Cooperative Extension Service
Uses of Other Tree Species
Several other tree species can be important sources of food and medicine. Native Americans and other early settlers used whatever was available for medicine. Indeed, some of our modern medicine is based on native trees including aspirin and camphor. Some of these species are briefly presented here as an example of the variety of possible uses of native trees.
Let's begin with "Natures' aspirin": the willow tree. There are about 170 species of trees and shrubs that comprise the willow group (Salix L.) of the Willow family. As a group, the willows require relatively large amounts of water and are therefore commonly found banks of rivers and streams and in swamps. Four willows attain tree size in the South. Black willow, (Salix nigra) is the most abundant native species although several cultivated species have escaped into the wild. These include the weeping willow (Salix babylonica) , the white willow (Salix aba), and the golden willow (Salix aba var. vitellina).
Willows have alternately, or rarely opposite, simple (one-piece) leaves with sawtoothed or smooth edges. The black willow is a fast-growing pioneer species. Key characteristics are the long, narrow, tapering leaves with finely toothed margins, and bright yellow green and shiny on both sides. The bark is deeply divided into broad, flat ridges that separate into thick, plate-like scales. The flowers occur in dropping catkins and appear before the leaves appear in the spring. Commercial uses of willow include: boxes, furniture, toys, baseball bats, and veneer.
Native Americans have used the bark and the leaves of the willow for medicinal purpose for centuries. The medicinal part of the plant is the inner bark and was used as a pain reliever for a variety of ailments. Cherokees used an infusion of the bark for fever, rheumatic pains, insomnia, dysentery, and sore throats. A poultice made from the bark was used to heal wounds. Researchers have now found that the active ingredient in the willow is that same as that in aspirin (salicylic acid).
Common names: Mitten tree, Tea tree, Ague tree
Sassafras belongs to the Laurel Family which is comprised of trees and shrubs with most of the plant parts distinctly aromatic. The family is mainly in tropical regions and includes sassafras, cinnamon, avocado, laurel, and Redbay.
Sassafras is usually a small shrubby tree common in areas that have been disturbed by road grading, harvesting, land clearing, and other disturbances, Sassafras has a distinctive rootbeer smell and can be identified by its leaves, some of which will be always be mitten-shaped, while others on the same tree will be oval or have two "thumbs". The fruit is a blue-black berry and is eaten by over 20 song and game bird species and bear.
The useful parts of the plant are the rootlets, bark of large roots, and young leaves. The roots and rootlets can be made into a deep red, fragrant tea and the leaves dried to make File powder, the famous ingredient of gumbo.
According to Delene Tull, author of A Practical Guide to Edible and Useful Plants: Sassafras has been a favorite in the Americas for over four hundred years. Native Americans in Florida introduced it to the Spaniards in the 1500s. In fact, Sassafras is a Spanish word. Trade of the species became quite popular and was actually the first cash crop of the Virginia colony for many years. Tea from Sassafras was thought to be a cure-all at one time and was taken as a spring tonic.
A tea can be made out of the young leaves and roots of Sassafras by boiling the roots for about 30 minutes. Jelly can also be made from an infusion of roots and root bark that is pretty good if unusual.
The berries of some species of juniper can be used for flavoring pemmican, stews, and as a tea to settle upset stomachs. According a Doctor of naturopathy, a cooled tea made from juniper berries and applied to the skin with a cottonball or sprayer, soothes insect bites. Because of the higher resinous oil in the berries of certain species, possibly including eastern red cedar, not all species of juniper can be used for food. Caution should also be exercised in using juniper berries if you are allergic to cedar.
The sap of various Acer (Maple) species has long been used as a sweetening agent. Although all maples and even the sweetgum and birch can be tapped for syrup, the best syrup comes from the sugar maple. Native Americans of the northeast would spend several days "sugaring" and would store enough for the season.
The Sumac is a large shrub that commonly grows along roadsides, in abandoned pastures, and on the edges of forests. Sumac belongs to the Rhus family which also includes poison ivy, poisonoak, and about 100 species of other trees and shrubs. Three species of sumac are common throughout the south. These are Winged Sumac (Rhus copaliina); Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina)' and Poison Sumac (Rhus vernix). The leaves of the Winged and Staghorn Sumac are similar. The leaves are alternate, deciduous, and odd-pinnately compound, with 9 to 31 leaflets. The berries are small, nearly round, about 1/8 inch in diameter, with a hard pit and a thin layer of dry flesh clothed in a dense coat of crimson colored, sour hairs. The fruit clusters are often persistent throughout the winter and are a key characteristic of the speices.
