Trees are Medicine

Trees are beneficial in so many ways, including improving human health. Trees can filter the air we breathe, reduce heat-related illness, provide us with nutritious food, speed up the recovery process, improve immune systems and encourage us to go outside and engage in recreational activities or socialize with neighbors.

In addition to all of those health benefits, did you know some trees offer actual health remedies too?

Our friend Kris Mattern is a master naturalist, river restoration advocate, and a tree lover among other things. She wrote us an article about two Missouri trees she looks to in April for their medicinal properties.

Trees are Medicine

Written by Kris Mattern

While trees have so many incredible benefits including, shade, natural air conditioning, structure for plants and ground cover, shelter, and even furniture, they also provide amazing medicine. When asked if I could pick two trees to write about, I really struggled to narrow it down, even with the topic already being narrowed down to Missouri native trees. How do you pick just two? There are so many wonderful trees, and they all have different benefits. It’s hard to pick just two. But with this being April, I picked two of my favorites that also happen to be in bloom this month: sassafras and river birch.

Sassafras Tree

Sassafras is beautiful in every season. It’s usually a smaller tree, around 20’ tall, but in southern parts of the state, it can get a lot taller. I love the beautiful orange color of the leaves in the fall and the fragrant warm bark of this tree. You should begin to see it flowering this month. Have you ever had root beer? Can you guess where the traditional flavoring comes from? That’s right – the Sassafras tree!

Beyond having a wonderful flavor, this root bark has been used medicinally for centuries. Historically, the roots were dug up, washed, cut into pieces, and boiled in water as a tea. Indigenous people of Missouri used sassafras for dugout canoes because of its resistance to decay. Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes used ground sassafras leaves to thicken and spice their food. They introduced the practice to Europeans and Africans, and this food is now called file, a staple in Cajun and Creole gumbos. The young raw leaves are spicy, which is what makes them a perfect complement in creole cooking.

As medicine, sassafras teas have been used to treat urinary tract infections, tummy aches, diarrhea, rheumatoid arthritis, tonic, dermatological aid, blood thinning, and as a cold remedy. 

River Birch

I don’t care how messy this tree is, I love its peely bark and spunky personality. This medium-sized tree will begin to flower this month as well, and they are very easy to identify with or without their leaves. As you can probably guess by the name, river birch trees are commonly found along streams or areas subject to flooding.

Native Americans and Europeans made birch beer from the sap of this species. The inner bark was used for dying fabric, and the peeled bark has been used for constructing baskets, buckets, storage bins, and canoes. The antifungal properties of the bark help to prevent pests from infiltrating storage bins. The wood has been used for woodenware, furniture, and more. It has long been a favorite of landscapers, who commonly plant it in groupings in yards and along streams and ponds.

Medicinal uses of birch include a bark decoction for milky urine and to help with stomach pain. The bark, buds and leaves can be infused into skin salves, which will give the salve an antifungal property to help treat skin irritants such as athletes foot, inflamed skin, and ringworm.

These trees can be tapped just like maple trees, before the leaves unfurl (about a month after you would tap a maple tree). The boiled down sap is thicker than maple syrup and tastes more like molasses and can be used as a sweetener in cooking and baking.

Foraging tips

Something to always keep in mind when foraging – be 100% sure when identifying any medicinal or edible wild plant. Never forage on private property. Only take as much as you need and follow the foraging guides for each conservation area. Only sample a small amount at first to test for allergic reactions. Forage safely and have fun!

About the author

Kris Mattern is a mom, nature nerd, published author, award-winning graphic designer, and Missouri Master Naturalist of the Osage Trails Chapter. She serves on the board of directors for Missouri River Relief and has a lifelong passion of gardening and plant medicine research. Her published article “Missouri Medicinals” can be downloaded here.

This article is not a replacement for medical advice, it is merely sharing potential medicinal values of trees that may work for some people. Consult professionals before consuming anything foraged.