English Oak (Querus rober) and friend; Family: Fagaceae
We all know oak trees and we all love oak trees. But sadly, we don’t know them as well as we should including us herby folks who can forget the magic they offer.
Well, at least some love oaks like they should…right, my squirrelly friend?
There are a couple of classic species used by herbalists: Querus rober (English Oak) which is the mainstay of UK herbalism and Querus alba (White Oak) which is the oak of choice for US herbalism. Most of the common oak species have similar properties since the primary medicinal aspect are their tannins which are prominent in most oaks. The Northern Red Oak (Querus rubra) is one of the most common around here and quite useable for medicine making.
Generally speaking oaks are broadleaf trees with distinct lobes and sinuses which are alternately placed rather than side to side. Their leaves are longer than wide and asymmetrical (in contrast to Maples which are symmetrical and shorter.) Only oaks have acorns which is one of their best identifiers. Black/Red Oaks have pointed lobes while White Oaks have rounded ones.
Ideally, you make herbal preparations from the inner bark and you should use young twigs or small branches for it. However, you can also use the acorns, leaves and galls for it too. Historically, oak galls have also been used to make ink and many famous historical documents were written with oak ink, including the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence. (And some Native Americans would use powdered oak galls for treating inflamed and infected eyes!)
Thanks to its tannin content the primary action of oaks is astringent. Think of really strong black tea (which is also rich in tannins) and how tightening and bitter it is when you drink it. This is why it is great for dealing with excess fluid, easing inflammations, helping with bleeding, and as an antiseptic. You generally use it as a decoction or tincture to treat things like diarrhea and dysentery, or for hemorrhoids, mouth inflammations, nasal polyps, sort throats and wounds.
You can use oak in so many ways:
- As a gargle for sore throats, mouth inflammations and coughs (decoction)
- As a cream or salve for hemorrhoids
- As wash for burns and wounds and generally as a disinfectant (decoction)
- As a mouthwash for bleeding gums (decoction)
- Chew on the bark for mouth ulcers and sores
- Use for poison ivy (tincture – the decoction won’t work as well because while the tannins help deal with the rash aspect, the alcohol part of the tincture helps disperse and breakdown the oil)
- Use for rashes (tincture or decoction)
- Use in salve form for muscular pains
- The leaves make for quick field medicine – soften by steaming or immersing in boiled water or just crush them a bit and apply them to wounds to ease inflammation and as an antiseptic
- Drink as a tea for diarrhea (Since the tannins tend to block nutrient absorption don’t take it for more than a couple of days – use it only to deal with the immediate problem of diarrhea and not as a daily tea.)
Finally, I’ve been experimenting lately with making acorn unguent – unguents are oily pastes for wound healing, rashes and skin conditions.
Essentially you make a decoction of acorns. (Be sure to throw away those that float when you first throw them in. ) Simmer it until the water is at least half its original volume. Press it out and mix (Slippery or Siberian) Elm bark powder to make a paste and apply as needed. Surprisingly good!
So go out and find some oak love – you’ll never regret it!