Welcome to Trees as Healers

Hi. This is a blog about the healing power of trees. It is a collaborative venture between Donald Purves, (http://wildindigoherbal.wordpress.com) a Traditional Herbalist of more than 20 years' standing, and Rukshana Afia (http://rukshanaafia.wordpress.com), a visual artist who has worked for many years in textiles and ceramics.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Horse Chestnut - the Consolidator

The Conker tree
40 foot tall Horse Chestnut tree, September colouring
Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum), with its “conkers” is the quintessential Autumn tree in Britain though it is not truly native, having been introduced in the late 17th Century from the Balkans.  There is, therefore, little British folk tradition of medicinal use, though the game of conkers dates back to the 1850s, according to the Encyclopedia (sic) of Traditional British Rural Sports cited by Wikipedia.  (Kids have always bashed things on strings against one another I suspect, and Vamplew suggests that conkers replaced hazelnuts and even snails.  In South East Scotland in the 1960’s, outside “cheggie” season, we used lolly sticks, each player attempting to karate chop their opponent’s stick with their own)

Horse Chestnuts endangered
Imposing trees, which are  up to 118 feet tall, with spreading branches and classic palmate leaves,
Looking up through summer leaves
 Horse Chestnuts in Britain are threatened both by “bleeding canker” a bacterial infection, and infestation by leaf-mining larvae of a moth.
(See http://conkertreescience.org.uk/) Both problems weaken the trees and the leaf-mining insects cause early browning of the leaves in late summer and early autumn. (Watch a video here).

The Healing Effects of Horse Chestnut
One etymology of the name Horse Chestnut is that the seeds were used in a hot mash for horses with bronchitis in Turkey and the Balkans, regions where the tree is native.  
 (I wonder if it significant that the Horse Chestnut leaf-miner moth was first seen in Europe in Macedonia – maybe it is Aesculus’ natural herbivore but has taken 300 years to catch up with it!  Is there a predator that could follow too?) 

Horse Chestnut is an astringent tonic for the blood vessels, especially the veins.  By improving venous return of blood to the heart, and by improving the tone of peripheral veins, especially in the lower legs and rectum, Aesculus relieves varicose veins and haemorrhoids respectively and reduces the oedema (fluid swelling of tissue) resulting from Chronic Venous Insufficiency (CVI).  Several clinical pharmacology trials of a Horse Chestnut Seed Extract (HCSE) preparation containing aescin conclude that aescin is at least as good as compression therapy (support stockings) in controlling the lower leg oedema of CVI.  (Pittler 1998).  However, these studies are typical examples of the way in which orthodox medical science equates a herb, e.g. Horse Chestnut, with the purported active ingredient, aescin, as if the two were interchangeable.  Herbalists prefer to use whole spectrum extracts; in the case of Horse Chestnut, decoctions or tinctures of the fresh or dried nut.  We use the physical actions of plants to bring about physical healing but also acknowledge that there is no mind, body, spirit split and the effects of medicinal plants go beyond the physical.
In my thesis on the use of tree remedies, I collated impressions of Horse Chestnut from more than two dozen practising herbalists and the consensus was that it consolidates strength and power, it is grounding and it gives a strong sense of place.
The Bach Flower Remedy White Chestnut is prepared from the flowers of Aesculus hippocastanum.  It is indicated for anxiety and agitation, specifically “inability to prevent thoughts going round mind like a hamster on a wheel” (Hyne Jones 1984)  Chestnut Bud flower essence, prepared from the unopened flower buds is specific for “failure to learn from past mistakes” (Hyne Jones 1984).
So, on a prosaic level, Horse Chestnut can sort out your dodgy veins but it can also strengthen and tonify the body as a whole and, mentally, or as Bach would have said, on a soul level, it can pull together your scattered wits!

The common factor to all these applications of Aesculus is that it “brings things together”

Horse Chestnut - the grand consolidator
Hyne Jones, T W (Revised Edition 1984) “ Dictionary of the Bach Flower Remedies – Positive and Negative Aspects”  C W Daniel, Saffron Walden, Essex, England.

