Medicinal Value Of Ozark Chinquapin
by A.J. Hendershott
There is more to a tree than its beauty. For any tree really but especially so for the Ozark chinquapin. Scrape down a fraction of an inch under the chinquapin’s bark and there are chemicals in the inner bark that treat stomach ailments and fight the symptoms of malaria. Inside the leaves are compounds that help cure whooping cough and ease headaches. Even the tasty nut has complex molecules that were useful in addressing diarrhea.
Modern science is blowing the dust off old remedies that would once been relegated as folk medicine. Over the past few decades medical researchers have begun to pay attention and examine what active chemicals in plants may help direct us to new or better cures for our ailments.
Pioneers of the Appalachians, and Ozarks, as well as the Native Americans had uses for a wide variety of plants. There was some interchange between the Europeans and the first peoples of North America. So, settler and natives influenced each other’s medicinal practices and knowledge.
What is unfortunate is a lot of the knowledge for native plant medicinal value has been lost over the decades. For the Ozark chinquapin, it has much to do with the decline of the species. Most people don’t know the species even exists, much less what it can be used for. The decline started in 1904 in the Bronx Zoo in New york. Their chestnut trees began to die from the Chinese chestnut blight (Cryphonectria parasitica). Over the decades since, vast numbers of American chestnuts, Allegheny chinkapin and Ozark chinquapins have succumbed to the ravages of this fungal infection. By the 1950s every native population of chestnut and chinquapin in North America were infected and showing signs of decline. Fortunately, not all of the Allegheny (Castanea pumila) or Ozark chinquapins (Castanea ozarkensis) are gone and neither are the chinquapin’s medicinal value.
The Ozark chinquapin and Allegheny chinkapin were two valuable plants that would be indexed in the minds of Appalachian and Ozarks dwellers. As we look at the history of medicinal use of these two nut bearing plants, it is necessary to note that they were not well distinguished as being two separate species until the mid to late 20th century. The Ozark chinquapin (Castanea ozarkensis) was historically considered a sub species of the Allegheny chinkapin (Castanea pumila). While the plants are now considered different species they once were all treated as one.
Ozark chinquapin trees did occur in seven states east of the Mississippi River. They were most common in Mississippi and Alabama but did occur elsewhere in the Appalachians and associated foothills. Thus, it is possible people used both species in the same exact ways, and likely used one or the other without knowing which one they were using. Or if they did know they made no mention of it.
See these articles for more information on the range of the Ozark chinquapin. This article shows combined resources indicating the Ozark chinquapin has a larger range than previously thought. This next article builds on that knowledge and looks at very old instances of large chinquapins that are most likely C. ozarkensis. https://ozarkchinquapinmembership.org/size-matters/
As pioneers and forcibly displaced Native Americans moved west into the Ozarks they adapted their plant uses to what was available on the new landscape. If Allegheny chinkapins or American chestnuts were not available in a new area, but the Ozark chinquapins were, then people used the Ozark variety considering the differences in the plants trivial when it came to medicine.
Healers had intimate knowledge of the value of each plant around them, where to find it, how to harvest it, when to do so and how use it to best coax the beneficial substances from the plant. Sometimes knowing that a plant has a benefit is not enough. It’s important to know what part to use and what form the medicine needs to be in to reach the patient.
In what follows I will share documented medicinal uses for both the Ozark chinquapin and Allegheny chinkapin. Please keep in mind that many of the sources I am citing were not aware of the differences between an Allegheny chinquapin and an Ozark chinquapin. A chinquapin was a chinquapin to them.
Bark and Roots
Our medicine cabinets don’t seem to have a lot of bark in them but what most of us don’t realize is that aspirin was originally derived from the inner bark of willow trees. The value of bark isn’t found in that grey, dry sections of the tree or shrub, but the inner bark that often is pale tan, orange or brown. It is the layer just on top of the sapwood. This inner bark is where we find the medicinal value of many woody trees and shrubs over the centuries.
So, to learn more about bark as medicine let’s start with use of the bark and roots of chinquapins. In 1887, The Times-Picayune newspaper of New Orleans ran a story about substitutions for quinine. Malaria is a parasitic disease spread by mosquitos and was treated by quinine. Quinine was derived from the bark of a South American member of the bedstraw family, called cinchona (Chinchona succiruba). When shortages developed substitutes were in demand.
