Since learning to make my own herbal medicines, one of my favorite activities is wildcrafting medicinal plants. Gathering herbs, turning them into tinctures & teas, and then successfully using them to treat my family’s illnesses makes me feel like I really know what I’m doing! One of the first snags I hit, though, was not knowing when to wildcraft bark.
The two medicinal barks that I’ve dealt with so far are willow bark and cherry bark. Both smell amazing – which I found surprising, particularly with the willow bark – and both are traditional means for relieving common health complaints.
Willow bark, as you may know, works to reduce pain levels – headaches, muscle aches, sprains, etc. One of its main components, salicin, provides the pain-relieving quality and was the original template for making synthetic aspirin.
Cherry bark has been used to calm coughs for generations. Its natural capacity to relax lung spasms and soothe bronchial tissue is the reason that many over-the-counter cough remedies are cherry flavored – though it’s no longer the natural cherry flavor that most of them are using.
With two such wonderful herbal medicines being “bark bound,” any wildcrafting herbalist needs to know the best time to wildcraft bark. After all, you want your medicine to be as potent as possible, right?
When to Wildcraft Bark
Though there is some disagreement among herbalists, the general consensus seems to be that the best time to wildcraft bark is the spring or the fall.
During each of these transitional seasons, a tree’s sap is “on the move” – either rising from the newly-warmed roots to feed bud growth or descending from the spent leaves back into the roots for a winter rest.
While the sap is moving, the bark contains the highest levels of beneficial components – making spring or fall the best time to wildcraft bark for making herbal medicine.
Personally, I like to wildcraft bark in the fall because the ground isn’t soggy from all the melting snow. I also find it easier to judge “the right time” as the leaves are slowly changing. Maybe I’m just outside more during that time of year.
How to Know When to Wildcraft Bark
Signs to watch for if harvesting medicinal bark in the spring:
- Longer daylight hours and gently warming temperatures
- Buds that are just forming on the tree
Harvest bark in the spring after a tree’s buds have formed but before the leaves or flowers fully unfurl.
Signs to watch for if harvesting medicinal bark in the fall:
- Earlier sunsets and cooling temperatures
- Appearance of yellow, orange, or other colors in the tree’s leaves
Harvest bark in the fall after the tree’s leaves have begun changing colors but before many of the leaves have fallen.
The exact time of the year that this will happen is different for every tree. I find that the willow trees are ready for fall wildcrafting in late September through mid-October (in zone 6).
Of course, each year is going to be different depending on the weather. That’s why it’s important to spend time outdoors everyday so you can get to know Mother Nature in all her rhythms and quirks.
How to Best Wildcraft Bark
When wildcrafting bark, you don’t need much. This trip, I cut three “sprigs” and have made over two quarts of willow bark tincture. More than enough to last a long while!
As with wildcrafting any plant, take no more than you need and leave more than enough for the tree to continue thriving.
The best bark comes from young branches, and I never cut anything larger around than my pinky finger. The bark is much harder to peel from larger branches anyway.
To peel the bark, simply make a cut just below the inner bark layer
and begin to peel.
Sometimes, you’ll only be able to peel a short bit – but sometimes you’ll manage to peel off a nice long piece.
The inner greenish-colored layer contains the medicinal components. Anything deeper than that won’t do you any good.
I don’t try to peel the bark from very small twigs. I just clip them up and throw them in my bowl. In this picture, you can see that the smaller twigs are lighter brown or reddish – those are the ones I don’t peel.
Knowing the best time to wildcraft bark means you can be sure that your herbal medicines are as potent as possible. As with any wildcrafting adventure, be sure you’ve correctly identified a tree before harvesting its bark.
Most of all, have fun out there!
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Bruton-Seal, Julie and Matthew Seal. Backyard Medicine: Harvest and Make Your Own Herbal Remedies. Skyhorse Publishing, 2009.
Green, James. The Herbal Medicine Maker’s Handbook: A Home Manual. Crossing Press, 2000.
This information has not been evaluated by the FDA and is intended only for educational purposes. It is not intended to diagnose, prevent, treat, or cure disease. Always consult a healthcare professional before making significant changes to your healthcare routine.
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