We know about the edibility of nut and fruit trees. Most of us are familiar with plucking the ripe fruit from the branch or harvesting the nuts fallen from the tree, but what if we could eat the tree?
Yes, I do mean (literally) the tree bark, branch and other aerial parts that are usually overlooked when considering the tree for food.
“The name “Adirondacks” is an Anglicized version of the Mohawk ratirontaks, meaning “they eat trees”, a derogatory name which the Mohawk historically applied to neighboring Algonquian-speaking tribes; when food was scarce, the Algonquians would eat the buds and bark of trees.” Wikipedia, [Donaldson, Alfred, L., History of the Adirondacks].
The Algonquin recognized the value of tree bark during hard times; stripping, drying and preparing different species of tree for the winter months. According to the literature, balsam fir was used and pounded into flour to make bread and the White Pine was used in dried sheets that would be stored for winter months as a famine food. If not needed, the dried sheets would be given to the dogs for chewing.
Euell Gibbons wrote about his experience with the Eastern White Pine (P. strobus), and though he didn’t find that species palatable, he noted the tree had nutritional value. He dried, boiled, roasted and baked the pine bark (after grinding) into bread and still found the taste unpleasant. There are some things that may be edible, but better left uneaten.
It turns out there are other trees that can be eaten and are a bit more savory than pine. The new shoots, inner bark, leaves and buds are edible in several trees, but the American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) is not one of them. I assumed that because it is closely related to the Maple (Acer) it would taste similar.
The inner bark of the sycamore is stringy, tough and bland. I also tasted the buds from one of the twigs and at first there is a hint of spice, similar to pepper, but it soon left an aftertaste in my mouth that was difficult to get rid of. The burning sensation on my lips and tongue lingered for approximately twenty minutes and I did have a bit of fear that this could lead to more dire consequences, but alas, I am here and no worse for the wear.
Like Pinus, there are many trees that have edible inner bark, but few palatable enough that you would want to cut a piece off and munch on.
With the exception of Cherry Birch, Birch (Betula) twigs can be chewed for a taste of wintergreen. The twigs and leaves of yellow birch are preferred for a sweet minty tea and the inner bark of the Sugar Maple can be dried and mixed with flour for bread or used in soups as a thickening agent. Because of the high sugar content of the Maple, more likely than not, chewing the inner bark would be more preferable than to that of the sycamore or pine.
The American Basswood can also be chewed on, though this is more often done not for taste, but for its medicinal properties. Tilia americana has been used for several different ailments, but the raw wood (inner bark) is consumed for liver and gallbladder ailments.
Sassafras (S. albidum) leaves, twigs, new shoots and buds can be chewed for the pleasant root-beer like taste. There have been some warnings about the use of safrole oil, but unless you’re allergic or consuming the root, the amount of oil contained in aerial parts is not of any real consequence.
The leaves and inner bark of the Slippery Elm can be eaten raw or cooked. The bark contains a high amount of water so twigs and bark can be chewed as a thirst quencher.
The Chinese Mahogany (Toona sinensis), is not native to the area. In China the young leaves and shoots of the tree are common as a vegetable and highly esteemed imparting the taste of onion. The Toona, used primarily as an ornamental in the states is not typically harvested for its edibility as a vegetable.
How do you skin a tree?
I’m not sure how others do it, but I broke off a small, lower (secondary) branch from the sycamore I wanted to try, then used a sharp knife and began peeling until I got to the cadmium (of which there was very little).
On larger branches, I’ve been told that you must use a larger knife and try to peel in long, strokes rather than scraping small pieces at a time.
For other uses of tree bark, you may want to also check these articles:
The African chewing stick (for dental purposes)
The Khat (Qat) tree (as stimulant)
For more information about the edibility rating of trees and inner bark, the Plants For A Future database has a great reference area.