Native tree medicine

Mullinhassig Wood & Waterfalls, Aghavrin, Coachford, Cork.

Alder Alnus glutinsoa syn. Rotundifolia Betulaceae. (Fern)Alder is one of the Commoners of the Woods according to Brehon Law. The leaves and bark are rich in tannins and therefore make useful astringents used to treat chapped skin, burns, wounds and ulcers, externally, as a gargle for sore throats and as a compress for reducing milk production during weaning. It has been used internally to treat diarrhoea and to treat fevers, but should only be used short term.  It is not used as a food plant.

 Arbutus/ Strawberry Tree Arbutus unedo (means I only eat one – an indication of the unpalatability of the fruit) Ericaceae (Caithne) Arbutus is one of the tree members of the heather family. It is an unusual native, not present in the UK but found in the Mediterranean.  The leaves are antiseptic and astringent and are used as a tea to treat cystitis and urethritis; the astringent property also makes it valuable for diarrhoea, dysentery, and sore throats. The leaves should not be used in pregnancy or with kidney disease. The fruit is edible, if not the most palatable, and has been used to make preserves and liqueurs.


Birch Silver Birch Betula pendula syn.verrucosa

Downey Birch Betula pubescens Betulaceae (Beithe)

Birch was classified as a Commoner of the woods in the Brehon Laws.

Constituents: Flavonoids, including hyperoside and quercetin; resins; saponins; tannins; volatile oil including methyl salicylate; potassium

Actions: Anti-inflammatory; Diuretic; Laxative; Decreases uric acid levels: Diaphoretic; Anti-microbial; Astringent

Birch is known as a pioneer species – one that moves into cleared spaces and damaged soils to shift the chemistry of the soil to prepare it for climax species such as oak, moving in after species such as bracken and bramble. It balances the pH of the soil; if you wish to plant an oak forest start with some of the pioneers such as birch, hazel, willow and, to some extent, ash. After 5-7 years you can start to plant in some oaks and then add in some holly.  The birch will also act as a nurse species, supporting the climax species in their juvenile state.  Birch is often seen as a feminine tree, graceful and dancing in the breeze. In the same way that birch balances the pH of the soil, it also helps to flush out acids from the body and reduces inflammation in our musculoskeletal system so it can be helpful in treating conditions such as gout, rheumatism and arthritis; the leaves are gathered in bud or when fully open and used to make a tea or tincture. Birch will grow in fairly damp conditions – it is a diuretic and can be used to treat urinary stones; this echoes the way in which it balances the chemistry of the soil.  We can use the leaves and bark (obviously the leaves are a less destructive harvest) and they make an excellent spring tonic for clearing out water-soluble waste products (especially uric acid) from the system; it is a diuretic and therefore helps to treat kidney and bladder disorders and oedema caused by poor renal function and low cardiac output.  A decoction of the bark is used to treat skin problems such as eczema and psoriasis, any chronic skin disorder; it is the salicylates that it contains which help here, they are really effective anti-inflammatories in the same way that aspirin is. Birch trees may also be tapped in the spring to collect the rising sap; this is full of all sorts of beneficial nutrients that the tree has stored in its roots and microrrhiza over the winter which are being sent up to feed the tree in preparation for its spring growth. The sap can be gathered and used to produce a wine which is both nutritious and cleansing. By removing acids, cleansing out waste and reducing inflammation the birch tree helps us become more flexible in our bodies, and perhaps in our spirit. This is echoed in the dance that the birch tree performs in the breeze. In Scandinavia the birch tree has traditionally be used for a multitude of purposes, the bark was used to make DPC, the timber was used for making canoes, for building and for fuel.

Birch can be prepared as an infusion (Adding bicarbonate of soda to the aqueous solution enhances the absorption of the medicine apparently), juice or the sap.


Hazel Corylus avellana Corylaceae/Betulaceae (Coll)

Hazel is a Noble of the Forest and much associated with wisdom; hazel is much valued for food by humans, squirrels, and members of the Lepidoptera (moths in particular).  It is also coppiced for fuel, fences posts, hurdles and planted in hedgerows.  It will tolerate damp areas and therefore can be helpful in habitat restoration. Hazel branches are traditionally used by water diviners. The nuts are highly nutritious and have been used as hunter gather food for many thousands of years. They are considered a valuable food in convalescence. The hazel nut contains protein, unsaturated fat, carbohydrates, fibre, thiamine and B6. The nuts can be picked a little green and stored in their shells until you are ready to use them for cakes and biscuits, nut roasts or burgers. Or they can be roasted and salted as a snack or to sprinkle onto salads. The oil from the nuts can be used in salad dressings but is also good for promoting healthy skin and hair when applied externally.  The leaves contain proanthocyanidins; these help to strengthen veins and capillary walls and also support collagen in connective tissues. The leaves are also decocted to make a medicine to treat diarrhoea. The leaves have also been shown to contain taxol.


