I spent two afternoons this week at a great park here in Shreveport, Louisiana, called C. Bickham-Dickson park. What I love about this park, even though it's a city park, is that there’s an entire section in the rear of the park used for scientific research by Louisiana State University Shreveport (LSUS.) The front half of the park is where most people walk and picnic. It is manicured complete with picnic tables and sidewalks. The entire rear half of the park – or as I like to call it “my hood” - is in the alluvial plain of the Red River. (Most people don’t even know you can get to the river through this park, but of course I stumbled around once when I first moved here and made this nice little discovery.) This section of the park is densely forested and includes numerous bodies of water adjacent to the river.
This is also where the Matthew Campbell Memorial Birdwalk is located. The entire trail has signs describing the various birds you might see in this part of the park. (I don’t know a lot about Matthew Campbell except that he died very young. If you have any information about him please feel free to leave a comment!) It’s a rugged area so sometimes the signs are hard to find.
The first day at the park this week was motivated by medicinal reasons. Donna (my amazing girlfriend) had done some yard work and ended up with some poison ivy rashes on her arms. My goal was to research this a little and see if I couldn’t find a natural cure. Since I was a child, I have always been fascinated with Native American remedies. Modern society sometimes scoffs at such “crude” remedies, but they don’t come without validity. Native Americans did not write their history, science, or medicine. They shared the knowledge orally, through generations. Now imagine that you discovered a root or leaf that when boiled solved something as inherently bothersome as poison ivy. Wouldn’t you tell everyone you knew?
That’s exactly what Native Americans did. And the result was thousands of years of knowledge honed and refined with each generation. Almost every moderate problem could be treated with a plant. The loss of this knowledge in the eventual eradication of the native culture in North America is what I believe to be one of the greatest, epic, most tragic losses of knowledge in the history of humanity.
Luckily for us, some of the knowledge survived. And this was the discovery I made. I found more than one reference to boiled sycamore leaves and bark as a remedy for poison ivy itch.
Now I had a mission! First, I had to identify the American sycamore, otherwise known to the scientific community as platanus occidentalis. This isn’t really as hard as it sounds. As ironic as this is, the Internet is a great way to get back to nature. You can sift through various images on the web and pretty quickly get an idea of what you’re looking for.
I remember as a kid I would have had to travel twenty miles to town and spend an afternoon in the library photocopying pages from a science textbook to accomplish what takes five minutes on the Internet. I will be the first to admit that when moderated properly, technology is a good, good thing.
Many of the old timers where I grew up misidentified the American sycamore as some sort of cottonwood tree. Understandably, with no access to reference materials, this misinformation got passed around. But as you can clearly see from these pictures, the cottonwood and sycamore are nothing alike.
Sycamore on the left, cottonwood on the right
The cottonwood has large grooved bark and its leaves have a shimmering effect when blown by the wind. The sycamore has smaller bark at the base and high up in the tree the bark turns flaky, almost paper like, and often falls off exposing an almost white surface underneath. Like this:
The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin offers this somewhat more scientific description:
The American sycamore is a wide-canopied, deciduous tree, 75-100 ft. tall, with a massive trunk and open crown of huge, crooked branches. The bark of large, old trunks sloughs off in scales or plates leaving a smooth, whitish inner bark. Leaves broadly ovate or broader, blade often wider than long, long pointed. Globular fruits often persist through December. Large, medium- to dark-green, maple-shaped leaves turn brown in fall.
More sycamore bark, from a branch that fell from higher up in the tree
It took all of about two minutes to find a nice sycamore tree at the park. (There was one in the parking lot.) But that seemed a little too boring to me so I went trekking off into the forest to find one. Of course they were everywhere so I took some bark and leaves and headed home with my catch.
That evening, with no recipe whatsoever, I cooked a brew of boiled leaves and bark. Donna agreed to be my guinea pig. It was a very simple concept. After bringing the whole mess to a boil, I dropped in some rags. As soon as it was cool enough to apply, I had Donna press the rag onto her arm until it cooled. We repeated this three or four times.
The heat has a two-fold effect. The first is that somehow – and I have no idea why - the heat brings the healing agents out of the leaves. And secondly, heat naturally releases histamines, which in and of itself offers itching relief. (Once when I was covered from head to toe with poison ivy, a scalding hot bath would offer about four hours absolute itch relief. As it turns out, this was also an old, country remedy. )
Color difference between boiled and unboiled leaves
And this is what boiled sycamore juice looks like! Now it's time to rub it on your body!
My hope was to combine the heat remedy with the natural healing powers of the sycamore treatment and see if the sycamore made the rash disappear faster. According to Donna, the sycamore concoction did in fact provide itch relief for the entire day, two days in a row. This is significant because these are some of the same amounts of relief guaranteed by over-the-counter remedies which cost anywhere from $10 to $40 and leave you stinking or trying to sleep covered with lotion - or both!
Unfortunately, Donna had to leave town so I didn’t get to study the long-term effects of the treatment. Poison ivy is tricky because the rash is caused by an oil called urushiol that your body is reacting to. There’s no way to prevent the reaction unless you own a time machine. Rather, the theory is you find the best treatment available to mitigate your body’s reaction to the oil.
I’m no scientist, but it appears that the sycamore treatment does provide some relief. I would need to do some more thorough testing on some more serious rashes though to get a better idea of how well it works. (Donna did not volunteer for that!)
If it provides any relief it all you can see why Native Americans would have utilized it. After all, they did not have a medicine aisle at Walgreen’s to visit!
All in all, it was an interesting experiment. If I am unlucky enough to come in contact with some poison ivy during one of my many adventures the boiled sycamore treatment will definitely be the first remedy I try!
Stay tuned for the next blog about my second afternoon at C. Bickham-Dickson Park and the armadillo family I encountered!