Trees are at the very core of our planet. They rise up from every continent in a cornucopia of sizes, shapes, colors, textures, and firmness-es. Because they have been around since the beginning of time, trees are the very foundation of ethnobotanist research. Trees real and fake will likely be a part of our future too.
If you’re not familiar with the term, ethnobotany is the study of how cultures have historically interacted with plants in order to make medicines, foods, clothing, and other useful items. So when looking back at civilizations through the millennia, the ways these people used trees is central to understanding the relationship we still have with the giants of the plant world today.
The remains of Ötzi the Iceman include clothing items from 5,300 years ago. Scientists found that his clothing and equipment were made from hides, bones, antlers, and feathers of six different animal species and the leaves, wood, and fiber of 17 different trees. With this recorded evidence, it’s hard to tell how long prior to that time humans were using materials from trees for use in clothing, but it’s safe to say that we have a history there.
Throughout the rise and fall of civilizations, tree bark in particular has had many uses. Commonly worn by only the elite at one point, clothing sourced from trees was a status symbol. Later, and still today, Native American tribes use strips of bark from young trees to make the regalia used during traditional ceremonies. Fibers sourced from trees also resulted in belts, hats, and capes, to name a few.
The list of products sourced from trees is nearly endless. Of course, in the modern world, we know about furniture and toilet paper, but well before wood was processed into mainstream manufacturing, it had a place in culture. Baskets are a common product associated with trees. Of course they were also made from grass and vines, but most baskets were woven from the young branches of willow and hazel plants.
Weapons are another category of products that had other origins, but also a heavy reliance on the wood of trees. For example, tribes from the Pacific Northwest used the flexible branches of the native ocean spray to make bows for children. For adults, the stronger inner bark of yucca or cherry was used. Handles for knives and other weapons were also cultivated from the wood of regional trees.
The bark of trees has long been used in the making of fibers, such as those for sleeping mats and hats. It also offered protection in the form of roofing similar to today’s shingles. Soap, wax, tannins, latex (rubber), and cork are all sourced from trees too.
Of course the most iconic products early people made from trees were canoes, rafts, and other types of boats. It’s hard to imagine the course of exploration without them.
Religion and Cultural Ceremonies
Ceremonies have long been part of religion and culture, and throughout that history trees have had a role to play. For example, the western red cedar was often chosen for ceremonial fires as most Native American tribes consider the tree sacred. Some tribes requires certain rituals be followed when cutting a cedar and Cherokee tribes were known for carrying a piece of cedar with them in honor of lost loved ones, who they feel reside in the cedar in spirit form.
Totem poles are another example of expressing culture through trees. Carved and painted with images telling the story of each family, totem poles were thought to embody the rich history of the tribe.
Of course trees have always offers a source of food as well. Fruit trees are an obvious example. However, early people learned how to harvest nuts, seeds, and leaves too. From coconuts to acorns, the first people found ways to turn tree products into flour that was light, portable, and versatile. Of course, communities were limited by what was available, but they were resourceful and experimental, relying on pine nuts from the pine tree when they were available and falling back on pine bark for survival when they needed it.
Not exactly food by definition, but chewing gum is another item sourced from trees for centuries. Starting with the ancient Greek who chewed on mastic gum, which was a part of the bark from the mastic tree, modern chewing gum is still sourced from the juice of the sapodilla tree, found in Central America.
And then there is maple syrup. Brilliant. Need we say more?
The healing properties of plants are long established from thousands of years of trial and error. Nomadic people were excellent observers of plants through the seasons. They learned what plants could be harvested, what parts could be safely ingested, and during what time of year the plants produced the materials they needed.
Making medicine from trees was as mainstream as taking aspirin is now. Ironically, aspirin is a great example of the types of products sourced from trees since the same component in aspirin, salicylic acid, is found in trees like the willow. In fact, willow bark is well-known as a natural aid in reducing fever, pain, and headaches. Leaves from trees were used to make dressings for wounds. Salves and creams were also concocted from the leaves, bark, and liquids from the trees. Oils, sap, and other components were used medicinally as well.