Broom Cytisus scoparius Leguminoseae Gilcach

One of the Bushes of the Woods.  Broom has been used as a medicine for centuries, as a diuretic, cathartic, a treatment for gout, also as a remedy for irregular heart beat and as a disinfectant. Due to the presence of cardio-active glycosides it is now on the list of banned herbal medicines in Ireland. Roger Phillips mentions using broom buds as a salad, in wine or to prepare a pickle.


Hawthorn Sce

There is one native species of hawthorn Crataegus monogyna Rosaceae.  However, there are probably introduced specimens of Crateagus laevatiga and Crateagus oxycanthoides. The seeds take 18 months or more to germinate and therefore it is often propagated from cuttings.

Constituents: Saponins; Glycosides; Flavonoids (vitexin, vitexin-4 rhamnoside, quercetin, quercetin-3-galactoside); Various acids, including ascorbic; Amines (phenylamine, alpha-methoxyphenylamine, tyramine in flowers); Tannins

Actions: Cardiac tonic; Coronary vasodilator; Hypotensive/blood pressure regulator; Relaxant; Anti-oxidant; Diuretic

It is a Commoner of the Woods and has an immense amount of folklore attached to it in Ireland. It is known as a fairy tree, one that helps to connect us to the Imaginal Realm and it is considered extremely bad luck to cut one down (indicative of the value placed in its medicine; so strong is the belief here that planned road routes and building plans have been altered to avoid the removal of hawthorn trees. The young leaves and flower buds are used as both a food eaten in spring salads, and as a medicine. Medicinally, an infusion is prepared which has been shown to be valuable in improving the heartbeat rate and strength, especially in heart failure, and in balancing the blood pressure (both if it is high or low); it also helps with irregular heartbeats and improves the peripheral circulation, helping with conditions such as Raynaud’s and with poor memory since it improves the circulation to the brain. The bioflavonoids relax and dilate the arteries and blood vessels thereby relieving angina. The bioflavonoids and pro-anthocyanins are also valuable antioxidants which help repair and prevent tissue damage, especially in the blood vessels; there is evidence to suggest that it can treat arteriosclerosis and can dissolve deposits in sclerotic and thickened arteries. Hawthorn also helps to relieve anxiety and is traditionally thought to mend broken hearts, both emotionally and physically; it is especially helpful at reducing anxiety during menopause and andropause which is a time when many people look back at their regrets and may be struggling to remember who they are, their heart truth.  The berries are gathered in the autumn and have similar medicinal properties. They can be used fresh or dried in a decoction or infused in brandy (or other spirits) to make a heart tonic for the winter months; both the berries and the medicine made from them have a deep red hue, reminiscent of the colour of healthy blood. For culinary use the berries are traditionally gathered after the first frost which converts some of the starches to sugars (enhancing their sweet/sour taste) and makes the berries more palatable. Berries are used as an ingredient in hedgerow wine, or to make haw jelly as an accompaniment to wild game. The berries can also be mashed, removing the skin and seeds, and used to make a fruit leather as a way of storing them. Hawthorn was traditionally used to treat kidney and bladder stones until an Irish doctor noticed its benefits for the heart. Even when it is being used as a heart medicine it will often increase urinary output for the first few days as the heart output improves and fluid retained due to poor cardiac function is set the way of the kidneys; it is therefore important to ensure adequate fluid intake (about 1.5 litres a day) and the proximity of toilet facilities.

Both the dried fruit and flowering tops are used as an infusion or to prepare a tincture. Berries tinctured in brandy have a particular reputation as a winter heart tonic.



Spindle Euonymus europeaus Celastraceae (Feorus)

A Lower division of the Woods.  The Spindle tree contains various types of rather strong constituents that make it purgative, and cardiotoxic; it is not recommended for use in medicine or food. However, its red leaves and fruit in the autumn look absolutely stunning.


Alder Buckthorn Frangula alnus/Rhamnus frangula  Rhamnaceae

Like purging buckthorn, this tree has strong purgative properties and is not used as a food plant.


Ash Fraxinus excelsior Oleaceae (Uinnius)

Ash is one of the Nobles of the Woods and has a fantastic amount of folklore attached to it in many regions; in the Nordic tradition the world tree Yggdrasil was considered to connect the Upper, Middle and Lower realms and the Nine Worlds; Odin hung upsidedown from the tree to attain wisdom. The legend of Sétanta (Cú Chulainn) starts out with him playing hurling with other boys and traditionally hurleys were made of Ash grown in Ireland.  Sadly, we are now importing the ash to make hurleys or using plastic ones.

The keys or fruit can be pickled if they are harvested when green and the leaves can be used fresh or dried to make a tea; they are gathered in the summer and are an astringent with diuretic and laxative effects that have been used as a native alternative to senna. The bark is gathered in the spring and has been used as a tonic and an astringent.


