April is a month of new beginnings, when spring generally arrives (for real) and when lots of people start to plant their gardens. April is also the month when Arbor Day is celebrated, and is a good time to consider planting trees for future generations.
J. Sterling Morton first conceived of Arbor Day in April 1872, in Nebraska. Globalization of the idea was subsequently accomplished by the efforts of Birdsey Northrop, who took the idea first to Japan, and then to other nations. He was named chair of the committee to campaign for the national observance of Arbor Day. His determination to have the whole world supporting the idea of honoring and planting trees certainly succeeded - observances of this type are found in countries as diverse as Australia, Cambodia, Egypt, Iran, Kenya, New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Tanzania.
Trees are revered for their longevity, and offer mankind shelter, shade and beauty. Fruits of many trees are edible by both humans and other creatures. A tree symbolizes permanence, and planting a tree is a hope for the future. Through the centuries, many cultures used trees for various purposes. In China, cinnamon, jujube and gingko were valued; in Egypt, frankincese and myrrh were revered for their resins; the Greeks and Romans found myrtle, laurel, fig and olive to be indispensible; and in medieval Europe, the linden, holly and oak were similarly desired. In the New World, the attributes of sassafras, witch hazel and slippery elm caused a booming trade, with shipments of these highly regarded plants quickly dispatched to England and much of Europe.
Today, there are many trees to consider planting for landscape purposes. The herbal aspects of trees is something to think about when choosing such a long-lived plant. The following are only a few of the trees that are herbal in nature and will grow well in our area. Some are native, and others are introduced, but all are special in their attributes.
Sweet Birch (Betula lenta) - This tree's twigs have a wintergreen taste and smell, due to the presence of methyl salicylate. Native people brewed a tea that relieved pain and soothed headaches.
Carolina Allspice (Calycanthus floridus) - The flowers of this shrub, which can grow to a small tree size of ten feet, have a delightful scent that was known in the south as "sweet bubby". Girls would take the brownish blossoms and rub them on pulse points as a perfume. The Cherokee and early settlers drank a tea of the roots and bark, for a variety of ills.
Dogwood (Cornus florida) - Our native dogwood is similar to the English Cornus sanguinaria, which was known as a cure for rabies - hence dogwood. The dried bark was used as a substitute for quinine. In Appalachia, it was given as a tonic for general malaise, and is felt to boost circulation.
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) - Another fragrant shrubby tree, the early spring flowers and twigs have a sweet scent. Natives used many parts of this plants to flavor beverages and food, especially game. The berries, though not recognized as safe (GRAS status) can be used in cooking.
Gingko (Gingko biloba) - Also known as the Maidenhair Tree, this tree dates back to the Jurassic period of 200 million years ago. Its range was substantial, but the Ice Age changed that, and it survived only in a part of China. It has been re-introduced, especially in urban areas, as it is practically completely resistant to pollution. The Chinese have used the smelly fruits from the female plant as a digestive aid, and it has also been dispensed as an aid for asthma and brain disorders.
Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) - This tree was sacred to many and thought to have magical powers. Used in teas and poultices, it was the go-to herb for headaches and to cleanse wounds. However, it is pretty powerful, and too much acts as a purgative. The flowers are used in a wash for sunburn, and can be found in many skin and bath lotions. The berries, which must be cooked, are delicious in pies, jellies and even liqueurs.
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) - The 16th century Spanish explorers considered this to be a miracle plant. The native people used the roots and bark for many ailments, and in the early 17th century, quite a bit of money was to be made by exporting the roots to England for use in cold and rheumatism preparations. For a long time, it was a main ingredient in root beer, until it was discovered that one of the main chemical properties - safrole - was carcinogenic. Today, its dried and ground leaves are used as file powder, to thicken gumbo.
So, this April, or May , or even June, think about planting a tree. Join the rest of the world in celebrating and honoring these magnificent, majestic flora.
Happy Tree Day,
For more information, read The Herbal Grove by Mary Forsell, which I used in part for this article.
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