Tag Archives: Biology

“We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors, we borrow it from our Children.”~ Ancient Indian Proverb

“Honor the sacred.
Honor the Earth, our Mother.
Honor the Elders.
Honor all with whom we
share the Earth:-
Four-leggeds, two-leggeds,
winged ones,
Swimmers, crawlers,
plant and rock people.
Walk in balance and beauty.”
~Native American Elder

Two Vital Native American Medicinal Trees~

Slippery Elm:

Also called Indian Elm and Moose Elm among other things, Slippery Elm is an important medium sized tree, well known for centuries to many a youngster who chewed its aromatic, alluring, and mucilaginous bark and twigs. In Appalachia, some people still soak the bark of this tree in warm water to make a soothing agent for skin injuries and wounds.  The Indians mashed the bark and used the pulp for gunshot wounds and to ease the painful removal of the lead.  Tea brewed from the roots was given to pregnant women at the time of birth.  The slipperiness of the bark, sap, and juice was used by midwives to ease the birth itself by applying it topically to the birth canal and infant’s head.

One to two ounces of the inner bark were steeped in two cups of water for an hour or more, then strained and used for many medical needs including digestive troubles.  For the sick, the powdered and easily digestible bark from the inner layer was flavored with honey or maple syrup and eaten as a strengthening gruel.~

“There is always music amongst the trees in the garden, but our hearts must be very quiet to hear it.”~Minnie Aumonier


It’s also known as American Elder, Black Elder, and Tree of Music to give a few of its many names.  There are different varieties, some that grow no larger than brushy shrubs while others obtain the height of huge trees.  Native Americans used the long, straight, hollowed stems that became woody with age for arrows.  They pushed all the soft and poisonous pith out of the stems with hot sticks.  Indians also bored holes in them to make flutes which gave Elder its name ‘tree of music.’  Hunters lured elk closer with elderberry whistles.   I referred to this in my American historical romance Red Birds Song.

The fruit was believed to have a cooling, gentle, laxative and urine increasing effect.  Elderberry wine was thought to be a tonic.  The berries are said to aid arthritis.  The juice simmered until thick was used as a cough syrup and for colds.  The rest of the medicinal was used with great caution and some parts avoided entirely.  The inner bark of elder stems and the roots were generally regarded as too dangerous to experiment with, however women drank very small amounts of elderberry bark tea for bad menstrual cramps, to ease the pain of labor and help the child along.  I used a potent dose of elderberry bark tea in Through the Fire.

*Indians and settlers believed that small amounts of potentially poisonous plants could be beneficial under certain circumstances to stimulate the body to heal or maybe because it was fighting off the poison.  Native Americans shared their vast storehouse of knowledge regarding herbal treatments with colonists who used these remedies in combination with those lauded cures they brought with them from The Old World to The New World.

“A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.”~William Blake

Elderberry: Also a profoundly vital plant in the Old World.

From Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs:

One of the human race’s earliest plant companions (found in Stone Age sites) the elderberry has developed reputations for great powers of good…as well as great powers of evil.  In some parts of the world, no prudent carpenter would make a cradle of elderberry wood for fear of bringing harm to the baby.

The elderflower has been involved in human history for centuries, and one story suggests that it takes its name from a unique medicinal dimension. The generic name Sambucus may come from the Greek Sambuke, a musical instrument made from elderberry wood.   For centuries the plant has had the reputation of healing the body, but in elderberry’s golden age, it made music to heal the spirit.

During its long association with humanity, the elderberry’s traditions have become an incredible jumble of conflicting currents.  It provided the wood for Christ’s cross; it was the home of the goddess Freya.  If seen in a dream, it meant illness was on the way; it was such a healthful plant that seventeenth century herbalist John Evelyn called it a remedy ‘against all infirmities whatever.’  It would ward off witches if gathered on the last day of April and put up on the windows and doors of houses; it was very attractive to witches and thus should be avoided after dark.

Elderberries worked their way into every aspect of living from dyeing hair black to showing berries just at the right time to signal the beginning of wheat sowing. Shakespeare had something to say about it.  One of his characters called it ‘the stinking elder.’  The Shakers used it as a medicinal.  The wood of the old stems, hard and fine grained, was prized by the makers of mathematical instruments.  The list could go on and on for pages; elderberries stand in our gardens as old friends.~

“Stand still. The trees ahead and bush beside you are not lost.”~Albert Einstein

“When all the trees have been cut down,
when all the animals have been hunted,
when all the waters are polluted,
when all the air is unsafe to breathe,
only then will you discover you cannot eat money.”