Holly Ilex aquifolium Aquifoliaceae (Cuilenn)

Holly is a Noble of the Woods which has been used for winter fodder and is also accredited with protecting the natural world in the midst of darkness in the winter. This is one of the tree species that has the male and female flowers on separate individual trees; due to the overharvesting of branches with berries for Christmas decorations the female members of the species are now rather compromised. Only the lower branches, those within grazing reach, have prickly leaves; those growing out of reach do not need to protect themselves in this way and so have smooth margins. The berries are violently emetic and purgative and not suitable for human consumption although they make valuable winter food for birds.  The leaves are the main part used, either fresh or dried. They are prepared as a decoction or infusion and taken for respiratory infections such as pneumonia, bronchitis and flu. They have also been used to treat rheumatism.


Juniper Juniperus communis Cupressaceae (Crann Fir)

Constituents: 0.5-2% essential oil, 10% resin, 33% invert sugars, Bitter principle –juniperin, Organic acids, Diterpenes

Actions: Diuretic, Antiseptic, Carminative, Stomachic, Anti-rheumatic, Rubefacient

One of the Lower Divisions of the Wood, Juniper is another of our native conifers and has separate male and female plants; it is also native to Asia and North America. Although Juniper trees can grow up to 50 foot tall they are often much shorter due to their rugged habitat and there are some forms that grow with a ground hugging habit.  Like holly, the male and female flowers are borne on separate plants and therefore a viable population needs plants of both sexes. It has a strong reputation as a plant of protection and cleansing, being burned during plagues to protect against the disease. The twigs and branches may be burned as smudge, incense can be prepared from the berries and the essential oil has been used to clear space, cleanse objects such as crystals or placed on the solar plexus for protection and cleansing. Unusually for a conifer it produces a berry fruit which takes 2 years to ripen on the bush. Both the berries and the needles are used medicinally. The needles are used for treating respiratory problems, whilst the berries are used for their ability to flush out acids and toxins to treat arthritis, rheumatism and gout and to treat urinary infections such as cystitis and urethritis; they should not be used however if there is inflammation of the kidney but are useful in the treatment of water retention since they are diuretics. Juniper berries are a pancreatic tonic and help to balance the blood sugars; it also helps to calm colic and wind (but is not used for infants), abdominal cramps and digestive difficulties due to under production of stomach acid; this makes it a good tonic for older people with digestive problems.  The berries are warming and can be a good treatment for chills and persistent coughs. The berries are used to flavour gin. They are also roasted and ground as a coffee substitute or prepared as an aromatic water or Rob of Juniper, a non-alcoholic drink. In Sweden they are used to make beer and in France a beer called genevrette is made from equal quantities of juniper berries and barley. They are used to make a conserve or jam in Sweden. The berries are also used as a culinary spice particularly suited to game; in Germany they are also included in sauerkraut and area great spice to add to winter vegetable stews as it is warming and has a degree of sweetness. The berries can be dried and ground to make cakes or used to make a fruit leather. The inner bark has been used as a famine food. The berries have also been used for a traditional spring cleanse – on the first day one berry is eaten, then 2 on the second, up to 9 on the ninth, then reduced down by one berry a day for the next 8 days. Three essential oils are prepared from the plant; juniper berry oil, juniper twig oil and Cade oil from the heartwood.  The berry oil has been used externally for arthritic conditions, to treat alopecia and for acne and oily skin.

Juniper is related to Savin (Juniperus Sabina) which is abortefacient and can damage the kidneys.   There is some confusion as to whether juniper has similar effects; gin was known as mother’s ruin as it was sometimes consumed in an attempt to abort an unwanted foetus. Juniper can definitely make menstrual bleeding heavier and therefore is better avoided by those with heavy period but is great for treating period cramps. It is also probably better to avoid it if the kidneys are inflamed and probably better to only use it for 6 weeks at a time at therapeutic doses; the fact that it is used to make jams and conserves does tend to indicate it is less hazardous than some authors allege.

The dried fruit can be used in food, made into an infusion or tinctured


Crab Apple Malus sylvestris Rosaceae Aball

Constituents: Acids, Pectin, Vitamin A,B1,C, Minerals

Actions: Tonic to the digestive system and liver, Stimulant, Diuretic, Anti-rheumatic, Laxative, Antiseptic

