Discovering Medicinal Trees in an Arboretum

by | Dec 14, 2020 | agroforestry, Devon, forest garden, herbal medicine, Holt Wood, management, medicinal, Medicinal Forest Garden Trust, trees

Path alongside Newton St Cyres churchyard to the Arboretum

Some arboretums are just waiting to be discovered! Recently we visited the Arboretum at Newton St Cyres, UK. Visiting an arboretum provides a wonderful opportunity to see named trees, both native and introduced species. Some are introduced medicinal trees that are well-grown and their full size can be appreciated. Established in the 18th century by the Quicke family, and extending to 3.5 hectares, this Arboretum is accessed through the churchyard just off the A377 about 4 miles from Exeter. 

Devil’s walking stick (Aralia spinosa)

The Devil’s walking stick

While we walked around we discovered a medicinal plant that is not often seen in Europe, the Devil’s walking stick! This is Aralia spinosa, also known as Hercule’s club, a member of of the ginseng family (Araliaceae). It has very sharp spiny thorns, once established this deciduous plant throws up stems as much as 3-6 m tall with large compound leaves and topped by large heads of white flowers followed by clusters of purplish-black fruits. The young leaves in spring are edible, finely chopped and cooked are somewhat celery-like.

Native American uses

The Aralia spinosa is an aromatic plant which is stimulant, diaphoretic, purgative, and it causes salivation. Reputedly, it was used by the Cherokee in many ways, roots as a salve or infusion to promote vomiting, tea of leaves for rheumatism or to promote sweating and break a fever. The leaves or berries could be chewed for toothache. The dried bark was used by American 19th century eclectic physicians for treating cholera. Overall this plant was regarded as useful for ameliorating pain, and as a stimulating alterative, that is to encourage removal from the body of any toxins. This is a large plant that forms thickets – somewhat more manageable is the Japanese angelica tree (Aralia elata), also a medicinal plant used in traditional Chinese medicine for conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes and hepatitis. 

Visiting the Arboretum

There are many specimen trees in the Newton St Cyres Arboretum including conifers and magnolias. Spring is an ideal time to visit although there is plenty to see all year round. The site includes some well-grown examples of North American trees, such as Black walnut (Juglans nigra). There is also a substantial Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba). In recent years a group of volunteers have worked hard to restore the overgrown arboretum and enable public access with well-marked paths. Some replanting is taking place as trees mature and fall victim to damage or disease. Entry is free and there is an excellent guided information trail based on numbered posts with a leaflet available at the gate. Dogs are allowed in if kept on a lead by responsible poo-scooping owners.

Our visit in winter

Our visit in winter meant that the deciduous trees were almost completely bare, the ground well-carpeted with fallen leaves. However, there was still much to appreciate, and a large juniper bush remains glossy and green. And the spreading Oregon grape (Berberis aquifolium) was just coming into flower. The stems and especially the roots are bright yellow with berberine, a key constituent. Generally the root and stem bark are harvested to make a tincture which is used by medical herbalists  in treating skin complaints. In my book The Medicinal Forest Garden Handbook, I give more details of the Oregon grape and its medicinal uses. 

Oregon grape root (Berberis aquifolium)
Yellow Oregon grape root stem bark shows berberine content