~Cree Prophecy

‘Lady of the Woods’~The Birch

“I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines.” ~Henry David Thoreau

There are two main varieties of birch indigenous to North America, the well known white birch and the so called black birch with reddish-brown to black bark.  Historically, the birch derives its name from a similar Sanskrit word translated as ‘that which is written upon.’  Numerous letters and journals have been inscribed on thin sheets of the multilayered bark of the white birch.  The black birch can be differentiated from wild cherries because the broken twigs have the smell of wintergreen while those of the cherries exude a bitter almond odor.  Wild cherry leaves and bark contain cyanide which, obviously, can be poisonous if too much is taken.  How much is too much?  Not sure about people but animals succumb quickly from eating the leaves of wild cherry.  Livestock require diligence to prevent accidental poisoning.

The black birch grows largely in the cooler mountains where they have been important because of the nutritious inner layer of the bark.  One example of the value of the bark is that it saved the lives of numerous confederate soldiers during Garnett’s Retreat across the Alleghenies before the men regrouped at Monterey, Virginia.  I referred to this sustaining bark in Through the Fire and Red Bird’s Song, which can be gathered from the wild at any time of year.

“It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.”  ~Robert Louis Stevenson

Also interesting to note, before the commercial oil of wintergreen was manufactured synthetically, it was distilled from the bark of the black birch.  Indians and settlers made wintergreen tea by steeping freshly gathered leaves in boiling water as a remedy for rheumatism and headaches.  The dried bark can also be used.  One of its prime components is salicylic acid which is a main ingredient in aspirin, also found in willow. The bitterness in the leaves and thin bark of the willow also comes from salicylic acid which gives aspirin its own bitterness and makes the willow one of nature’s most important gifts to mankind.  Native Americans used tea steeped from willow to treat fever, arthritis, and many other pains.

A sweet syrup made from the white birch when the sap flows in the spring was used to treat cough and stomach cramps.  The syrup could also help cure scurvy because it contains vitamin C. The bark and leaves of the white birch were used by some tribes as a topical application to cleanse ulcers and carbuncles, combat gangrene, and as a general disinfectant for skin diseases.  The sap could be drunk as a syrup or applied directly to the skin depending on the ailment being treated.

Regarding the European white birch, Ms. Grieve says in A Modern Herbal: Coleridge speaks of it as the ‘Lady of the Woods.’ It is remarkable for its lightness, grace, and elegance, and after rain it has a fragrant odour.

The wood is soft and not very durable, but being cheap, and the tree being able to thrive in any situation and soil, growing all over Europe, is used for many humble purposes, such as bobbins for thread mills, herring-barrel staves, broom handles, and various fancy articles. In country districts the Birch has very many uses, the lighter twigs being employed for thatching and wattles. The twigs are also used in broom making and in the manufacture of cloth. The tree has also been one of the sources from which asphyxiating gases have been manufactured, and its charcoal is much used for gunpowder.

The white epidermis of the bark is separable into thin layers, which may be employed as a substitute for oiled paper and applied to various economical uses. It yields oil of Birch Tar, and the peculiar, well-known odour of russia leather is due to the use of this oil in the process of dressing. It likewise imparts durability to leather, and it is owing to its presence that books bound in russia leather are not liable to become moldy. The production of Birch Tar oil is a Russian industry of considerable importance. It is also distilled in Holland and Germany, but these oils are appreciably different from the Russian oil. It has the property of keeping away insects and preventing gnat bites when smeared on the hands. It is likewise employed in photography.

When the stem of the tree is wounded, a saccharine juice flows out which is susceptible, with yeast, of vinous fermentation. A beer, wine, spirit and vinegar are prepared from it in some parts of Europe. Birch Wine, concocted from this thin, sugary sap of the tree, collected from incisions made in the trees in March, honey, cloves and lemon peel being added and then the whole fermented with yeast, makes a very pleasant cordial, formerly much appreciated. From 16 to 18 gallons of sap may be drawn from one large tree, and a moderate tapping does no harm.~

One Fine Day

These pics are a photographic collage my daughter Elise took (and some by my husband) of her and my jaunt around the garden, across the meadow, past the pond, and up through the fields to the woods above our farm.~

Such an exquisitely beautiful spring day.  Pristine perfection.  Many colored tulips glow like jewels.  Virginia bluebells cover the ground in the dappled shade of the enormous maple tree.  The original plants were a gift from my late grandmother.

