Edible and medicinal trees are an important part of the natural landscape in Eastern Canada. My previous post about eating the leaves, cambium, and fruit of maple trees surprised and interested a few of you! I’m back to talk about five more trees in this region: birch, spruce, pine, oak, and tamarack.
Indigenous peoples have used these trees for thousands of years for food, medicine, and other essential products. Birch, for example, is known for its sweet sap that is tapped in the spring to make delicious syrup. Spruce and pine needles make tea, and oak is a source of acorns that can be ground into a flour. Below you’ll learn more about these trees and their edible and medicinal parts.
Medicinal and Edible Trees Disclaimer
Trees are more of a survival food than something to fill your plate with. Eating too much of their leaves and bark could cause an upset stomach. I recommend using edible tree parts to make teas and syrups.
This post is for educational purposes only. Many of the traditional and folk remedies made from trees do not have scientific backing. This is not to discredit their use, especially as it relates to traditional Indigenous knowledge, but these plants should never act as replacements for proven medicines.
Always consult a reputable healthcare practitioner before trying to self-medicate using any kind of plant. This is especially important if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. Some species of pine, for example, have caused miscarriage in livestock.
White Oak (Quereus alba)
White oak (Quereus alba) is common to central and eastern Canada and the United States. They are tall trees with lobed leaves and light grey bark. White oaks produce acorns, an edible fruit, that squirrels and jays rely on for their high calories and nutrition.
Quereus species have a long history of use as traditional medicines to treat asthma, hemorrhoids, diarrhea, gastric ulcers, and to promote wound healing.1 Because of their anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic, and anti-cancer actions, compounds found in oaks are promising candidates for the development of new pharmaceuticals.1 However, more research is needed to evaluate their safety and side effects.
Acorns: Harvest white oak acorns after they’ve browned. Acorns must be processed before eating because their high tannin levels are potentially toxic. Shelling them and doing multiple soakings in boiling water reduces tannins and their associated bitterness. Roasting acorns after soaking further cuts bitterness and brings out a sweet and nutty flavour. It’s a lot of work, but well worth it!
Acorn shells: Boiling the shells of acorns makes a strong tannic “tea.” In folk medicine, acorn tea makes “a wash or compress for poison ivy, foot fungus, insect stings, acne, boils
Bark: Traditionally, a tea from Quereus alba‘s bark was a topical treatment to promote blood clotting, reduce bleeding, and reduce varicose veins.1
Tamarack (Larix laricina)
Tamarack (Larix laricina) are one of a few deciduous conifers in North America. In the fall, their needles turn a spectacular yellow
Needles: Boiling tamarack needles makes a tea which is rich in vitamin C. The Ojibwe crushed the leaves and bark of tamarack and applied it as a poultice to help relieve headaches.2 They also placed the plant material on hot stones and inhaled the fumes for headache relief.2
Bark: The Cree of northern Quebec use tamarack bark medicinally to treat symptoms of diabetes. Recently, in vitro studies have confirmed its potential as a drug for diabetes.3,4,5
Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera)
Paper birch (Betula papyrifera) is a deciduous tree common throughout most of Canada. It is easily identifiable from its white papery bark that peels away from mature trees. Its leaves are dark green and arranged opposite along branches. In the fall, the leaves turn bright yellow.
Birch Catkins: Birch catkins are edible, but bitter. To cut down the bitter taste, people add them to soups and stews. Others dry and grind them down to add to smoothies and yogurt. Catkins also make a vitamin rich tea that can be sweetened to cut bitterness.
Leaves: Birch leaves are edible raw or cooked when they are young and tender. As a folk medicine, a tincture made from leaves has been used to ease breathing issues cause by wood smoke and dry air.8
Bark: The cambium of B. papyrifera can be ground into a flour to add to bread and thicken soups. Woodland Cree (Nîhithaw) and northern Chipewyan people ate the inner bark as a starvation food.6 Several species of Betula have been used in traditional medicines around the world for the “treatment of various inflammatory diseases, including arthritis.”7 Some of these anti-inflammatory properties have been confirmed by in vitro and animal testing.7
Sap: Historically, First Nations and French Canadians drank birch sap and boiled it to make syrup. It takes a 100 gallons of sap to produce 1 gallon of birch syrup. This is more than double the amount it takes to produce a gallon of maple syrup and is the reason we don’t see large quantities on the market. Here is a video demonstrating how to harvest birch sap.
