(fruit of the serviceberry tree)
Recently, I have been asked by a few people about the practice of harvesting tree medicine and it got my wheels turning. I think my love and enthusiasm of trees stems from my childhood. My fondest memories of spending time with my mother centered around wild foraging from trees. As a young girl, we would harvest from trees like mulberry, sumac, cherry and mimosa. As i've gotten older, I still hold trees close to my heart. Tree medicine and the art of harvesting tree medicine isn't as popular as say harvesting and processing nettles, so there is a lot less information on ethical ways to practice and harvest branches, buds, resin, flowers, bark. Unfortunately, just as we have seen with plants, our tree friends could become susceptible to disease and damage if ethical harvesting isn't taken into account.
As the sap begins to flow up the trees, we begin to see small yet significant signs that the trees are waking up. Some of the first trees to show signs of growth are the willows. In the very early spring, the gray foggy landscape gets blessed with Willow's vivid, bright yellow branches of new growth, signaling spring. The maples and cottonwoods also begin to bud early on in the season, as we get a peak of the glorious, yet subtle bursts of color come forth. The winter and early spring is great time to simply begin studying trees, so much is learned in terms of plant i.d. when you get to watch a tree wake from winter, bud, bloom, and leaf out. You might find yourself witnessing the subtle male catkins of the black walnut for the first time, or experience a marvel like that of a tulip poplar flower.
One thing I love about harvesting tree medicine is that you have to commit to taking the time to observe the trees, and in that you process, you are also gifted with this incredible opportunity to learn from the tree themselves. The mystery and process is thrilling and it's helpful to have a notebook on hand for notes. You might visit a particular tree everyday waiting for the opportune moment to harvest. Weather factors into the process as well, a sunny and warm day means that the cottonwood buds will be juicy, the sun and warmth pulling out maximum fragrance of the resin.
Before one even begins to harvest tree medicine, it's important to first ask yourself, what are you seeking to harvest?
If you are wanting to harvest buds (like that of cottonwood or birch), harvesting happens as the buds become swollen, the sweet moment right before the bud bursts open. At this point the buds are so full of vital energy and medicine, and tend to have a stronger scent and taste but if you happen upon buds on the ground in varying stages, take advantage of that medicine as well. Again, every year is different, and dependent on the weather, some years i'm harvesting buds in march and some years in April.
If you seeking to harvest bark or branches, the best time to begin harvesting is once the sap has begun to flow, so prior to when you'd harvest bud medicine. Once the tree buds have swollen and bloomed, the flavor and strength of the the bark is less potent, as the tree's sap flow has ended.
If you are seeking flowers, most trees begin to bloom come mid-spring, but it's important to be mindful of how many flowers you are harvesting from a single tree, because not only will those flowers become fruit, the flowers can also be valuable food for the pollinators. It's apart of the process to think of all who benefit from a tree or shrub, it's wonderful to be able to harvest the flowers of an elder, but it's even better to leave some behind to become fruit to feed the birds who will then carry the seeds.
If you are seeking resin or pitch, the best time to harvest is in the cooler months, when the resin is easier to handle. Remember the tree creates these resins to heal its own wounds, so when harvesting resin only take a small amount from a tree. Also, you'll inevitably end up with sticky hands, so oil (like olive or coconut) works well to get remove the pitch.
Anytime we harvest from a tree our goal is to use pruning techniques that minimizes plant wounding. So before you get happy with your felcos, it's wise to have some basic understanding of pruning. People can get sensitive about pruning trees but pruning is actually a very natural process. Weather and wind will take down branches and animals enjoy eating branches, twigs, and buds of trees as well. As long as we are careful and considerate about the cuts we are making, we can actually be promoting the health of a tree.
Okay, so now we're almost ready to prune!
**Before one even begins to think about harvesting from a living tree it is important to first look to the ground for medicine that has conveniently been "harvested" by strong winds or hungry critters. Trees like pine and cottonwood often lose branches covered in needles or buds that can be processed into medicine. Use this potential first, before considering harvesting from a tree!**
Basic Tree Harvesting Ethics Check List
1. What kind of tree are you seeking?
2. Is the tree abundant in your bio-region?
3. How many of the same tree can you safely identify in the area you are standing?
4. Are there branches and buds you can gather from the forest floor instead of pruning medicine from the tree?
5. Are there shoots or branches that can be pruned that would be beneficial to the tree?
6. Is the canopy of the tree dense? Could pruning benefit better circulation and more sunlight?
7. Are there any branches that are crossing over or rubbing against each other? (When branches rub against each other it can actually cause disease, so crossed branches would be a fine cut to make.)
8. If harvesting bark, harvest small twigs and branches for bark vs. harvesting from the bole (trunk) of the tree.
9. Proper pruning can influence flowering and fruiting, be sure to have a basic understanding of pruning before harvesting from fruit producing trees like peach or hawthorn.
10. Make sure to always clean your felcos or loppers with rubbing alcohol before and after using, you can unknowingly spread disease or pests with uncleaned tools.
11. Use what you harvest!
Lastly, the learning is a never ending process! These are really basic first steps into harvesting tree medicine. So much experience can be gleaned on your own with a journal, binoculars, a couple great tree identification books, and enthusiasm. It can also be really helpful to take workshops or classes to get a better grasp on trees and caring for trees. Get to know your local arborists and herbalists as well! They are a treasure trove of material and knowledge.