A Noble of the Woods, apple is another species with a rich folklore and tradition.  Crab apples contain significant amounts of pectin, which makes them valuable for making jellies. Pectin also is a valuable mucilage, once cooked, helping to soothe the gastrointestinal tract in IBS and other inflammations of the gut, it also helps to lower cholesterol levels in the blood (and therefore can also be a helpful inclusion on the diet for people with high blood pressure) and to remove toxins from the bowel and system (including heavy metals).  The efficacy of using apple pectin to remove heavy metals has been demonstrated by its therapeutic use on the people of Chernobyl with whom it is used to draw out radioactive caesium from the system.  It can also be used to treat other heavy metal toxicity e.g. accumulated mercury or aluminium. Pectin is also germicidal, and the combined properties make apple useful for treating tummy upsets and tummy bugs; it is particularly helpful in recovering from diarrhoea, but can also be valuable in alleviating constipation due to the amount of soft fibre it contains. Pectin also helps regenerate healthy epithelial tissue and therefore can be used as a poultice externally. Apples also contain fruit acids (malic and citric acids, but relatively low levels of ascorbic acid or vitamin C), potassium, magnesium, phosphorous, calcium, iron, sulphur and manganese). The high level of vitamins and minerals make apples a valuable food for those with anaemia or general debility, or those suffering from mental or physical over-exertion. Sour apples have been used as a germicidal diuretic for urinary infections. The flavonoids in the fruit have been shown to protect against stroke and elevated blood pressure.  Crab apples are generally cooked by roasting, baking or stewing. The apples can also be used in making wine, either by themselves or in combination with other autumn fruits. Another preparation that has been traditionally made is verjuice; the ripe apples are piled in a heap and left to ferment, the stalks and decayed fruit are then removed and then the fruit is mashed and juiced. The juice is strained and bottled and is ready to use after a month as a substitute for lemon juice in cooking. Infusions of raw fruit, or its juice, are used for rheumatic pains, for colic and as a cooling remedy for fevers. Raw grated apple, taken first thing in the morning, will quell morning sickness. Apples eaten last thing at night will help with insomnia and will also help with bowel problems. Stewed apple can be eaten before meals to soothe the digestive tract for those with inflammation or with food intolerances and also to treat ulcerative colitis and gastric ulcers.  If an irritant food is inadvertently taken a fast on stewed apple will heal the bowel. It can also help to relieve bronchial problems, hoarseness and coughs. The peel is used in France to treat rheumatism, gout and urinary disorders. Raw apple can be made into a poultice to treat inflamed eyes, badly healing wounds, skin infections such as scabies, and aches and pains. A traditional wart remedy is to rub two halves of an apple on the wart and then bury them; they will disappear as the apple decays.

There is a Bach Flower Remedy of Crab Apple which is used for self-dislike, despondency, depression, over anxiousness, getting bogged down in detail, house-proudness and fussiness. According to Memory Paterson meditation with the apple tree (or fruit or blossom) helps bring about a communion between male and female, helping us to find love and trust.  It helps us to develop love for others, but also for ourselves (after all, it has to start with the inner work). It helps us to develop harmony within ourselves and therefore with the world. Seen as an extremely important tree in Celtic culture and many other ancient cultures. Several cultures have legends about Paradise being an apple orchard and the apple being the tree of knowledge or of wisdom. Apples are also connected with love.  In Ireland the silver bough was cut from an apple tree; nine apples hung upon the branch and played continuous music that lulled people into a trance. The silver bough was seen as a link with the unseen world.


Scots Pine Pinus sylvestris Pinaceae/ Abiecaceae (Ochtach)

Essential oil constituents: Monoterpenes 60-70% pinenes, limonene, carene, ß-caryophyllene,  camphene,  sabinene,  terpinene,  ocimene,  phellandrene,  cymene,  terpinolene Sesquiterpenes  longifolene,  cadinene,  copaene Monoterpenols  borneol, terpineol-4 Sesquiterpenols  cadinol,  muurolol Aldehydes  citronellal Esters 1-10%  bornyl acetate

Other constituents: High levels of vitamin C in young shoots, testosterone in the pollen.

Actions: Adrenal cortex stimulant, analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antifungal, anti-sudorific, antiseptic, bactericide, expectorant, insecticide, rubefacient, tonic (hormonal, pancreatic), vermifuge

A Noble of the Woods, Pine became extinct here and was re-introduced. It is one of the native conifers.

Pine needles are used to brew ale in Scotland, and it is a particularly fine ale with great benefits for the respiratory system, all that monoterpene rich essential oil imparts a great flavour, boosts the immune system and clears mucus, and calms flatulence. The bark can be used externally for arthritis and rheumatism. The seeds are used to treat bronchitis, tuberculosis and cystitis. Pine needles also can be infused to drink as a tea or for steam inhalations to treat respiratory problems, including asthma. The kernels are eaten as a restorative.

Pine has always been associated with the respiratory system.  The reason why sanatoria for consumptives were built in the Alps was to allow the patients to benefit from the resins permeating the air, and the negative ions exuded by the trees.  Two Lebanese friends of mine remember being taken to the Pine forests if they had chest infections when they were children and a small fire being made of the fallen needles to make a smudge smoke for them to inhale to clear the lungs.  Also sleeping in a pine forest is reputed to lengthen one’s life.  In practice this affinity to the respiratory system may be valuable in the treatment of bronchitis, catarrh, colds, coughs, sinusitis, tracheitis, flu and pneumonia.  It has also been used in the treatment of tuberculosis and can be useful in the treatment of asthma.  It is especially valuable for the treatment of asthmatics who have been on long term steroid treatment, since this can cause adrenal insufficiency and Pine can help to support the adrenal glands.  Its antiseptic qualities are also used to treat cystitis, pyelitis and other urinary infections. It is also used for prostatitis, ovarian congestion, impotence and uterine problems. It has an analgesic actionwhich can be used to treat gout, arthritis, rheumatism and muscular aches and pains.  It has a deodorant property which can be applied locally to sweaty feet in the form of footbaths (it also helps reduce sweating) or used to clean the air by burning the oil or the needles.  It can be used in the treatment of lice, scabies, and in veterinary care; the needles have been used to prepare a drench for cows and horses to drink if they have respiratory problems.

