MAPLE AS MEDICINE

Nathaniel Whitmore

In our area we have two primary maples: Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) and Red Maple (A. rubrum).  We also have Ash-leaf Maple or Box Elder (A. negundo) which is a small tree, often found near buildings.  Striped Maple (A. pennsylvanicum) and Mountain Maple (A. spicatum) are two small trees or shrubs that grow in the woods.  Black Maple (A. nigrum) is considered by some to be in the area and is considered by some to not even exist as a species distinct from Sugar Maple.  Japanese Maple (A. palmatum) is a common landscape plant and Silver Maple (A. saccharinum) can also be found planted in yards and as a wild native in other parts of the state.

Sugar Maple is best known as the source for maple syrup, the delicious natural sweetener that is made from the boiled sap of the trees.  The practice of making maple syrup was learned from the Native Americans and is truly one of the unique foods of this special area.  Every year I make maple syrup with friends and regard the tradition as very dear and sacred.  Maple syrup is the first wild food of the season (one that lasts through the year) and carries the promise of the greens that will soon be popping from the earth and the roots that will be available with the thawing of the ground.

Native Americans used the inner bark of Sugar Maple as an expectorant cough medicine and to benefit the lungs of runners.  An infusion of the bark and the sap were both used for sore eyes and vision problems.  Maple decoction was used for blood cleansing and skin disorders.

Red Maple is also a source for maple syrup and medicine.  As with Sugar Maple and other maples, the wash prepared from the bark was used by Native Americans for eye and skin problems.  The bark infusion taken internally was used for cramps, menstrual disorders, diarrhea, sore back, hemorrhoids, and measles.  Likewise, Silver Maple was used for skin problems, eye problems, coughs, etc.; and for syrup.

Box Elder was also used to make syrup, but I know of no one who has tried it.  An infusion or decoction of the bark was used as an agent to induce vomiting (emetic).  The wood was burned by Native Americans as incense and during ceremonies.  Charcoal of the wood was used to make ceremonial face paint.  The wood was also used to make prayer sticks and pipe stems.

Striped Maple was used by Native Americans as medicine for lung and kidney troubles; and as an emetic, laxative, and general tonic.  Mountain Maple was used for eye troubles, coughs and intestinal diseases.  The roots were used as poultices for wounds and boiled into decoction for hemorrhoids.

In addition to syrup, the maple provides food from its bark and seeds.  Native Americans would use the dried and powdered bark as a food by boiling into gruel, using as a thickener, or made into bread (with or without other flowers).  (The Native Americans used many tree barks as food.)  Maple seeds, which are found in the characteristic "helicopter" (samara), can also be made into flower.  The seeds can also be eaten raw, boiled, or roasted.

The wood of maple is also a valued hardwood for bowls, furniture, and the like.  Typically, Sugar Maple is called "Hard Maple" and Red Maple is called "Soft Maple".  As both are deciduous trees, they are both considered to be hardwood.  Since the Red Maple is softer it is called "Soft Maple" even though it is a "hardwood".  Anyway, just as in the instance that botanists don't agree about Black Maple, we once again see the shortcomings of human classification.

Far beyond any human ability to classify and far outside of any utilitarian function, the tree is one of the most glorious manifestations of nature.  There are some large maple trees around our area (often along tree lines where they were protected from logging and domestic animals) that are truly impressive beings to spend time with.  Trees are a symbol for endurance, patience, and acceptance.  In a large and ancient tree is the power of the gentle and the passive.  Large trees that are 150 years old or more are older than any human alive today.  They have stood the test of time without aggression or complaint, and express themselves in Divine perfection by merely enduring.  The tree is weak at its beginning, just a little sapling with no protection, but ever so slowly it makes itself known.

I believe that by honoring trees we are honoring the process of Nature, or Creation, or God.  The food is important.  The remedies for tired eyes and weak lungs are also important.  But what are these things without spirituality?  Everyone can benefit from the medicine provided by Maple, even if you can barely afford authentic maple syrup and are too unsure or uninterested to start eating bark and seeds from the tree, or to make herbal remedies from the roots, bark, leaves, and sap.  If you spend some time with an old Maple tree, let it instill some reverence in you.  That is good medicine.  And it is free!

Trees also symbolize health and harmony in the environment.  In order for a tree to live a long time, the ecosystem has to be relatively balanced.  Look around.  Trees are being destroyed and are not growing back.  What would this area be without maple syrup?  What if the owl had no place to perch during the day?  What if all the animals had no forest for food and habitat?

Daniel Moerman in Native American Medicinal Plants (from Hamel & Chiltoskey, Witthoft, Herrick, Smith, & Sturtevant) reports that Red Maple was used by the Cherokee for cramps, diarrhea, hives, menstrual troubles, and measles.  "Inner bark boiled and used with water as a wash for sore eyes."  "Decoction of inner bark boiled into a syrup and used as a wash for sore eyes."  Iroquois used as a blood cleanser, "Infusion of bark used as drops for sore eyes and cataracts."  Ojibwa used also for eyes. "Decoction of bark used as a wash for sore eyes."  And Potawatomi.  "Decoction of inner bark used as an eyewash."

​Seminole used for athletes and for hemorrhoids.  

Red Maple has a wonderful signature in the form of red buds.  (One thing that helps to differentiate Red Maple from Sugar Maple - the two dominant species in our area - is the red buds compared to brown.)  Its affinity to the eyes also plays out in a springtime association.  This is a source of Maple syrup.  Further, a distinct sign of spring is the swelling of the red buds which tints the previously gray-brown hillsides with red.  Spring is associated with the wood element in Chinese medicine, as are the eyes.  The primary organ association is the liver.  So, we have a "liver remedy".  

An additional use by the Iroquois is trapping medicine.

Red Maple is sweet and nourishing.  It has a particular affinity with water.  Sometimes Red Maple is known as Swamp Maple because of its preference for wet soil.  Sugar Maple prefers higher, drier soil.  Ash-Leaf Maple also likes water, but in our area is primarily along rivers while Red Maple will be in swampy or otherwise moist soil.  Perhaps this indicates more of a yin quality than Sugar Maple.  Though Sugar Maple is also used for the eyes; for blindness and sore eyes,  Silver Maple is also used for sore eyes.

Generally, red and sore eyes are related to liver heat.  Liver heat generally is due to inflammation and/or deficient liver yin. The liver channel (meridian) enters the body from the surface in the region of the liver and continues from the liver upward to the eyes.  It is said: "The liver opens to the eyes."

Red Maple is also called Soft Maple because the wood is softer than Hard Maple, or Sugar Maple.  

Red Maple is host to many mushrooms, including Violet Tooth Polypores, Autumn Oysters, Luminescent Panellus, Oysters, and at my place where they grown near Oak the Honey Mushrooms take quite well to them.  

Even in the autumn the bark gives a nice sweet taste (reminiscent of the syrup, of course) when decocted.  It is more difficult to peel, as autumn is characterized by a contracting and drying energy, but can be gathered by collecting the twigs.  In the spring, when sap is flowing and the tree begins growing, the bark is easily removed from the wood.