The Times-Picayune writes, “Dr. Nelson Bergrass of South Carolina has used a decoction of the root and bark of the chinquapin as a substitute for quinine in intermittent fever, with decidedly satisfactory results. Hot water is poured over the root and bark, and a large quantity taken during twenty-four hours previous to the expected chill.” September 12, 1887.
It is interesting in that 1887 report it mentions a “large quantity” of chinquapin root being used. Large quantities of quinine are not healthy to consume so a “large quantity” of chinquapin root may have been needed to get the appropriate dose.
According to Steve Brill in his book Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places, in a decoction, you simmer the herb over low heat in a covered, nonmetal pot, 15 to 20 minutes. This is good for tougher, thicker plant material like twigs, bark and roots.” So, it wasn’t a matter of just pouring the hot water over the roots, it had to steep for a short time in order for the active ingredients to make it into the water.
Malaria was an issue in the United States until the early 1930s when it was successfully vanquished from our borders. Before then, quinine or any malaria fighting tonic was needed. Not every location had quick and easy access to medicine as the following newspaper excerpt from the Montgomery Advisor tells us in its April 27, issue in 1914.
“Medicine was also hard to procure and therefore, simple herbs of the early medicine man was substituted. Quinine was manufactured from dogwood berries, cotton seed tea, chestnut and chinquapin roots, willow bark and poplar bark.”
This passage is not an ingredients list for one recipe, rather it was a list of all the items that have been successfully used to make quinine substitutes.
Malaria was a serious affliction and quinine treatments were essential for many. However, other ailments called for the use of chinquapin roots and bark.
“The fruit of the tree chinquapin (C. pumila) are well known. Eaten either raw or boiled. The roots contain an astringent principle; that of the boiled in milk is much used in the diarrhea of teething children. I would advise a tea made of this to be used extemporaneously in diarrhea by our soldiers in camp.” Wilmington Journal. Wilmington, North Carolina. May 7, 1863.
Steve Brill also explained what an astringent is, “Astringents make tissues contract. They’re good for diarrhea, and as a gargle for sore throat.” He also explains that applied to the skin, “they’re good for runny sores.” So, the astringent properties of chinquapins were valuable to fight inflammation by contracting tissue.
Brill’s description of astringents being used for diarrhea was outright recommended in Alabama’s Daily Selma Reporter where it recorded some further use of the chinquapin root on July 24, 1862. In the report they mention, “Blackberry Root (Rubus.) – Wherever they can be obtained, a decoction will check profuse diarrheas of any kind. – the root of the chinquapin (Castanea) is also astringent.”
Tannic acid is found in all parts of the chestnut and chinquapin species with exception of the nut which are sweet and bitterness free.
Huntsville, Arkansas’ newspaper the Madison County Record published an article on the Ozark chinquapin’s value. In that article they reported, “The Eastern Regional Research Laboratory in Philadelphia, Pa., has analyzed samples of Ozark chinquapin wood and bark and has found that as a source of tannin, a block of chinquapin is practically the equivalent of chestnut which at one time was the principal tannin source in the country.”. September 15, 1949.
This report verifies that the Ozark chinquapin wood and bark is a rich source of tannic acid. While the reason for this report had more to do with tanning animal hides into leather, it verifies the presence of tannic acid in the bark, and It’s the tannic acid that contributes to the astringent property of these trees.
One last medicinal use of the bark comes from the Coushatta (Koasati) tribe. According to Daniel Moerman in his book Native American Ethnobotany, the Coushatta tribe, originally from the Deep South portion of the United States; used chinquapin root decoction as a treatment for stomach ailments. No recipe for how this was done was provided.
Chinquapin leaves have medicinal value as well. Moerman’s writes again in his book Native American Ethnobotany, a number of uses for chinquapin leaves by the Cherokee. First, he notes the leaves were used as an analgesic.
Steve Brill explains in his book that this is another way of saying, “analgesics are substances in plants that reduce pain.”
Moerman had a short description of this process where, “brittle leaves heated and blown on patient for headaches.” It is unclear if it was contact with the skin or breathing the particles that imparted the easing of the headache. Some native medicinal practices involve a slow burn of plant material and the smoke from it is blown or wafted at the patient with feathers.
In Virgil J. Vogel’s book American Indian Medicine he mentions the same use and adds, “The brittle leaves were steeped warm and the patients blown with it.” This would indicate breathing the warm vapors from the stepped leaves is how a patient took in the medicine.
