My Herbs Blog
As a homeschool mom, I find every opportunity to teach my children how to incorporate nature into their lives. It is not so much about incorporating, actually, but integrating. We see nature as life and life as nature. It is not uncommon for us to spend a few hours outside a day, even in the winter time. Spring and summer is my favorite time as an herbalist, because that is when the landscape is in bloom, plants are thriving, and botanicals can be identified.
A great activity to do with your children during the warmer months of the year, is to identify plants, draw them, and look up their uses. Trees are especially enjoyable, because the bark can be used to make a rubbing in an art journal, and I have found that children adore this activity. The tools you will need to perform this exercise, are as follows: an art journal with blank pages, a pack of tracing paper, masking tape, scissors, a piece of charcoal, pens and pencils, colored pencils and a thorough nature identification book.
I suggest that before you begin you make a plan for the area in which this lesson will take place. You may have the perfect yard with a variety of trees, or you may need to consider going to a friend’s house, a relative’s, or a park. This activity is easier, if as the adult, you already know some of the tree species. If not, you can enjoy this activity more fully with the children, or enlist the help of someone who has lived in your locality for a long time. I have found that the older generation has extensive knowledge, when it comes to identifying plant species.
If you have a willow tree that can be identified, I advise you start there. This tree is easy to identify correctly, and you can even read the story The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein, with your children before beginning. The White Willow tree is a short, sturdy tree that grows 30-60 feet. Willows have leaves 3-6 inches long, resembling green fingers. The willow bark is smooth and red-brown to green-brown in color. 1 When you approach a tree, ask your children if they know what the tree is before commencing. You may be surprised what your children already know. After pinpointing your tree, have your child open a page in their art journal. Write the name of the tree, with the scientific name; White Willow is Salix alba. Then have the children draw a little sketch of the tree. Encourage them to do their very best, and not to worry about being perfect. It is important that they try this activity.
After a 15 minute drawing break, help each student hold a piece of the tracing paper up to the tree bark. If you hold the paper for them, they can use their hands to grapple with the charcoal. The charcoal needs to be held horizontally with the flat edge and gently rubbed over the paper to form the impression of the bark. You may need a few attempts to get a good rubbing. Then cut out the best rubbing and tape the piece of paper to a clean page in your child’s art journal. Again label the page with the name Willow a.k.a. Salix alba.
The last part of this lesson is to talk about the medicinal benefits about the tree, parts used, and history of its usages. Some of this information should be written on a fresh page, right after the artwork of each tree. Leave a blank page in the journal to divide the space between identified species. Willow bark has been used for over a thousand years to relieve pain. Salicin is an active component in White Willow bark, and is the forerunner for the drug aspirin. Apart from the constituents in salicin working to relieve pain, it also reduces inflammation. 2 The Cherokee, Blackfoot, Iroquois and other Native American tribes used closely related species for headache relief, fever and chills, and for muscle and joint pains.3
Researching the historical compilations of each tree identified, will result in some interesting folklore, that your children are bound to remember. The “weeping” willow as it is commonly named, may partially have received that nickname from the branches that arch over, bending to the ground. In traditional folklore, the willow is associated with death, heartbreak, sorrow, and lost love. In the Bible, it is said that the children of Israel, when taken into captivity by Babylon, mourned under the willow tree. In medieval times, sprigs of willow were worn as signs of grief and mourning. 3
I hope that through this article I was able to give the reader an outline of an activity that can be repeated numerous times with many plants, trees and herbs. I also encourage you to add your own twists and spins to my very basic lesson. Any children participating in this activity may also have creative ideas to add this study. You could even go so far as to acquire the dried bark, or herb and have your pupils smell, or taste the said plant, when applicable. In my own herbal apothecary I keep dried willow bark powder, and have used it for fevers and to relieve pain from childbirth. Try to demonstrate as many connections from the earth to the home and uses in life that will bridge the nature gap, that you as an adult may understand more clearly. Have fun!
1 Fun with Nature, Burns, 1999, p.243
2 The Herbal Drugstore, White & Foster 2000, p.243
3 Desk Reference to Nature’s Medicine, Foster & Johnson p.366-367
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