Lilacs and flowering crab apples scent the warm air.  Some of the lilacs have been here for half a century.  The jonquils smell wonderful.  Even the earthy fragrance of cows and hay appeals to me, an essential  part of my being.  Find your center place and you will discover what both grounds and inspires you.  For me, it’s the Shenandoah Valley and the mountains…our farm…the garden, the land.  Cherish the earth and it will richly reward you…restore your spirit.

The green meadow spreads, rippling, in the sun.  Elusive meadowlarks trill from the tall grass.  We try, but cannot find the secretive birds.  Their sweet trill beckons from here and then there, always further ahead, or then again from behind.  We are determined to find the singer but finally give up.

I once spied a meadowlark perched on a fence post, though not when I was looking for it.  That’s about as high as they fly.  The yellow on its breast was unmistakable.  What a thrill.  They are my favorite song birds.

I love the water birds too.  A type of sandpiper darts around the pond in the low muddy spots and then flies, sounding its funny cry.  There are  a number of them, and the purple martins are back.  Iridescent in the sun.  The swifts and swallows are yet to come, but the pond is glorious.   A frog plops in and we see a string of eggs in the grass at the edge.  Ducks and geese bob over the water glinting in the clear light.

Our farm is the headwaters of an unassuming little creek that flows on through other farms and past the neighboring town, and on, we suppose to the river.   It’s not a grand waterway, but how many of you can claim to live near the headwaters of anything?   So I mention it with some pride. 🙂

On we wander, back behind our farm, to the remains of an old homestead.  The house burned down years ago but a derelict outbuilding remains with a gnarled fruit tree, wild cherry I think, growing alongside it.  And an ancient barn.  There’s a grassy sort of clearing where the house and yard used to be set in amid lofty, seemingly random, trees.   A large red squirrel lives there now and a startled rabbit.  Lord only knows what else.  I suspect it’s eerie at night.  Maybe even haunted…though during the day everything appears utterly charming.

Then Elise spots the hawk we’ve been on the lookout for.  We are fortunate to photograph the majestic red-tailed bird soaring high overhead, and think he lives in the wooded hills up above the fields.  While he’s on his scouting expedition, the other creatures grow silent.  The wise ones, anyway.  I heard some foolish chatter.

The rose flush of new leaves co-mingle with the many shades of green in the trees.  So many birds call from their branches.   We seek the songsters, sometimes with luck, sometimes not, but rarely in time to snap their picture.  Red wing black birds call continuously and almost seem to accompany us from place to place.  I’ve never seen so many of them at once.  Must be a sort of bird festival.  They are quite special to me.   Song sparrows sing, a chatty mockingbird, cardinal, possibly horned larks…

Everywhere we gaze, the world is reborn.  Magical.  This is the time to savor the spirit-lifting sights, scents, and sounds.   And remember.

“I do not think I have ever seen anything more beautiful
than the bluebell I have been looking at. I know the beauty of our Lord by it.”
~ Gerald Manley Hopkins

“When bright flowers bloom
Parchment crumbles, my words fade
The pen has dropped …” ~Morpheus

“It is at the edge of a petal that love waits.”
~William Carlos Williams

“In the dooryard fronting an old farm-house near the white-wash’d
Stands the lilac-bush tall-growing with heart-shaped leaves of rich
with many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I
With every leaf a miracle – and from this bush in the dooryard,
With delicate-color’d blossoms and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
A sprig with its flower I break.”
~Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1865

The Medicinal Value of Native American Plants: Pokeweed

Tender shoots of poke are beginning to emerge. The time of poke salad is at hand. Only the new green shoots may be harvested in spring. Once the shoots take on a reddish hue that resembles the toxic root, they are too mature to consume safely. The green shoots should be cooked in two changes of water and eaten like asparagus.

Despite poke’s potential toxicity, the medicinal value of the plant was highly valued in times past and used by Indians and colonists, though with much care. A very little bit of the dried root was steeped in several cups of boiling water and the concoction sipped sparingly.
Poke, more than any other plant, was regarded as having the power to dramatically alter the course of an ailment. Death is also a dramatic altering and that could happen if too much was administered. I suppose the healer then made a mental note to use less next time. If self-medicating, the patient didn’t have to worry about next time.
Last summer I found an extremely vigorous pokeberry bush thriving among the buddleia. I actually like poke with its deep purple berries (one of the first inks of the New World) if I don’t think about it reseeding everywhere, which it did. But I respect poke, so much more than simply a weed. New research has shown that the root may be valuable in curing some of our most challenging diseases. Just don’t experiment on your own. Consult an expert.