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Useful Bark: It’s Better Than a Bite!

The bark of woody plants is strange, versatile, and well worth harvesting for food, medicine, industry, and more.

| May/June 2019

Cork is the thick outer bark of a number of oak species. Photo by Getty Images/johncopland.

For most of human history, bark has been a hot commodity. The pursuit of various barks generated astonishing wealth, sent countries to war, and pushed explorers into unknown parts. Bark’s unique chemical and physical properties, adapted over hundreds of millions of years to protect plants from threats, are the result of whatever challenges the local environment offered — fire, frost, desiccation, disease, insects, and herbivores, to name a few.

Some barks exude heavy metals, contain lethal toxins, or produce an outer layer so hard that machetes will bounce off of it. Others can cure malaria, flavor food, or float. Bark eludes artificial synthesis, despite huge possible financial rewards and almost 200 years of efforts that have resulted in seven Nobel Prizes in chemistry. Most commercial tires still require up to 40 percent natural rubber; and bark-derived aromatics, such as cinnamon and frankincense, cannot be imitated well by synthetics.

Today, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration lists more than 100 approved bark products for use in cosmetics, drugs, food, and drinks — a fraction of those used in the past. Early historical records indicate that the bark of virtually every species of woody plant was once harvested.

Despite our long-standing reliance on bark, it’s lost our interest. Only a handful of books are devoted to bark — which can be harvested from more than 60,000 species of woody plants — while you could fill a library with the books written about roses alone. Still, researchers are investigating unique bark compounds in search of everything from cures for diseases to eco-friendly building materials and clothing fibers.

I’ve focused on species with broad value and existing commercial demand. With the exception of the Amur cork, which has been banned in some states as an invasive, I recommend cultivating the following plants rather than foraging them.

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