White Spruce (Picea glauca)
White spruce (Picea glauca) thrives in cold climates and grows throughout much of Canada. The tree’s needles are four-sided, sharp, and spiral around branches. Its dense branches provide habitat for animals like squirrel, birds, porcupine, deer, and rabbit. Black bear strip the outer bark from the tree to eat the sapwood inside.
Needles: Harvest spruce buds in the spring when new growth emerges. Like other conifers, the new growth will look bright green in contrast to the older darker needles. Spruce buds are tender and high in vitamin C, potassium, and magnesium. They are delicious candied and make an excellent tea. The older needles are also suitable for teas and both may have beneficial anti-cold and flu properties.8
Bark: Like white birch, it’s possible to harvest spruce cambium to dry and ground into a flour.
Resin: Indigenous peoples used the resin of white spruce as a topical treatment for skin irritation and sores.9 Dried spruce resin was also chewed as a gum. By the 1800s, settlers created an entire industry around spruce gum.9 Lumbermen, trappers, and “gummers” would harvest the dried resin and sell it to companies who packaged and marketted it.9
White Pine (Pinus strobus)
White pine (Pinus strobus) is native to eastern North America. The needles are long and form bunches of five. The cones are slender and cylindrical. White pine can grow up to 180 feet, often towering over other vegetation.11 It’s an important tree for birds. Eagles like to nest high up in these trees and common grackles, chickadees, mourning doves, woodpeckers, and other birds also use white pine as a nesting site.11
Needles: Like white spruce, you can eat pine needles in the spring as buds and use them year-round for tea. They are also rich in vitamin C.
Medicinal and Edible Trees
Eastern Canada is home to a variety of edible and medicinal trees that have been used by Indigenous peoples for centuries. Science is only now starting to confirm some of their medicinal properties. Next time you are out for a walk, consider harvesting spruce or pine leaves to use in tea or roasting acorns to unleash their sweet and nutty flavour.
Foraging Posts That May Interest You
1 Rezzak et. al. 2020. “Medicinal Uses, Phytochemistry, and Pharmacological Activities of Quercus Species.” Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
2 Prindle. “An introduction to Tamarack Trees & Traditions.” NativeTech: Native American Technology and Art.
3 Shang et. al. 2012. “Adipogenic constituents from the bark of Larix laricina du Roi (K. Koch; Pinaceae), an important medicinal plant used traditionally by the Cree of Eeyou Istchee (Quebec, Canada) for the treatment of type 2 diabetes symptoms.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology.
4 Yong et. al. 2016. “Larix laricina bark, a traditional medicine used by the Cree of Eeyou Istchee: Antioxidant constituents and in vitro permeability across Caco-2 cell monolayers.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology.
5 Harbilas et. al. 2012. “Larix laricina, an Antidiabetic Alternative Treatment from the Cree of Northern Quebec Pharmacopoeia, Decreases Glycemia and Improves Insulin Sensitivity In Vivo.” Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
6 Hu Woo. 2022. “Tree Bark, Cambium, and Sap.” The Student Encyclopedia of Canadian Indigenous Foods.
7 Rastogi et. al. 2015. “Medicinal plants of the genus Betula—Traditional uses and a phytochemical–pharmacological review.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology.
8 Anderman. 2017. The Healing Trees: The Edible and Herbal Qualities of Northeastern Woodland Trees. Burnstown Publishing House.
9 Fuller. 2011. “Remembering Spruce Gum.” Northern Woodlands.
10 The Arboretum. “Tamarack – Larix laricina.” University of Guelph.
11 “Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus).” bplant.org.