Its action on the digestive tract indicates its use for gastralgia, intestinal pains, gallstones and other gall bladder problems and also for diabetes. Its tonifying action is also indicated for hypotension, lymphatic congestion, debility, fatigue and multiple sclerosis. Lastly, it may be used in the treatment of certain allergies and inflammations.


Aspen Populus tremuloides Salicaceae (Crithach)

Listed as one of the Lower Divisions of the Wood in the Brehon Laws.  It prefers damp habitats, and, like the other species that prefer such habitats, it is high in salicylates. The bark of aspen is used for its anti-inflammatory and painrelieving actions. Like willow it is used for arthritis, rheumatism, gout and fever. It is also used as a tonic remedy for anorexia and debility. Because it is astringent and antiseptic it can be valuable in the treatment of diarrhoea, IBS and urinary tract infections.


Cherry Rosaceae (Idath)

There are two native species of cherry

Common/ Wild Cherry, Gean Prunus avium

Bird cherry Prunus padus

Cherry is a Commoner of the Woods.  The fruits are used for food by many bird species. Wild cherry is used to make wine and liqueurs. The fruit can also be used to make a dessert soup. Bird cherries have been used to make a fruit leather – cyanogenic glycosides are present in both species and traditionally these were removed by pounding and spreading out to dry, the hydrogen cyanide that is produced is volatile and the leather is deemed to be safe to be eaten once there is no aroma of bitter almonds, the telltale smell of hydrogen cyanide. Medicinally, the cherry stalks have been used to make a diuretic decoction for the treatment of urinary infections; in Romania they are also used to treat respiratory infections. The resin exuded by the trunk was traditionally dissolved in wine and used for coughs and urinary gravel in some regions. Care must be taken with preparations from wild cherry due to the presence of cyanogenic glycosides in significant levels, these can prove toxic or fatal if taken inappropriately or in overdose.



Blackthorn/ Sloe Prunus spinosa Rosaceae (Draigen)

A Lower Division of the Woods.  The wood was traditionally used to make shillelaghs and walking sticks. The flowers appear before the leaves in the spring, heralding the start of that season. They are diuretic and depurative (or blood purifying), useful as a spring cleansing tonic and for skin conditions such as acne. The bark is used as an astringent and to treat fever and is also gathered in the spring. The leaves are also astringent and diuretic. The unripe fruit is used to treat acne. There is mention of combining the leaves, bark, fruits and flowers together for certain traditional cures; presumably some of these would be in dried form.  The ripe fruit is traditionally gathered after the first frost, which sweetens the taste. They are used to prepare sloe gin, or as a winter fruit to add to pies and jams, or to brew wine.



There are two species of oak native to Ireland, as well as several introduced species.

Sessile Oak Quercus petraea

Pendunculate Oak Quercus robur Fagaceae (Daur)

The oak is one of the Nobles of the Woods. Many years ago, Ireland and most of Europe was covered with oak forest, but we all know that this was felled to use in building. Only small areas of primary forest remain.  However, the Oak is superbly suited to the Irish climate and will reach a great age if left to mature.  The wood is excellent for building and particularly for boats. The tree supports one of the largest numbers of insects and other species of any tree.  Oaks will grow in a variety of habitats.  However, if land is being reclaimed it is better to plant birch as the pioneer species to balance the soil and introduce oaks after about 4 years.  It likes to be inter planted with Holly. There is a tradition that each Summer Solstice and Winter Solstice the Oak King and the Holly King fight; at summer solstice the holly king wins as the year moves towards winter (holly is seen as guarding the spirit of the woods and nature during the dark months) and each winter the Oak wins as the year moves towards spring and summer.   One of the greatest medicines that this tree provides is sitting under its shade or the beautiful aspect it provides.  In pre-Christian times oaks were planted to mark boundaries and large, solitary oaks were law trees, place to meet to make judgements and decisions for the community and were also places where wedding ceremonies were held.

