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November 9, 2023

Plant of the Month: Doug fir

Plant of the Month: Doug fir

Douglas Fir – Plant Teachings for Adapting to Challenging Times

During these uncertain times when the world seems so tumultuous and many of us are experiencing fear and anxiety, I find comfort and strength in the teachings of plants. From the humble dandelion growing through a crack in the sidewalk to the massive cedar tree—these teachings are all around us. For example, alder collaborates with soil bacteria to help enrich the land and build a healthy forest community.

What can we learn about working with those who are different from us? Can we honor those differences, and also find common ground? Yarrow reminds us of the importance of boundaries, while willow shows us how to be flexible, yet strong. These skills can be applied to our lives—helping us to build greater resilience and wellbeing.

This month, our Wild Foods and Medicines Program is launching a new educational toolkit called Plant Teachings for Growing Social-Emotional Skills, which includes a book and plant cards. The toolkit was developed through a partnership between GRuB, Northwest Indian Treatment Center, and Seattle Indian Health Board. It is especially for mental health workers, educators, and community members who are exploring behavioral health skills that are rooted in the land and Coast Salish culture. Plant knowledge, traditional stories, social/emotional skills, mindfulness activities and recipes on wild foods and herbal medicines are woven throughout the book.

The book and cards will be available through our fall fundraiser for $35 per set.

Enjoy a sneak preview and learn about Douglas fir, one of the many plants featured in the book.

Douglas Fir – Adapt

Douglas fir has been here for millions of years—adapting to extreme changes in the land, climate, and species living around it. It can take many growth forms, including a scraggly bonsai-looking tree shaped by harsh weather, and a 1,000-year-old giant with a 15–foot trunk and a tall crown surpassing 300 feet. Notice the thick bark, tough needles, and medicinal sap of Douglas fir? These qualities help it to adapt through extreme hardships like drought, fire, freezing, and bug infestations. How can we adapt during rapid social and environmental changes?

Identifying Douglas Fir: Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) is an evergreen conifer, meaning that it keeps its needles all year long and bears woody cones. It is the most common tree in the Pacific Northwest and is the third tallest tree in the world. Young bark is gray and smooth with resin blisters, but when it grows over a foot thick, it begins to turn corky, reddish-brown, and deeply furrowed, making it the “grooviest” tree in the forest. Needles are all the same length, are pointed at the tip (but are not sharp), and are spirally arranged around the branch like a bottlebrush. They smell like citrus and pine when crushed. Woody female cones hang down and have three-pronged bracts that resemble the tail and rear feet of a mouse.

Food: Douglas fir spring tips are edible and are high in Vitamin C and electrolytes. You can eat them fresh, freeze them, or dry them. Both hot tea and sun tea are tasty. Douglas fir tips are also a nice addition to foods like pesto, shortbread cookies, and sauces. The tips can be infused in honey or vinegar and used for flavoring syrups and desserts including ice cream. You can carefully dry them for later use or freeze them. As the needles get older they develop more tannins, become tough, and are less aromatic, but you can still use them for tea.

Medicine: Like other evergreen conifers, Douglas fir needles and pitch are high in aromatic resins that fight infection and stimulate immunity. Tea made from fresh young needles or dried older needles is useful for fighting colds and boosting energy. Douglas fir also supports skin health through inhibiting microbes, providing Vitamin C, and acting as a gentle astringent. The dried needles make a nice aromatic bath. Wilted and finely chopped needles are infused in oil to make body oil, lotion, or salve. Soft pitch is used directly on wounds or added to salves.

Traditional Technologies: Douglas fir resin is traditionally used for waterproofing canoes, tools, and implements. The bark and pieces of the rotten wood (punk) from stumps or fallen trees make excellent fire starters and fuel for cooking. It is a good wood for summertime because it burns hot and clean, yet does not spark. This reduces the chance of starting a damaging fire. Douglas fir bark or chunks of wood from a stump light quickly and burn for a long time. The wood is hard and resilient. Big posts and cross beams are made from fir.  Timber companies often plant it because it is adaptable and it yields the highest amount of timber of all trees in North America. It is used for lumber, plywood, pilings, marine structures, railroad ties, flooring, furniture, pulp, and many other things.

Learning from Douglas Fir – Adapt

Find a Douglas fir tree. Take a few minutes to relax and open your senses. Notice the thick, groovy bark of the tree, protecting it from fire and other damage. Look closely at its needles. Can you see a thick, waxy coating? This helps the needles to hold onto water when it is hot and to buffer extreme cold. Scratch the needles. What do you smell? Can you find pitch covering any injuries on the tree? Pitch is similar to a Band Aid® and triple-antibiotic in one–protecting the tree from harm. Look closely at the cones and see if you can find the three-pointed bracts sticking out of each scale that resembles the tail and hind feet of a mouse. In a Coast Salish story, it is said that a long time ago, mice were running from a fire and climbed into Douglas fir trees to find refuge. They hid in Douglas fir cones and are still stuck there today. What else do you notice about Douglas fir? Reflect on these questions:

• What helps me to adapt in challenging situations? (rest, good food, time with family or friends, cultural, and/or spiritual activities)
• How do I know I am in a harmful situation? How can I protect myself?
• What can plants teach me about being resilient in times of change?

Make Douglas Fir Oil and Lip Balm
You will need: fresh Douglas fir needles, extra virgin olive oil, scissors, a blender or food processor, a double boiler and burner, muslin cloth. For lip balm you will need a Pyrex measuring cup (8 or 16 oz.), a 1-pound scale that measures ounces, beeswax, essential oil, lip balm or salve tins, and labels.
To make the oil: Evergreen tree leaves are rich in aromatic oils and nutrients that support skin health. You can infuse many tree leaves including Douglas fir, true fir,  cedar, and spruce into oil. Extra virgin olive oil is inexpensive, great for skin health and high in Vitamin E, which acts as a healing agent and a natural preservative. Other oils including grapeseed oil, apricot kernel oil, sunflower oil, and coconut oil can also be used.

1. Harvest healthy looking branches from trees.
2. Pull apart leaves or pull needles off branches. Either finely cut the needles, or place them in a food processor or blender and finely chop. This will help open cell walls in the plant and extract the scent and medicine more readily.
3. Place the needles in a double boiler. Cover with oil so the oil is about ¼ to ½ inch over the plant material. Heat very gently to hasten extraction and help remove water from the plant material. Keep the temperature low so it does not boil. You can turn the double boiler on and off as needed. The oil should take on a green color and strong smell. Allow the oil to infuse for several hours. You can leave it for several days, occasionally bringing the oil to a warm temperature and stirring it.
4. Strain the oil with muslin cloth and allow it to sit for an hour or more. If there is sediment or water remaining in the oil, it will fall to the bottom.
5. Pour the oil into a glass storage container, leaving water and sediment behind. Label and store in a cool dark place for up to a year.

To make lip balm: Use one part beeswax by weight to 4 parts of infused tree oil by volume. One half cup of oil and one ounce of beeswax will make about 25, 1/16 ounce roll up tubes. Gently heat the oil and beeswax in a double boiler until the beeswax is just melted. Turn off heat, add 10-15 drops of pure essential oil (nice options include Douglas fir, fir needle, grapefruit, sweet orange, and lavender). Pour the lip balm into the tubes and allow it to cool before placing the caps on. Address labels work well for lip balm tubes if you cut off about 25% of the length of the label.

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