Autumn is the season for bark harvest, one of the most fulfilling medicine making tasks. A walk through the woods on a crisp fall day followed by several hours in the sun as the days grow shorter and the world goes to sleep—it is definitely worth the effort, and a few trees will provide a lifetime’s medicine.
Bark is highly potent, as it is constantly growing and changing based on the needs of the tree and the influence of its surroundings. Interacting with the wider world makes for strong constituents—as in “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”—so we make medicine from plant compounds generated to ward off pests, disease, sun damage, etc. Trees are part of a larger system, so they’re forced to interact and protect themselves, making strong compounds along the way. Bark contains the growing cells of the tree, as well as the cells required to transport water and sugar for photosynthesis—on a cellular level, bark is always interacting with the rest of the organism, the mycorrhizae in the soil, and changes in its surroundings, so it contains quite a lot of plant magic.
Ethical wildcrafting is the practice of harvesting plants and trees conscientiously, to avoid damaging the health of the population or the overall ecological system. It’s especially important here because if you don’t harvest bark properly, you’ll kill the tree, which is like killing a chicken for the eggs. The basic principles are simple: don’t kill something when taking part of it will do; don’t take more than you need; and don’t take more than the population can stand. This issue is close to my heart, as I’ve watched plant populations decline as people violate the sanctity of the natural world in the name of greed. Ignoring the longevity of other creatures is buying into the mythos of man as supreme ruler over the birds and fishes—which solidly places us on the path toward unwitting acceptance of large-scale corporate rape and pillage of the natural world, violating the basic principles of land stewardship and of simply being a decent person. Harvest intentionally and teach the people around you, so our natural world stays awesome.
Don’t Kill It This is an issue with any wildcrafting or wild foods harvest, but it’s blatantly obvious when you harvest trees. Trees are keystone species, meaning they form the center of the complex ecological web that surrounds them, from plants that only grow in soil with the pH maintained by that tree’s leaves, to the lichen on its branches, to the birds that eat the bugs that eat the wood, to the foxes that eat the birds…you get the idea. Trees are important fellows among their woodland brethren, so it’s easy to imagine the impact of removing one for a shitty reason, like by accident. The most common way this happens in wildcrafting is by girdling, or removing a section of bark around the trunk of the tree. Girdling kills the tree because the leaves and roots can’t trade water and sugar, leaving the tree to starve to death. Girdling is one thing if you’re carving a homestead out of the wilderness—it’s a time-honored way of clearing forest—but it’s something entirely different if you’re just doing it because you don’t know any better. Girdling is specific to trees, but the overall principle applies to any plant: don’t kill it if you can avoid it. For example, instead of taking the whole root of a perennial, cut off most of the root, then replant the root bud where the stem comes out so the plant will grow back. If you’re harvesting leaves, cut the stem above a leaf node so it will easily regrow, instead of cutting it off at the ground. This is an easy habit to get in to.
Take What You Need… There’s no reason for wildcrafted herbs to end up in your compost. It’s better to go back for more than it is to take too much the first time.
…But Not Too Much When harvesting wild plants, take about 1/5 of the population, max. I’ve heard this explained as “1 each for the animals, birds, fish, plants, and people,” and “1 left for each of the four directions,” but those are maybe a little out-there for me. I just don’t take more than 1/5. It’s easy—if you’re really not sure, count to 5 and take the 5th plant. It’s especially important not to take too much when you’re harvesting from a small population, a rare or threatened plant, or at a place that’s really popular for wildcrafting— in these situations, you might decide to harvest far less to avoid having a negative impact. The United Plant Savers website has great resources to tell you if a plant is threatened.
How to Harvest Bark
- Small handsaw
- A small, sharp knife, not serrated
- Quilt or bed sheet, spread on the ground in a sunny spot
Timing Harvest bark when nights are cool and days are warm and crisp, as the leaves change and fall. You want the tree’s energy to be focused on shutting things down for winter, so it’s heavily present in the moving part of the bark. Bark harvest is best done in a group, since the yield is high and it’s more medicine than you really need just for your family; together with friends, it takes on an air of cider-pressing or finishing a quilt, celebrating community and the work of your hands.