The inner bark is harvested in May from 5-10 year old branches and dried. The leaves are harvested around June for making wine and other preparations and the fruit are harvested in September when they are fully swollen. The acorns are valued by birds such as jays, pigeons and crows, animals such as squirrels, mice, pigs, deer and bears, (in areas where these are not extinct), as well as weevils and other insect larvae. Acorns have also been used as a food for humans; the acorns are extremely astringent and therefore need an amount of preparation to produce a palatable food. They are soaked in water to remove some of the tannins; they are then ground into a flour which is high in protein, carbohydrates, fats, calcium, phosphorous, potassium and niacin. Alternatively, they can be roasted. The acorns can be stored for up to two years, once they are checked for any mouldy ones. Every 4 years Oak produces a bumper crop of acorns – this means that there is a surplus of seeds over the amount that is used as food by the animals and these are the seeds that allow the oak to produce more children; the animals and birds that feed on it, particularly the squirrels, jays and pigeons help the oak to reproduce by burying excess acorns, basically they plant their seeds for them. Oak is a climax species in the forests. We tend to think of the mighty spreading oaks found in isolation in fields and parkland as examples of the older trees; however, in a forest there may be oaks of great seniority that have not achieved such great girth due to the fact that they are growing within the community of the forest.  Oak is essentially a tree of community – it supports a huge number of insect species (over 200 in Ireland) and a senior oak will often have mosses, lichens, fern, pennyworts and other plant species growing on its bark.  Oak is one of the best astringent medicines of the Irish materia medica due to high levels of tannins and some quercetin – astringents tighten and tone the tissues. As well as being astringent oak is antiseptic anti-inflammatory and haemostatic. The bark, leaves, galls (growths produced by gall wasps) and acorns may be used. The oak bark chips are used for smoking foods and barrels of oak are used to produce some of the finest whiskies and wines. Oak bark can be decocted and used as a gargle for sore throats and inflamed tonsils or used externally as a wash for small burns and skin problems; the decoction can also be made into a cream for treating haemorrhoids and anal fissures in a similar way to witch hazel (not a native species). Small amounts can be taken internally (for no more that 4 weeks at a time – the high levels of tannins can affect the ability of the gastrointestinal tract to absorb nutrients amongst other things) for diarrhoea, dysentery, leucorrhoea, rectal bleeding and also metrorrhagia. A powder prepared from the bark can be used as a treatment for wet eczema and as a snuff for nasal polyps.  The galls can be used to prepare poultices to draw out periosteal bruising and have also been used to make ink. Oak is also used in traditional tanning processes, turning hides into leather. Young oak leaves can be used to brew a wine.  Oaks have several edible fungi amongst their microrrhiza, including the truffle (if you are lucky!).

Oak chips are used to smoke foods.


Purging Buckthorn Rhamnus catharticus Rhamnaceae (Rhamh-dhraigen)

As the name implies this tree has traditionally used a purgative medicine. It has no food uses, although the ruits are made into a medicinal syrup to treat constipation. The bark may also be used. The fruits contain Vitamin C and various aglycones of anthraquinones including frangulaemodin and chrysophanol. It is traditionally combined with fennel or aniseed to prevent griping.


Willow Salicaceae (Sail)

There are 4 native species of willow as well as many introduced species and hybrids between the different species:

Goat willow  Salix caprea

Grey  Willow  Salix atrocinerea

Bay Willow Salix pentandra

Eared Willow Salix aurita

Willow is one of the commoners of the woods and another pioneer species, it is particularly suited to reclaiming areas with a high moisture content such as cut away bogs and beside water courses. Willow is a pioneer species and particularly useful for reclaiming cut away bogs. It does not mind coppicing and will sometimes self-coppice; coppicing increases the lifespan of the tree and provides whips for basketry, living willow sculptures, making cricket bats or biomass for heating or electricity production. As well as being used medicinally, a decoction of willow bark is reputed to act as a rooting compound for cuttings. The species name comes from the Celtic sal-lis. The willow tree has traditionally been associated with sorrow, grief, melancholy and unrequited love.  It is used for damp conditions. In common with the birch, it is high in salicylates which are excellent for reducing inflammation; it also contains phenolic glycosides, flavonoids, salicin, salicortin and tannins. Salix alba is generally considered to be the superior species for medicinal use, but they all have therapeutic properties.  As well as being anti-inflammatory willows are analgesic, anti-coagulant, astringent, febrifuge, diaphoretic, sedative and antirheumatic.

A concentrated decoction, simmered for several days, can be used to remove warts in the same way that salicylic acid preparations from the chemist are used.  It does not have the side effects of aspirin. The fresh or dried bark can be gathered from young branches in the spring and used fresh or dried for use at other times of the year. A decoction of the bark can reduce pain, and to treat fever. It is an astringent which has been used to treat internal bleeding.  Willow is used to treat arthritis, rheumatism and gout by reducing inflammation, swelling and inhibits prostaglandin production and improves mobility in joints. It is good for joint and muscle pain in general, and also for neuralgia. Willow has also been used to treat hot flushes and night sweats in menopause and spasmodic period pains.  It can also be used for colds, fevers and sometimes helps headaches. A Traditional combination is to decoct with St. John’s Wort and Cramp Bark for aching muscles. Culpeper used the ashes of the bark to make a mixture with vinegar for removing warts, corns and superfluous flesh.

It is best to use dried bark from trees between 2-3 years and definitely less than 5 years or leaves and young twigs; harvesting from April-May.


Elder Sambucus nigra Caprifoliaceae (Trom)

A Lower Division of the Woods.  A deciduous tree, growing to 12 metres with creamy white flowers and bluish green leaves. The Elder tree has a huge folklore associated with it; Pan is reputed to have made his pipes from the wood; a child should never be placed in a crib of elder wood or it will be substituted with a changeling; if one falls asleep under an elder tree one will be spirited away to the fairy realm; and according to quite a few cultures there is a formidable female spirit in the elder tree (the elder mother) whose permission must be asked before harvesting or cutting any part of the elder tree otherwise bad luck will overcome the perpetrator. It is also a veritable medicine chest and source of food. It grows abundantly in woods, hedges, ditches and wasteland and now grows in most temperate regions.  It is often cultivated and can be propagated from cuttings in spring or from seed; offspring from cuttings reaches maturity more quickly. This tree perfectly illustrates how nature provides the things that we need in a particular season – elderflowers appear during the hayfever season and the berries appear just as the seasons change from summer to autumn and we often need a boost to the immune system then.

