Thousands of millennia before the first European settlers came to the North American continent, humanity’s ancestors have relied on trees for sustenance, survival and well-being. Even today, the native trees of North America (not to mention introduced species) can provide for all of our basic needs if we know how to harvest, process and prepare them.
With this in mind, let’s take a look at some of the most useful North American trees for survival:
#1. Mulberries (Morus spp.)
Different species of mulberries are common in many parts of North America, both native and introduced varieties. If there are no mulberries in your area, consider planting them (especially the endangered North American Red Mulberry (Morus rubra).
- The delicious, sweet, edible berry of most all species can be eaten raw, made into preserves, dried, or dried and powdered.
- The young shoots and unfolding leaves of most species such as Morus rubra, and Morus alba, can be eaten raw or cooked.
- Morus alba has a long history of use by the Chinese for medicine including for treating everything from toothaches to tinnitus, depending on the part used, and modern research has substantiated many of these traditional uses.
- The leaves can serve as a nutritious fodder (forage crop) for livestock.
- A fiber can be obtained from the bark of young stems, which traditionally has been used for weaving clothes, or making paper.
#2. Basswood/Linden (Tilia spp.)
Basswood, or Linden, are found in rich, often moist soils of woods and bottom-lands, and are unique among North American trees for their variety of uses.
- Young leaves can be eaten cooked or raw. Older leaves can be cooked as greens.
- The sap can be drunk, or made into syrup.
- The sweet flowers can be eaten raw or made into tea. Caution: excessive use of the flower may cause heart damage so use sparingly.
- A chocolate substitute can be made by grinding dried fruits and flowers into a paste, though it is not long-lasting without somehow drying or freezing it.
- A tough fiber can be obtained from the inner bark by soaking in water and boiling, followed by rubbing it on a stick or similar to separate fibers, which can then be used for thread, fine yarn, or cordage. Care should be taken not to girdle the tree or limb when harvesting bark on this or any tree.
- The soft wood, cut from branches, can be carved and worked to make wooden utensils and furniture.
#3. Willow (Salix spp.)
There are several types of willow in North America, including weeping willow (Salix babylonica), and greenleaf willow (Salix lucida). They typically grow in wet soils near swamps, marshes, rivers, or lakes, just like the versatile cattails.
- The fresh bark of all willows contains salicin, which is closely related to aspirin, and can therefore be used as a painkiller or for fevers and headaches.
- Many species have stems that are very flexible and are used in basket making or similar.
- Willows can be coppiced annually, and are therefore useful to have on your property for continual production of woody material.
- The twigs and bark can be boiled to extract rooting hormone which can then be used to root other plants.
- Some species, such as weeping willow, have an edible inner bark that can be dried, and ground into a powder for later use in cereal or bread (though it is bitter and considered a famine food), and their young shoots and flower buds are edible cooked.
#4. Walnuts (Juglans spp.)
Walnuts, including black walnut (Juglans nigra) and California walnut (Juglans californica) can be an extremely useful tree if you are lucky enough to find them.
- The nuts are a delicious and nutrient rich food, with a sweet, rich flavor. They ripen in late autumn and can be de-hulled, dried and stored in a cool place where they will keep for up to 6 months. Roasting extends storage times.
- A brown dye can be obtained from the nuts and their husks, as well as the bark, leaves and stems.
- Husks can be made into high quality coal through burning with low oxygen, and coal can then be used to filter water.
- Substances obtained from husks and other parts of the tree contain the toxin juglone, which can be used as an insecticide or herbicide (though it will kill the life in the soil and most plants, not just weeds).
#5. Oaks (Quercus spp.)
Different species of this common tree our found everywhere in North America, from the prairies, to dense dry woods, gravelly ridges and sandy plains.
- The highly nutritious nut can be eaten raw (in some species) or cooked, and are sweet usually if edible. Oak nuts (acorns) were used as a staple crop by many Native American peoples. Any bitter tannin must be leached out by rinsing the dried, ground up meat in water thoroughly. Traditionally seeds were buried in boggy ground overwinter and after germinating were then eaten. They can also be dried and powdered for use as a flour.
#6. Pine (Pinus spp.)
There are many species of pine in North America found across the continents, often making up a large percentage of the trees in a forest.
- Seeds are edible, though most species’ seeds are small (Sugar Pine or Pinus lambertiana has a larger seed though, for example).
- The fresh needles of many species can be brewed into a tea rich in vitamins, especially vitamins C and A.
- A candy can be made by boiling new shoots of some species in syrup.
- The inner bark of some species can be eaten raw or cooked and has a sweet flavor. It can be dried and ground into a powder to be used as a thickener or in bread.
- Pitch obtained from the resin can be used to waterproof boats, containers, and as a preservative.
- Pine tar can be obtained by cooking the wood in a closed container. This is an excellent, dark colored wood preservative.
#7. White Birch (Betula papyrifera)
Found in a wide range of conditions throughout North America, this magnificent tree is famous for many, many uses.
- The inner bark (best in the spring) is edible raw or cooked.
- The sap raw or cooked is a sweet drink, and can be made into a syrup or fermented to make beer or vinegar.
- The very young leaves, shoots and catkins are eaten raw or cooked.
- A tea can be made from young leaves and root bark.
- The outer bark was traditionally used in making cups, canoes, shingles and buckets. Be careful to remove only the thin outer bark so as not to kill the tree.
- The outer bark can be used to prevent snow blindness by cutting a strip and placing it over the eyes with the natural openings used as holes to see through.
- The bark is an extremely good tinder, burning easily and quickly.
#8. Cherries (Prunus spp.)
Cherries can be found across the continent on most types of terrain and are useful for more than just their nutritious fruit.
- Abundant fruit is edible raw or cooked and many varieties are sweet, though just as many are sour, bitter, or worse.
- Although most cherry seeds are poisonous, some may be edible if they are not bitter.
- An extract from the bark has been used commercially as flavoring for drinks, treats and baked goods, particularly from the rum cherry (Prunus serotine).
- A green dye can be extracted from the leaves.
#9. Hackberry (Celtis spp.)
Although not the most common tree on the continent, if you are lucky enough to come across hackberries, you are in for a treat. Common hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) is found in Eastern North America in different types of soils mostly along riverbanks, while sugarberry/sugar hackberry (Celtis laevigate) is found further south, down to Florida and Texas.
- The fruit is edible, being sweet and delicious. It contains a single edible seed, though in some trees it can be too hard to bite, so be careful. The fruit and seed can be crushed to create a delicious treat rich in protein, fat and carbohydrates. The whole fruit can store for many months simply by placing it in a paper bag out of sun in a dry place. The berries are more easily collected once the leaves fall by placing a tarp or blanket under the tree and shaking the branches.
#10. Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos)
Found natively in eastern North America, these trees are also planted elsewhere throughout the continent in a variety of conditions.
- The seed is edible raw or cooked, tasting like raw peas, and they are high in protein and carbohydrates.
- The pulp of the seedpods is sweet and can be eaten raw or made into a sugar.
- Tender young seedpods are edible cooked.
- The pods are great fodder for livestock.
- The wood is hard, rot resistant and shock resistant, and can be used for fence posts and tools.
Whether you want to learn to survive in an emergency situation, or simply to become more self-sufficient for other reasons, trees are an indispensable resource for survival. Keep in mind that the uses above are only a fraction of the many uses for each of the trees listed, since a thorough list of survival uses could easily fill an entire article (or book) for each tree. Let this be a starting point, then, for your continued study of these and the many other species of trees that grace our terrestrial landscapes, and stay tuned for future articles.
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