February – Oak
Latin name: Quercus spp. – Fagaceae
Common name: Oak
Usage: The wood of the oak genus, or Quercus, has long been utilized for its strength and durability, from ship framing to tanning hides to wine barrels. Nearly every culture throughout history that encountered the oaks utilized the tree in some fashion. There is a fascinating and complex history that accompanies the oak throughout time, from utilitarian purposes to symbolism and ritual use. This write-up will focus primarily on the medicinal and edible applications of the Quercus genus. The outer and inner bark of the oak is the part of the tree that is used for its healing properties. When we talk about utilizing tree bark medicine, we must be especially mindful of the time and manner in which we harvest. When harvesting bark, always look for a freshly downed tree before harvesting from a living one. Trim branches and strip the bark, rather than cutting into the trunk of the tree. Harvest barks and branches in fall, winter, and early spring when the tree is less susceptible to pests and disease. The bark of the oak is drying and astringent, the properties that lend to its medicinal uses; these actions come from the high amount of tannins present in the outer and inner bark. Tannins constrict and dry tissues, making plants high in tannic acids especially useful for conditions of excess moisture, loose tissues, and swelling. Oak bark’s astringency is useful internally for diarrhea, hemorrhoids, varicose veins and loose tissues that need tonifying, especially of the digestive system. Please note that oak is a powerful astringent and can cause constipation when used in excess. Utilizing oak internally may interfere with digestion so it is suggested to consume it between meals. Topically, astringent herbs such as oak help bring relief to bites and stings, and other irritating skin conditions, as well as to stop bleeding and relieve inflammation. Powdered oak bark can be applied to the gums to stop bleeding, ease pain and inflammation and help fight infection. The nut of the oak tree, better known as the acorn, has been utilized for food by First Nations people throughout time. The white oak, or Quercus alba, is the most popular of the acorns to consume for it is full of fat and less bitter than acorns of other species. The acorn must be processed in order to be palatable. Follow the link here for Green Deane’s instructions on processing acorns. Not only does the acorn serve as a source of nutrition humans, but it is also a popular forage source for bear, turkey, deer, quail, ducks, jays and other birds and mammals. *Warnings/contraindications: Please note that oak is a powerful astringent and can cause constipation when used in excess. Utilizing oak internally may interfere with digestion so it is suggested to consume it between meals. For short term use only.
Growth/Habitat: There are an estimated 58 species in the genus Quercus in North America, 19 of which can be found in Florida. The oaks display themselves in many different ways with a variety of bark colors and textures, as well as leaf shape and size. The habitats in which individual Quercus species thrive varies. Oaks are anywhere from the size of a shrub to a tall tree. We see many different species of oak in Central Florida, but perhaps the most striking is the Southern Live Oak, or Quercus virginiana. This species of oak has both a deep taproot and a wide-spreading root system to support its heavy, sprawling branches that often dramatically curve towards the ground and up again. The Southern Live Oak, though not truly an evergreen, maintains its leaves throughout the year and drops them just as new leaves are emerging. The leaves are thick, obovate and dark green on top while silvery on the bottom. The male flowers are catkins – the long, green, dangling flower structures that produce pollen. The acorns of this oak are small and light to dark brown. Southern Live Oaks thrive in well-drained sandy soils with plentiful moisture.
Recipes: Tough parts of plants, such as bark, are ideally prepared as decoctions. A decoction is water extract in which the bark, or other hardy plant matter such as roots and seeds, are simmered and steeped.
A standard decoction of oak bark can be used internally and externally.
1 oz of herb to 1 quart of water. Place herb and water in a pot, bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer, simmering for 10 to 20 minutes minimum. Turn off heat and continue to steep for a stronger extract.
Sources: Deane. “Acorns: The Inside Story.” Eat The Weeds and Other Things, Too, 5 Dec. 2018, www.eattheweeds.com/acorns-the-inside-story/.
Easley, Thomas, and Steven H. Horne. The Modern Herbal Dispensatory: a Medicine-Making Guide. North Atlantic Books, 2016.
Strauss, Paul. The Big Herbs the Use and Abuse, Natural History and Identification of Major Tree and Shrub Species in the MidWest and Eastern U.S., with Stories and Insights of a Life Married to Farm and Forest. XOXOX Press, 2014.