Natural Remedies: The Health Benefits of Oak and Elder Trees

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PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
Acorns are not eaten raw because the presence of tannin makes them very bitter.

The Natural Remedies column shares information about the health benefits of oak and elder trees and foraging for wild medicines.

THE HEALTH BENEFITS OF OAK AND ELDER TREES

THE OAK TREE

Beech or Oak Family (Quercus sps.) (Fagaceae)

OVERALL SHAPE AND SIZE:Quercus is a large
genus of more than 200 species including deciduous and
evergreen trees and shrubs. A few of our common oaks are
scrub oak, canyon oak, California or coast live oak,
engelman oak, California black oak, interior live oak, and
valley oak.

LEAVES: Among the many varieties, the
leaves which are always arranged alternately vary in shape
from small, hard, oval and toothed, to large, flexible,
almost like a maple leaf.

FLOWERS: Oaks are monoecious; that is,
they have separate male and female flowers on the same
plant. The inconspicuous female flowers are small and
greenish-brown. They look like small acorns and appear
solitary or in a spike in the leaf axils of the season’s
new growth. The female flower is formed in side a cup of
bract-like sepals, which later develop into the acorn’s cup
or cap.

FRUIT: The oak trees are identified by
their fruit, the acorns, which are nuts set in scaly caps.
Acorns mature and fall from the trees during September and
October.

BENEFICIAL PROPERTIES

EDIBILITY: Acorns are not eaten raw
because the presence of tannin makes them very bitter. A
number of methods have been devised to rid the acorns of
this bitterness. A common practice of the Southern
California Indians was to bury the acorns in a swamp and
return the following year. This removed the tannin and
blackened the acorns. Sometimes shelled acorns were wrapped
in a cloth container (like a burlap bag) and submerged in a
river overnight. The flowing water would leach the
water-soluble tannin from the acorns by morning.

Some would shell and grind the raw acorns into meal. Then
this meal was put into a shallow depression tamped into a
river’s shady edge. Hot and cold water were poured over the
meal for most of the day, washing the tannin out into the
sand. The resultant acorn mush would then be carefully
scooped from the sand and either dried or eaten as-is.

Another method for removing the bitterness involved the use
of a primitive “leaching plant.” It was a bowl made of
twigs or pine needles, supported about two feet off the
ground by vertical stakes. Cloth or burlap was placed over
the bowl, and the ground acorns put in. Water was poured
into the acorn meal and allowed to filter through. The
leaching time depended on the bitterness of the acorns, but
a few hours were usually sufficient. The final product
would then be boiled into a mush, and was usually eaten
cold. The acorn flour was usually baked into bread in crude
ovens or used as a base for soup. Corn meal was often mixed
into the acorn meal.

Boiling is the quickest way for rendering acorns edible.
The shelled acorns are boiled, continually changing the
water each time it becomes brown. You know they’re done
when you taste them and the bitterness is gone. Though this
method may take only 45 minutes, it does result in a loss
of oils and flavor.

A better method is to peel the acorns, place them in a
container, and cover with water. Pour out the water after
24 hours, and replace with fresh warm water. Three or four
changes of water with this non-boiling method should be
sufficient to leach out all of the tannic acid.

Once leached, the acorns must be ground into flour and then
dried to ensure a long storage life. If you have a meat
grinder, you can coarsely grind the just leached acorns
while they are still wet and easy to grind. Then the coarse
grind should be dried, and then finely ground with a hand
mill, stone grinder, or heavy duty blender. If you’re out
camping, the acorn meal can be ground between rocks.

You can use flour in bread, muffins, pancakes, grits, soup,
etc., either alone or mixed with wheat or corn flour.

MEDICINALITY: The bark is used medicinally
for such things as chronic diarrhea, and wherever an
internal astringent is required. Externally, this oak bark
decoction is used for skin sores and as a sore throat
gargle, according to Alma Hutchens, author of Indian
Herbology
of North America (Merco, Canada, 1973).

DETRIMENTAL PROPERTIES: Eating large
amounts of the raw acorns can lead to toxicity due to the
tannic acid. Humans rarely eat toxic amounts of raw acorns
because of the extreme bitterness. Anyone with a normal
sense of taste would find it nearly impossible to consume
large amounts. Those who have persisted in eating raw
acorns have nearly always been stopped short of death
because of the onset of frequent urination, constipation,
abdominal pains, and extreme thirst. Kingsbury, author of
Poisonous Plants in the U.S. and Canada
(Oxford University Press, 1993) included raw acorns on his
list of poisonous plants. He stated that eating large
quantities over a long period of time results in bloody
stools and other symptoms.

