Wilton Historical Society talk uncovers medicinal properties of trees

Some people use electric toothbrushes and some prefer to get their up-down-motion from a hand-held one. But it is possible to use a toothbrush made from birch twigs and get that minty fresh taste as well.

A crowd filled the chairs set up in the Wilton Historical Society’s Abbott Barn to hear master gardener Dana Weinberg discuss dental health and the many other ways tree products can be used for medicinal, culinary, cosmetic and other purposes.

She was assisted by fellow master gardener Linda Engel on Aug. 1 as they encouraged participants to “think beyond kitchen herbs” when considering of herbal products and their applications. Tree sap, bark, leaves and roots have a variety of medicinal properties, Weinberg said.

Among some commonly used herbs and spices that come from trees are allspice, bay leaves, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and star anise. Other trees with less well-known herbal uses include beech, dogwood, juniper, magnolia, maple, white pine, willow, and the afore-mentioned birch.

In addition to brushing teeth, birch leaves brewed into a tea have been used to treat gastrointestinal ailments and gout, Weinberg said, although she cautioned she was not dispensing any medical advice.

Birch bark and twigs contain salicylic acid, an ingredient in aspirin, and are also a source of wintergreen.

Allspice, the dried unripe fruit of the Pimenta dioica tree found in the Caribbean islands, southern Mexico and Central America, is a source of vitamins and minerals. The leaves of the tree have been used as a natural antiseptic and digestive aid.

Across the ocean, the leaves of the bay laurel tree, which is native to Mediterranean countries, have long been used in cooking. But when brewed as a tea they are said to be useful in treating congestion. Tea made from magnolia leaves is also said to be good for colds as well as rheumatism and gout. So, too is nutmeg, which also has anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties as well.

Cloves, native to New Guinea, appear to be extremely useful. The spice —the unopened flower bud of a tree that can grow to 65 feet tall — is familiar to cooks around the world but it is also said to be useful in treating a number of ailments from pain to gastrointestinal distress, chills, cold, rheumatism and internal parasites. While cloves can also be used to repel ants and as and air and breath freshener, most of the crop is used for tobacco in the manufacture of clove cigarettes, which are popular in Southeast Asia.

Following the talk, Weinberg and Engel joined visitors and historical society co-director Allison Sanders for refreshments in the society’s culinary herb garden.

Weinberg and Engle have each eceived their master gardener certification and both volunteer extensively at the Bartlett Arboretum in Stamford.