Moerman was able to discover the chinquapin leaves were used to treat fever blisters but didn’t have any discussion for how this was accomplished. Certainly, they were applied, was it a fresh crushed leaf, or was it an ointment made from the leaf?
More details were available to share how the Cherokee used the leaves to treat fevers. According to Moerman, “Infusion of dried leaves used as a wash for fevers, chills and cold sweats.”
Brill describes that an infusion involves, “. . . steeping the herb. Use this for relatively delicate herbs like leaves and flowers, especially if they contain volatile substances that would be driven away by boiling.” To achieve this Brill recommends, “Add from one teaspoon to a small hand full of fresh or dried herbs to one cup of water just off the boil. A glass or enameled container is better than a metal one, which could interact chemically with the herb. Cover the container and let the herb stand, away from the heat, 15-20 minutes. (some people let infusions stand for hours.) Strain out the herb and drink the infusion. You can store an infusion in the refrigerator for several days.”
Kenneth Ruark (Pronounced RU- ORK) of Washburn, Missouri gave a firsthand account of the medicinal use of chinquapin leaves. He describes his two children both had whooping cough, which was serious and potentially dangerous ailment back in the 1960s and 70s. The doctors were trying to treat the children but noting was working. Ruark’s father, who was of Cherokee descent, was aware of the tense situation instructed Kenneth to “Go get some chinquapin leaves to make a tea.” With instructions to add honey and give the children a spoonful of the tea every time they coughed.
Both children recovered fully and in Kenneth’s words, “that was our cough medicine from then on.”
Having spoken with the Mark Dunham of the Cherokee Nation, he informed me that after being forcibly removed to Oklahoma, the Cherokee would adapt their uses for plants. In particular what they did with the Allegheny chinquapin they also used the Ozark Chinquapin for.
With the Castanea’s struggles with the Chinese chestnut blight a lot of attention gets placed on genes that help with resistance to the fungus that is killing the plants. As we wrap up this review of the medicinal value of the plant, it is important to remember that the woody plants in the genus Castanea have 12 pairs of chromosomes with roughly 700-800 base pairs. Of all that genetic material, many genes work together to form molecules and chemicals substances that when taken by people can have a pharmacological effect.
This becomes important when it comes to saving as many of the trees within the species as we can. Even if that particular tree doesn’t have strong resistance to the Chinese chestnut blight. The dozen or so genes that are important for blight resistance may have nothing to do with the compounds that affect the leaves’ ability to fight a cough or the inner barks potency for treating intestinal distress. The genetic diversity may be vital for other aspects of the tree’s life or its medicinal value to people. Every chinquapin is important. Even if it is susceptible to the blight, it may have genes that make it important for anything from drought tolerance to pharmaceutical use.
Today, doing home remedies is something to practice cautiously and with the guidance of a physician. The point of this article is to preserve all that we know about this plant and its potential uses. So, use these references wisely and safely. How this plant would interact with other medications is unknown, so use a healthy dose of common sense before using any of the decoctions or infusions. A physician would be your best guide for if and how to use them.
It is important to realize the Ozark chinquapin is still a very rare plant that is struggling to reclaim its rightful place in our forests. Many individual plants are ravaged by the Chinese chestnut blight and really should not be harvested for their roots or bark. That would cripple or outright kill the tree.
The leaves are another matter. Removal of a few leaves is not nearly so damaging and collecting fallen leaves in autumn is completely benign. The Ozark Chinquapin Foundation is trying to restore blight resistant trees and those specific individual trees especially need to be treated well. So, until such a time that we have an abundance of blight resistant trees, harvesting roots and bark needs to be on the back burner.
With all of that in mind, this review of past medicinal uses shows us the Ozark chinquapin and Allegheny chinquapin had plenty of uses. Who knows what else might be hidden there in chinquapins that medical science would be excited to learn? Are there differences in the medicinal value of the two species? We will never know if we lose our chinquapins. So, it is vital that we keep up our efforts to identify living chinquapins, protect them; and make every effort to get seeds from them and plant them in good locations to preserve their genetics. Here is a link to a page that works through chinquapin identification and look alikes: https://ozarkchinquapinmembership.org/have-you-found-an-ozark-chinquapin/
Working together we will restore this amazing tree and all of its established and potential benefits to people.