while visiting at Hochelaga ( Montreal), back in 1535. Cartier wrote that one whole tree of “Annedda” (hemlock tree) was used, needle and bark, to clear up everyone’s scurvy in eight days, and that the physicians back in France could not have done as well in a year.
So it’s not surprising to learn that the Canadian Government in 1942, when testing most local trees and many field herbs for vitamin C content (in case imports of citrus were cut off during WW 2) found that the evergreen tree needles and rosehips had the highest content. White Pine has been further tested to show the needles also contain Vitamin A and K.
Several local people have told me of how their families used trees as herbal medicine in the old days. Loggers made cedar tea to keep rheumatism away. Some folks used white pine or spruce needle tea to make up for lack of fresh fruit in the winter. One friend’s father chewed on a cedar leaf to freshen his breath before going to church. Many people have told me of making tea from willow bark to cure a headache or to ease pain.
I am readying my research for printing in the near future, and I’m looking for more local stories involving use of trees as herbal medicine, or as food, to add to the book. If you do recall any, or are still using trees in this way, can you please send your stories by mail (3705 Queens Line, Foresters Falls, ON, K0J 1V0) or by email to editor@whitewaternews.ca. Credit will be given, if you like.
Thank you so much
Robbie Anderman
Killaloe Ontario