The flowers, berries, leaves and bark are all used.

The flowers contain flavonoids-rutin, phenolic acids, triterpenes and triterpene acids, sterols, essential oil, mucilage, tannins, minerals especially high levels of potassium. They are diaphoretic, diuretic, anti-inflammatory and a mild nervine. They are used as an infusion to treat colds, flus, coughs, hayfever, ear infections, sinusitis and other respiratory allergies; they help to reduce fever, and catarrh and tone the lining of the upper respiratory tract by reducing oedema thereby increasing resistance to infection. They can also help in the treatment of candida and can help relieve arthritis by promoting sweating and diuresis, thereby removing acid from the system. They are a nervine tonic which Glennie Kindred says are particularly good for anxiety in the evening.  As well as being used as a tea they are traditionally made into cordials or wine and are used to make sweet fritters; a simple batter can be made from gram flower and water. The flower heads are dipped in and then plunged into hot oil. A hydrosol from the flowers is called Eau de Sureau in France and is consider an excellent aftershave skin tonic.

The berries contain Flavonoids, Anthocyanins, vitamins A and C, sambunigrin (cyanogenic glycoside), sambucine (alkaloid), organic acids and vitamins. They are laxative, nutritive, immune stimulant/ immune modulant; at least as effective as Echinacea for colds and flus. They can be made into syrup or decocted to treat colds, flus, respiratory infections and ear infections. They strengthen the immune system and are a mild laxative but can also be used to treat diarrhoea, presumably because the anthocyanins are anti-inflammatory for the bowel wall. They probably have benefits for the eyes similar to bilberry, also due to the anthocyanins.  The syrup can also be used to pour onto desserts, and the berries can be used to make wine or brew ale. The berries are also delicious in fruit pies. Fresh berries are delicious but bear in mind that an excess will have a laxative effect.

The leaves contain Sambunigrin and sambucine. They are used as an insect repellent. Julie McIntyre has experimented with using them internally as a treatment for flu. Having said that the dose needs to be researched more fully as they can also be toxic (purgative and emetic in larger doses). They are used externally to treat bruises, chilblains and strain. The leaves were infused in linseed to make Oleum viride.

The bark contains sambunigrin, sambucine and saponins and has been used as a laxative in the past. It is a warming liver stimulant that can be purgative and emetic in large doses and is also diuretic. It has been used for arthritis and for stubborn constipation.

The buds are expectorant, diaphoretic and purgative in large dose

The medicine from elder is definitely drying and slightly sweet. Sometimes described as hot and sometimes as cooling, I would view the flowers as cooling and the fruit as warming (although others find them cooling), with some bitterness and sourness.


A Recipe for Elderberry Cough Mixture

3lbs elderberries. Place in a large casserole in hot oven for 10 minutes approximately. Strain off juice and return to oven until all juice is run (about 1.5 pints). To each pint add half a pound of sugar, quarter teaspoon cinnamon and 12 cloves. Cover and simmer until sugar melts. Strain and bottle.

Elderflower and Elderberry Syrup

A nice variation is to make an infusion of elderflower, using 30g dried or 75 g fresh flowers in 250 ml of boiling water-cover and leave for 15 minutes. Make a decoction of 30g dried or 75 g fresh berries by placing them in cold water and simmering for half an hour. Strain these two off and combine the liquid and check the volume. For each ml of liquid add one gram of sugar or honey, or 1 ml of apple juice concentrate. Return to the heat and simmer for half an hour then bottle in clean bottles. Store in the fridge and use as a cordial, on ice cream or fruit pies or add it to white wine for an interesting variation on a kir, or with champagne to make a variation on kir royale.

The berries can be used to make wine or brew ale.

Elderflower Cordial

35 large heads of Elderflower – all stalk removed

Juice of 3 lemons

Zest of 3 lemons

2 litres water

5 tsp citric acid

2 kg sugar (rice syrup or apple juice concentrate can be substituted but it won’t thicken as much)


Put water, lemon juice/zest, citric acid & elderflowers in a large glass bowl and leave exposed to the sun for a day. Strain the liquid and keep the elderflower heads in another bowl. Heat the liquid and turn off the heat, stir in the sugar until you have the consistency you want for the syrup.

Let syrup cool to luke warm and then pour syrup on top of the elderflowers and let sit for a couple more days (covered with cloth).

Strain and bottle. Store in the fridge or a cool place.