Pick a Tree Common species that make great medicine include willow, cherry, witch hazel, sassafras, birch, black haw, and many others. It’s easiest to find the trees in the early fall, so you can positively identify them when they still have leaves, and come back when the time for harvest is nigh. Choose a smaller tree so you can reach the branches.
Next, taste the tree: cut off a little twig, the smaller the better, chew on it until you get a real good sense of the flavor, then spit. With a little experience, you’ll be able to tell how strong the medicine will be from this tree. Even if you’ve never tasted this medicine before, know that strongly medicinal bark will effect your mouth: willow sucks up all the spit, sassafras makes your mouth feel wet, black birch tastes like root beer, cherry tastes like nasty almond air freshener (or cyanide…) so if you don’t notice anything, even if you don’t know what it should taste like, move on.
If you’re not routinely tasting the plants you harvest, get in the habit. Medicinal content changes throughout the season and from year to year, based on where each tree is in its growing & reproductive cycle, and what its life has been like this year. Triumphing over adversity makes us all stronger, but sometimes it takes a while for our personal strength to recover from a major life-changing setback, so even if that particular tree isn’t strong enough this year, come back next year and see what it says to you.
Harvest So now you’re sure you’ve got the right tree, and it tastes great/terrible so you know it’s got some magic in it. The next step is to harvest the bark. Choose a small branch, maybe the size of your arm or smaller. Find a place where the branch branches, then identify the collar, or the fatter part at the base of the branch. Use your saw to cut the branch just beyond the collar; if you cut into the collar itself, the tree won’t heal right and can rot. Make your cut parallel with the collar, so water won’t collect in the cut. Don’t let the wood split or crack, cut it cleanly so you don’t hurt the part of the branch you’re leaving behind; if necessary, cut part of the way through from the bottom up, then finish by cutting from the top down. Remember that the priority is to not hurt the tree: don’t take more than the tree can spare, don’t take more than you can use, and don’t make cuts that will hurt the tree long term.
Process Bring the branches to your blanket in the sun. Look them over carefully and wipe off any dirt, lichen, insects etc. Use the pruners to remove tiny twigs and pile them up—they’re medicinal but you don’t need to shave them. You can cut the branches into smaller pieces at this point to make them more manageable, 3-foot sections work well. When you’re ready to shave bark, sit on the blanket with one end of a branch in your lap, and the other braced on the blanket in front of you. Use your knife to shave down the length of the branch, removing long strips of bark. You want to make sure you get the cambium, the inner bark that contains all the good stuff, but not the wood. Cambium can be white, green, yellow, even pink, and is generally smooth, moist, and clearly alive—it’s the part that splits into the cells responsible for all that transport and growth stuff. If you’re shaving off wood, make your cuts shallower; if you’re leaving the cambium on the wood, go back and shave it again. If you’re struggling to shave the bark, try switching knives—sometimes a different size or shape blade does the trick. When you’re done, the branch should be all wood, no bark visible. The bark will have fallen on your nice clean quilt, so it’s easy to gather.
Making Bark Medicine
To make bark medicine, you can tincture it fresh or dry it for later use.
Dried Spread the bark in a single layer on a drying rack in a cool, dark place, and stir regularly until dry, a few days. Once it’s dry, store in jars, bags, or containers, in a dark place. Dried bark is useful for tea, poultices, baths, salves, or to make syrups or tinctures later.
You can build a drying rack in a few hours by screwing 1×2’s into rectangles, attaching legs, then stapling lace or muslin over the frames. Alternatively, pin the corners of large pieces of lace to the ceiling, then place the herbs you want to dry on top.
Tinctures Bark tinctures best at a lower ratio, like 1:3 or 1:4 for a fresh tincture or 1:4 or 1:5 for a dried tincture, because it is so fibrous and dense—it needs more liquid to extract all the medicine. Most barks prefer lower alcohol content, too, so use 50%-60% alcohol for a fresh tincture or 40%-50% for a dried tincture. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, please look back at the article about making tinctures in Country Grind #1 or read about it on my blog.
I hope you decide to give this a try—it’s really satisfying, especially in January when you clear up that cough with your own cherry bark, or fix a brutal headache with willow you processed yourself. I love hearing your successes & failures with medicine making, so let me know how it goes!
This article originally appeared in The Country Grind Quarterly.