Toxic Trees

Conkers and Husk

I love all aspects of foraging, from sustainably harvesting wild edibles for a meal, collecting, and producing herbal medicine from medicinal plants, to processing fibres for camp craft use. It is all there waiting for us to reconnect with it, only our lifestyles have changed, which has set most of us adrift from their once commonly held uses. I find It often helps to look into the past in understanding how flora can be used with relevance today, often throwing up some fascinating insights into uses from days gone by.

In this blog I am looking at the foliage, berries and nuts of three toxic/poisonous trees which are commonly found in the UK, but harbour some hidden benefits and past uses, you may not have come across before. We will be taking a little look at common holly, horse chestnut and yew, let’s start with holly.

Common holly (Ilex aquifolium) is probably most well-known today for making wreaths at Christmas time, for centuries it is said to represent the crown of thorns and berries for the blood of Christ. This can be traced back to druids decorating their dwellings, as an abode for the sylvan spirits at wintertime, with evergreens available of holly and ivy. It is also an important cover for animals in winter and is home to the mistle thrush, which will drive off other birds, as other thrushes like to feed on the berries too. Its leaves have the highest calorific content and rich in nutrients of any tree browsed by animals, historically fed to livestock (especially sheep) is an ancient practice. Holly leaves put out spines to protect from grazing animals, and so are usually less aggressive higher in the canopy. Sprigs of holly were once pulled on a rope to clean chimneys.

Holly - Green Berries
Holly – Green Berries.
Holly - Red Berries
Holly – Red Berries.
Holly - Berry and Seeds
Holly – Berry and Seeds.

Horse Chestnut, (Aesculus hippocastanum) is native to turkey and was Introduced into Britain in the 1600’s. The name comes from processing the conkers into feed for treating broken winded horses. Toxic to us because of the saponin content, but they were once used crushed up and added to warm water to form a lather for washing clothing which had the added advantage of repelling moths, which is ideal for wool clothing. At this time of year all the leaves are turning, and you could be forgiven to thinking the horse chestnut is one of the first, but you would be mistaken. It is due to the leaf mining moth larvae which are happily making a meal of the leaf, turning it brown behind it, ironic then, given its attributes to cleaning clothes.

Horse Chestnut Canopy
Horse Chestnut Canopy.
Conkers and Husk
Conkers and Husk.
Leaf Mining Moth
Leaf Mining Moth.

Common Yew Tree (Taxus baccata) is our most toxic native tree, with examples of over 5,000 years old. It contains taxol and taxanes which is a respiratory inhibitor. Every part of the tree is toxic apart from the flesh on the berries which surround the most toxic part, the seed. The berries have an old country name of snot grots, which gives you a clue as to their consistency.

Taxanes are used medicinally in the treatment of cancer converted into the chemotherapy drug Taxotere® (docetaxel). They have proved to be effective from lung and prostate cancer and advanced cases of breast cancer. Up until recently they could only harvest this direct from the tree, but now it can be synthesised in the lab.

Yew Foliage and Berries
Yew Foliage and Berries
Yew - Green Berries
Yew – Green Berries.
Yew - Orange Berry
Yew – Orange Berry.
Yew - Red Berry
Yew – Red Berry.
Yew - Berry Flesh
Yew – Berry Flesh.

I hope you have enjoyed these small little insights and I look forward to sharing more next time.

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