Only the red berries from the Winged and the Staghorn Sumac can be used. The white berries of Poison Sumac and Poison Ivy are very poisonous and should be avoided at all costs. Be absolutely certain that you are using the red berries on the non-toxic species.
Several Native American tribes used berries from Sumac for various uses. Some common names were: Kiowa name: maw-kho-la (tobacco mixture); Dakota name: chan-zi (yellow wood); Winnebago name: haz-ni-hu (water-fruit bush). Several parts of the shrub were used medicinally; roots for dye; stems for basketry; leaves as tannin for tanning leather and dried leaves for smoking mixtures; berries as tea; roots, shoots, berries as food. Sumac berries found in human remains from a bluff shelter in the Ozarks dated back to a least 3,000 years ago.
The was a time not too long ago when spring was heralded with the first wild greens of the season. Early hunter-gatherers collected a vast array of species and Europeans brought some of their favorites with them to this country. Some are still commonly know. For example, who does not remember the rock-n-roll song "Poke Salad Annie"? Although few of us go out to our yard or down to the spring to gather greens anymore, perhaps we should. They are rich in vitamins and minerals and can be served in variety of recipes. This next section introduces several wild greens beginning with the most well-known yard and lawn weed: the Dandelion.
The common dandelion Taraxicum officinale is a common lawn weed and is a native of Europe and China where it was used as food and medicine for centuries. Throughout the United States, especially during the Great Depression, dandelions were harvested for food and wine making.
Dandelions have bright yellow flowers located close to the grown and irregular, sharp-lobed leaves. Eventually, the low growing yellow flowers send up a stalk and transform into a puffy orb of silken down which very effectively spread the seeds far and wide.
All parts of the plant are edible and are high in vitamin A, iron, calcium, phosphorus, and potassium. The leaves can be eaten fresh in salad or boiled as a potherb. The author boils dandelion leaves with other wild greens to be used in a wild green quiche. The flowers can be fermented into wine and the roots roasted as a coffee substitute.
The sunflower was probably the first cultivated plant of the Native Americans. Native Americans, through selecting the largest seeds of the original wild species, effectively increased the seed size by a factor of over 1,000. Early archeological evidence suggests that sunflowers were an important food staple over 5,000 years ago. The sunflower in featured in some myths of tribes in the SW. Seeds, ground into meal, were mixed with fat and stored and eaten as a snack food. Flower buds were also boiled as a vegetable. Roasted shells or seeds were used as a beverage and the roots boiled as potatoes. Oil was also derived from the seeds. Some Native American tribal names for the sunflower are: Kiowa name: Ho-son-a (looking at you); Dakota name: wahcha-zizi (yellow flowers); Pawnee name: Kirik-tara-kata (Yellow eyes).
Greenbrier (Smilax tamnoids) also commonly known as Bullbrier, Cat brier, and is a green-stemmed plant covered with thorns and briers. Eleven species and two varieties of Smilax occur here in Arkansas and all except two are perennial plants. Two of the most common species are 1) Common Greenbrier (Smilax rotundifolia) characterized by broad, rounded or heart-shaped deep green foliage; and 2) Bullbrier (Smilax bona-nox), characterized by triangular leaves, black berries, and knotty, spiny root tubers. Both species have the ever-present thorns and produce berries.
Although most commonly cursed as a bothersome weed, Smilax is an important food for deer, bear, small mammals, and birds. The early spring growth of greenbrier is browsed upon by deer and is the portion that we will use today. Spring growth, berries, and the roots of Greenbrier can be used as raw vegetable, pickle, flour, soup, and jelly.
The young shoots can be collected by simply walking through the woods and snapping off the young tender growth. Only the young growth is used because it will eventually harden and become a thick vine later on in the summer. A nice wilted salad with a hot grease and vinegar dressing can be made from the young greenbrier shoots. Cooking the shoots for any length of time appears to harden the fibers essentially making the shoots too tough to eat.
There are several other species of plants that can be used as
food. Great caution should be exercised. You must be absolutely sure that you
know what they are doing. Under no circumstances should you "take just a little
taste" to see if a plant is poisonous or not. Even a little bit can make you
deathly ill or can be fatal. Another common myth is that if animals can eat, so
can humans. This is absolutely not true!!
University of Arkansas System
University of Arkansas System • Division of Agriculture