Pittler, Max & Ernst, Edzard (Nov 1998) “Horse Chestnut Seed Extract for Chronic Venous Insufficiency – A Criteria-Based Systematic Review”  Arch Dermatol  Vol 134
Purves, Donald A (2003) “Is there a difference between herbal medicines derived from trees (tree remedies) and those derived from other plants?”  MSc thesis Scottish School of Herbal Medicine. Accessible at http://wildindigoherbal.files.wordpress.com/2011/03/sshm-thesis.pdf

Monday, 9 July 2012

The Door into Summer

Oak (Quercus robur) used to be the most English of trees, conjuring up images of stolid yeoman warriors and fighting sailors with “hearts of oak”.  Natural forests of Oak once cloaked Britain but were decimated by clearance for agriculture, for house- building and especially for shipbuilding.  

Looking up through new oakleaves in early Spring
 In the Celtic Tree Calendar described by Robert Graves in “The White Goddess” 2, the Oak month (Duir – hence oaken doors) covers the summer solstice.  Oak is therefore The King of Summer.  However, the next month, Tinne is ascribed to the Holly Tree (Ilex aquifolium), which, “of all the trees that are in the wood”...”bears the crown”.  Graves asserts that Tinne was originally ascribed to the Holm Oak (Quercus ilex), other names being Tannus or Tan.  This was because Holm Oak was Oak’s twin or rival – the Tanist.  Holm Oak was the King of Winter, beheading Oak at Midsummer when the power of growth begins to wane.  Oak then takes its turn at the Winter Solstice, signalling the coming triumph of  Summer over Winter.   The endless cycle of winter rest for the land and summer activity was, Graves argues, ritually ensured by this beheading of kings to please the Goddess.
Abstract oakleaf  drawing
uses all the leaf colours from Spring through to Autumn

Bark from the Tanist tree, Holm Oak was used to “tan“ rawhides into leather.  Oak Bark itself, and particularly, Oak galls can and were also used.  Oak owes its astringent effect on rawhide and on the human body to its high content of tannins.  Modern phytochemists prefer to use the more chemically precise name of polyphenolic compounds instead of tannins. 

Medicinally, Oak is the quintessential British astringent remedy, bringing that drying, tightening feeling when taken by mouth. This is especially true of Quercus robur but other species can be used in the same way.  Oak bark is the usual form used; pieces of bark simmered for 10-20 minutes in water (a decoction).  This decoction can be drunk to correct diarrhoea or dysentery when discharge has become debilitating. Oak bark can be used also for serious conditions which require qualified healthcare advice - to stop internal bleeding, to aid healing of stomach ulcers and to alleviate the coughing up of blood.
Topically, oak bark decoction can be used as a gargle to restore tone to throats irritated by congestion, as a vaginal douche and as an astringent wash for haemorrhoids and varicose ulcers.

Oak is especially a herb of choice where the overall picture is of over-relaxed tissues with excessive watery discharge  I find it useful, sometimes, for women experiencing menopausal hot flushes who want better control of fluid loss (sweating), blood circulation (heat) and a feeling of dissipation (pulling themselves together) . 

 I have seldom used Oak in my practice, preferring more subtle astringents like Agrimony, Yarrow, Raspberry or Ladies Mantle. Perhaps it is more common in modern times for the herbalist to encounter patients who are, overall, too tense and constricted rather than being too relaxed!

Oak in the Kalevala
An archetypal heroic depiction of the topical application of Oak in wound healing (i.e. as a vulnerary) can be found in the Finnish epic, Kalevala.  Vainamöinen, (son of the waves, the great Water hero, and thus arguably prone to the over-relaxed tissue state) suffers a terrible wound from his own axe when he is boastfully trying to build a boat from the fragments of the maid of Puhjo’s shattered spindle in order to win her hand.  The wound will not stop bleeding:
From the wound the blood flowed freely
Bursting forth in streaming torrents3
He asks all sorts of people to help but ends up with an old man who sends his son into the smithy to prepare a salve,
From the blades of magic grasses
From the thousand-headed yarrow
And from dripping mountain honey
On the way he passed an oak tree of which he took the slender twigs. 4
He boiled up the whole for several days, adding more herbage until he judged the salve had reached the right consistency.
He tried out the binding qualities of the mixture first before applying (presumably because Vainamöinen’s wound, him being a hero and all, is the ultimate challenge).
And in twain he broke (an )Aspen
And the tree completely severed
With the magic salve he smeared it
Then at once was healed the aspen

And just to make sure:
And on shattered rocks he rubbed it
And the stone with stone knit firmly
And the cracks were fixed together

(Now that’s one astringent healing ointment!)

