I just got back from the woods, where the apprentices and I harvested Wood Betony flowering herb (Pedicularis canadensis) and Witch Hazel twigs and leaves (Hamamelis virginiana). And so begins my 2015 wildcrafting season, and on May Day no less! (or Beltaine in Gaelic.) What a way to start the year, with two beautiful plants.

So maybe you are asking what can you harvest this time of year? Different plant parts are harvested at different times – roots are usually harvested in the fall but can be harvested in the spring if need be (I just harvested my Valerian and Echinacea earlier this week).  Many herbs where the leaves are used can be harvested when the plant is either in flower or just before, when the plant has just reached its tallest.  But it is also a great time of year for harvesting barks.

Between spring equinox (March 21) and summer solstice (June 21) is when the new bark is forming on the tree or “slipping” as they say in arborists’ terms. Think about when you count how old a tree was by counting the rings – those rings are forming right now and by mid-summer will be hardened onto the tree. Right now is the easiest time to separate bark from wood.

So – perfect time to harvest all our medicinal barks!! Think about Witch Hazel, Wild Cherry (Prunus serotina) (pictured above), Black Willow (Salix nigra), Cramp Bark (Viburnum opulus) or down here in NC we have Black Haw (Viburnum prunifolium). Even the common White Pine (Pinus strobus) makes a great warming expectorant.

When harvesting, never ever strip bark off of a live tree. I prefer to trim some limbs off, which leaves less of a scar for the tree to heal, and to act as if I am pruning a fruit tree in my yard. In other words, I trim branches that are crossing over each other and blocking each other’s light, or low branches that are getting shaded out and will die in a few years, or are poking into a path and will be trimmed back anyhow. That way we can leave the trees even healthier than when we found them instead of diminished by our harvest.

Most trees we use the inner bark, which contains the living (green) part of the wood. Unless you have a giant limb or are debarking a fallen tree, you don’t have to worry about removing the outer bark – its usually just a few millimeters anyhow. Just strip the whole bark off of the heartwood, which will be harder than the bark, either using a sharp knife pointed away from you, or if you get it at just the right time of year, just peel the bark off by hand.

And then I have my “rule of thumb” – if  the branch is thicker than my thumb then I will debark it. Otherwise, I just get out my pruners and chop it into a jar to be tinctured.

And with an herb like Witch Hazel (pictured at left), I find that the leaves and young twigs are the  strongest, so that’s what I harvested. This common woodlands shrub is one of my favorite astringents. It is a great herb applied topically for any kind of spider veins, varicose veins, or hemorrhoids, for which I typically use an alcohol extract. It can be also applied externally to burns, wounds, weepy eczema, and even poison ivy because it is very drying – the tannins bind proteins and so tighten tissues.

Willow bark (Salix nigra) is a common tree around creeks and rivers in the sun. When I drive around the countryside I can look across farm fields and see where there is running water because of the winding lines of willow.  White Willow is a European tree, but I find our native willow actually stronger. The Weeping Willow has very little medicine.

If you are curious how strong your willow is, chew on a branch and the more it tastes like chewable aspirin the better medicine it is. Salicylic acid, the active constituent of aspirin, was originally discovered in willow trees and the medicinal action is very similar. Willow has a long tradition of being used for pain and inflammation, including arthritis and headache pain. It is also a great anti-inflammatory, especially combined with Turmeric. Combined with Witch Hazel, it could be used topically for a sprained ankle.

Wild Cherry (Prunus serotina) is a great herb to stop coughing, very useful for the dry irritable cough after an infection has ended. I harvest the bark and tincture it, but it also makes an excellent cough syrup. It is easy to find this time of year by the white “bottle-brush” flowers (see picture) but I usually harvest it after flowering so there is less prunasin, a glycoside that is toxic in large doses.

White Pine (Pinus strobus) has the opposite effect – the sticky resins in the bark will help stimulate coughing as well as break up thick mucous in the lungs. It is what we think of as a “stimulating expectorant” meaning that it helps move phlegm up and out through stimulating a cough response. If this is too pronounced, it can be tempered with a small amount of Wild Cherry (perhaps 3 to 1, pine to cherry) to make it not overly stimulating.

Cramp Bark and Black Haw are both great anti-spasmodic herbs that are often used for menstrual cramps and to lessen the pain of kidney stones. Though Cramp Bark is more popular, I think Black Haw is stronger and it is also incredibly abundant in the southern Appalachians where I live.

So those are a few barks to get you started, now get out there to the woods and explore! And Happy May Day!!