Rowan, Mountain Ash Sorbus aucuparia Roseaceae (Caerthann)


A Commoner of the Woods.  Rowans are at home in some of the more challenging parts of our ecosystem such as barren mountainsides. They are also one of the species that bear their male and female flowers on separate trees so that it is necessary to have both genders present in a population in order to produce viable seed.  This is another tree with a lot of folklore attached – it was traditionally planted in churchyards since it was deemed to protect against evil.  The bark is used as a marginal food for cattle in Norway. The fresh flowers and the dried fruits are both used medicinally. They have laxative and diuretic properties that can be valuable in the treatment of arthritis and rheumatism. They are also used to treat menstrual pain, constipation and inflammation of the kidneys. They are also used as a gargle for sore throats. Ale, beer, wine and jelly can all be made from the fruit which are high in fruit acids, Vitamin C and fruit sugars. The bark is used as a strong astringent to treat diarrhoea internally and to treat leucorrhoea as a wash. The seeds contain cyanogenic glycosides and at least one author recommends removing them before using the fruits as a food. Fresh berries can also be used with other fruits in pies and puddings.


Whitebeam Sorbus hibernica Roseaceae (Findcholl)


A lower division of the Woods. The tree produces small fruits that are edible, if not particularly palatable.


Yew Taxus baccata Taxaceae (Ibar)

A Noble of the Woods.  Yews were traditionally planted on sacred sites and the timber was used to make the best quality archery bows.  The yew is a magnificent tree with a rich folklore, associated with death and rebirth. The fruits contain a small black seed that is extremely toxic; although the flesh may be edible, the seeds are very poisonous and therefore it could not be recommended for food usage. The tree has been used as a source of Taxol which is used in the treatment of certain cancers, Due to the extreme toxicity of all parts of the plant it is not recommended for use as a food or a medicine, but is a valuable tree in our woods and ecosystems, providing both shelter and food for birds.


European Gorse Ulex europeaus Leguminoseae (Aiten)

A Bush of the Woods. The plant was traditionally burnt in the spring to encourage the growth of tender young shoots for animals to graze on, the ash fertilizing the soil at the same time. In the autumn the plant would be cut to provide bedding and food for horses and cattle.  The young shoots are also edible for humans and the flowers can be used to make cordials and pestos. The seeds have been used as a famine food as well; however, they contain a cardioactive glycoside and so should not be consumed in large amounts or by those on heart medication.


Wych Elm Ulmus glabra Ulmaceae (Lem)

Elm is a Commoner of the Woods. The very young leaves are eaten in the spring (the older leaves are rather bitter) and have a mucilaginous texture. They may be eaten raw in salads or cooked as a potherb. The immature fruits can also be eaten raw. The inner bark is dried and used as a thickener for soups and sauces or added to bread. The powdered bark is also used as n astringent demulcent to treat diarrhoea, rheumatism, piles and mouth ulcers. 3-4 year old branches are used as the source of bark, gathered in the spring.  Wych Elm is also used in homeopathy and to produce one of the Bach Flower Remedies. It is used internally for eczema and externally for skin ulcers, dermatoses and wounds. It is also mildly diaphoretic (promotes sweating) and diuretic.

Specimens of English Elm  (Ulmus procera) that have been introduced have similar uses. The two can be differentiated as Wych Elm does not form suckers but English Elm does.


Guelder Rose, Crampbark, Snowball Tree, High Cranberry  Viburnum opulus Caprifoliaceae

A small tree that grows up to 4 metres tall. The twigs are angular and have grey bark. The leaves have 3-5 lobes with a pair of stipules at the base of the stalks and a toothed margin.  The white flowers are held in flat-topped clusters with larger ones on the periphery and smaller inner ones with a scent.  The fruit is bright red. It is related to elder and honeysuckle. It grows in woodlands, hedges and thickets and can be propagated from seed sown in the autumn or from slips. It prefers a damp habitat.

The bark contains a bitter resin (viburnin), valeric acid, salicosides, tannin 3%, hydroquinone (arbutin) and coumarins (scopoletin.)

As the name implies, the bark of this shrub can be used to treat muscular cramps and spasms. It is effective for all types of muscle; skeletal, smooth and cardiac. It is also a nerve relaxant and sedative nervine, an antispasmodic and astringent; it relaxes and tones tissues at the same time. These actions make a decoction of the bark valuable for many conditions; muscle spasm or cramps in the back and limbs, both as a decoction internally and as a compress externally; painful periods and uterine dysfunction, ovarian and uterine pain; menopausal heavy bleeding and break through bleeding; preparation for labour (partus praeparator) during the process to ease labour pain; bed wetting; asthma and associated muscle tension; constipation, colic and IBS of nervous origin and due to bowel tension; some forms of high blood pressure; swollen glands and mumps; arthritis and rheumatism, where weak joints have caused muscles to go into spasm; poor circulation to the hands and feet and Raynaud’s syndrome.  The berries should not be eaten raw but are quite palatable with other autumn fruits when cooked.



Recommended reading:

Earth Wisdom Glennie Kindred

Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine Andrew Chevallier

Irish Trees Niall Mac Coitir

The Medicinal Flora of Britain and Northwestern Europe Julian Barker

Tree Wisdom Jacqueline Memory Patterson