At last, the old man applied the ointment to Vainamöinen:
Almost fainting with the anguish
Vainamoinen writhed and struggled

But eventually after careful bandaging and prayer by the old man:
Then the aged Vainamöinen
Felt he had regained his vigour
And that he was healed completely
And his flesh again was solid
And beneath it all was healthy
In his body he was painless

As a vitalistic herbalist, I take this story as a metaphor for the amazing binding quality of astringent remedies including Oak.

Oak Flower Essence
Finally, Dr Edward Bach discovered a subtle influence of Oak flowers in one of his Flower essences – the remedy for plodders, for those who overwork but hide tiredness, for those who are despondent but struggle on but also for those who maintain an obstinate, relentless effort, although it may have become useless.5

So Oak represents longevity, hardiness, toughness but also the Jovial qualities (i.e. those of Jupiter); majesty, abundance.

Handmade felt & machine embroidery again using all the colours of oakleaves .

1               “The Door into Summer” is a science fiction novel by Robert Heinlein which has nothing whatsoever to do with Oak but we thought it was a good title! 
2              Robert Graves (1960) The White Goddess London Faber & Faber             
3              W  F Kirby (translator) (1985) Kalevala – The Land of Heroes London The Athlone Press
4               Conducting a herb walk at Riseholme, University of Lincoln, I recently encountered a Turkey Oak (Quercus cerris) with numerous galls on the “slender twigs” at the tips of its branches.  Perhaps the un-named son of the smithy used twigs bearing galls to up the astringency of his salve.   If you want high tannin parts of the oak, picked sustainably, then these would be the way to go.
5              T W Hyne Jones (1976) Dictionary of The Bach Flower Remedies – positive and negative aspects  Saffron Walden C W Daniel

Thursday, 17 May 2012


Trees have healing power in a number of ways.  As a working herbalist, my practical interest is primarily in the medicinal qualities of trees – physical properties which can influence human physiology when medicinal preparations from the plants are administered.  But the most direct way in which I experience trees as healing is getting out in a wood to hear and see the wind in the canopy. It restoreth my soul, especially if there is water nearby too!  Heidi, the country girl in children’s literature misses most the sound of the wind in the pines when she goes to stay in the city.
That relentless rustling and whooshing, way overhead when you are safe and sheltered on the forest floor is so reminiscent of the sound of the sea.  It’s accepted as evolutionary dogma that we all came from the sea (humans have common heritage with lungfish) but Elaine Morgan takes it further and convincingly posits that pre-human apes came down from the trees and onto the shore where, for a time, they lived as aquatic apes.
Do we live in harmony with the wood, at ease in its confines?  Or do the crowded trunks oppress, the dappled shade impart gloom, the shadows harbour unspeakable fears?  Undoubtedly, humans have felled many forests in quest for food-producing land.  Is there an extent though to which forests have been cleared in order to clear out atavistic fears and civilise savage lands?
Britain is a fairly sparsely wooded country.  Interestingly, the extent of land cover by trees (12%) roughly correlates with the proportion of common herbal medicines derived from trees (18%) and the proportion of tree remedies used by practising herbalists in healing (Purves 2003 Masters thesis)

However electronic our lifestyle becomes, we still act in proportion with our environment.
Donald Purves

This is the Chinese Year of the Dragon and I also read that dragons have Wood energy , the energy of early spring so this is a drawing of waking trees/stirring dragons . Trees affect me by their intensity . Those who claim the 'Real' exists behind or beyond the visible world have never really looked at trees .
                                                                                                                                         Rukshana Afia