WHERE FOUND: Oaks are native both to the
temperate regions of the northern hemisphere and to the
mountains of the tropics. Oak trees can be found in the
cities, mountains, deserts, valleys, and in chaparral
areas.

GROWING CYCLE: Acorns mature and fall from
the trees during September and October.

CHRISTOPHER’S ACORN BREAD RECIPE

Here’s the recipe for my favorite acorn bread.
1 cup acorn flour
3/4 cup whole wheat flour
3/4 cup carob flour
3 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. sea salt
3 Tbs. honey
1 egg
1 cup raw milk
3 Tbs. oil

Mix well and bake in greased pan for about 45 minutes (or
longer) at 250 degrees Fahrenheit.

THE ELDER TREE

Honeysuckle Family (Sambucus sp.) (Caprifoliaceae)

OVERALL SHAPE AND SIZE: Elders can grow
either as shrubs, or as small trees to ten feet tall.

LEAVES: The light-green compound leaves
are divided into five to eleven leaflets. The leaves are
opposite each other, and have slightly serrated margins.

FLOWERS: The small, white flowers grow in
flat-topped clusters or conical clusters of two to six
inches across. The flowers are followed by small 1/8 to 1/4
inch purple, black, red, or white berries, depending on the
particular species.

BENEFICIAL PROPERTIES

EDIBILITY: You can eat the dark purple
berries, rich in vitamin A, with fair amounts of potassium
and calcium, raw, or mashed, and blend with applesauce for
a unique dessert, especially if you are using wild apples.
You can also use the berries for making wines, jellies,
jams, and pies. The red and white berries are not
recommended for food, some having toxic qualities.

You can gather and dip the whole flower cluster in batter,
and fry it, producing a wholesome pancake. Try dipping the
flower clusters in a batter of the sweet yellow cattail
pollen and frying them like pancakes. Wild food at its
best.

You can also mix the dried flowers, removed from the
cluster, into flour for baking pastries, breads, etc.

MEDICINALITY: Tea made from the flowers
induces sweating; as such, it is said to be useful for
colds, fevers, and headaches associated with colds. You can
use a poultice of the leaves for wounds, sprains, and
swellings. Use a tea of the fresh or dried leaves as a wash
for skin infections.

DETRIMENTAL PROPERTIES: The foliage and
root are poisonous if eaten. It affects like a purgative.
The red and white berries are not recommended for food,
some having bitter or toxic qualities. The edible purple
and black berries cause nausea for some if eaten raw.
Cooked, they are harmless. I’ve seen children chewing on
the pithy core of the dried elderberry stems many times. I
have often done so also, and thus conclude that the DRIED
stems are not harmful, at least not in small amounts.
However, the green stalks can be harmful if eaten. Wilma
Roberts James, author of Know Your Poisonous
Plants
(Nature Graph, 1973) says that children who have
made whistles and blowguns from the dried elder stems have
been poisoned. Unfortunately, she does not list the
specific incidents, nor does she tell what type of
poisoning or how much the children in question actually
consumed.

WHERE FOUND: Elder is found throughout the
United States. It does well along rivers and streams. There
are many species of elder, and their preferred locales
include chaparral hillsides, high elevations, low canyon
bottoms, open fields, and even vacant lots.

GROWING CYCLE: Elder grows to a small
tree. The flowers can be gathered in spring and the berries
ripen around late summer.

Excerpted from In the Footsteps of Our Ancestors: Guide to
Wild Foods
which is available from the School
of Self-Reliance, Eagle Rock, CA, for $15 plus $2 for shipping.


GUIDELINES FOR COLLECTING PLANTS

When discovering new or old plants there are no general
laws or quick “rules-of-thumb” that enable you to know
immediately whether a plant is edible or poisonous.

Before picking any plant, consider what you will be using
it for, and only gather the amount you need. There is no
reason to uproot an entire plant.

Carefully pick each leaf from the plant so that the least
damage is suffered. Also, no plant should be stripped bare
of all its leaves; this will drastically reduce the
‘plant’s ability to produce its own food. When the leaves
are carefully gathered by selective pruning the plant will
continue to mature and produce seeds, and in many cases
will live longer as a result of that careful pruning. When
gathering and pruning, one should always consider the need
of wildlife, the next forager, and the future generations
of plants.

Abundance of a plant should also be considered. If you see
only a few of a particular type, it may be best to leave
them alone.

When digging perennial tubers, corms, bulbs, and tap roots,
the smallest roots should always be replanted so they
continue growing and reproducing.