written by Elise Krohn, Traditional Plants Program Director
In wintertime, my vision naturally moves skyward as many trees lose their leaves. I notice and appreciate the shapes of evergreen conifers— the upward-reaching branches of cedar and the drooping tops of hemlock. In the Tend, Gather and Grow Curriculum, students explore evergreen trees as models of resilience. Firs, hemlocks, pines, and cedars have been here for millions of years— surviving through changes in climate, habitat, and the species that live around them. They can thrive in extreme conditions including the sub-zero temperatures of the mountains and far-north boreal, wet coastal rainforests,and the dry, rocky soil of mountains and high desserts. Evergreen conifers have a triangular shape that sheds snow and endures high winds. They also make their own medicine in the form of fragrant pitch. And they work together in communities to share resources and protect each other.
Perhaps one of the reasons people around the world have brought evergreen trees into their homes during winter is because they help us to be resilient. The provide fragrance and beauty and remind us that we too can survive the harshness of winter and stand strong through the seasons of life.
Douglas fir is the most common tree in the Pacific Northwest. It can take the form of a short scraggly bonsai tree shaped by harsh weather, or it can grow into a 1,000-year-old giant with a 15-foot thick trunk and a tall crown that surpasses 300 feet. 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 like spruce), 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 3-pronged bracts that resemble the tail and rear feet of a mouse. In a common Salish story, a long time ago mice were running from a fire and dove into Douglas fir cones to find refuge, where they have become eternally stuck. Mice, birds, and other small creatures eat the seeds, which are hidden between the scales.
Douglas fir wood boasts one of the highest strength to weight ratios of any tree in western North America. Timber companies often plant it because it is adaptable in many environmental conditions and 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.
Food: Douglas fir spring tips are edible and are high in Vitamin C and electrolytes. Coast Salish Peoples have used them as a snack or a tea to ward off hunger and thirst and to improve immunity. You can eat them fresh, freeze them, or dry them. Both hot tea and sun tea are tasty. Needles can be infused in honey or vinegar. They are used as a flavoring for liquors, syrups, and even ice cream. Try finely chopping them and adding them to shortbread cookies and other desserts.
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 a body oil, lotion, or salve.Soft pitch is used directly on wounds or can be added to salve.
Douglas Fir Infused Oil
This oil smells like the forest with a refreshing citrus twist. I often choose olive and jojoba oils as a base because they have the longest shelf life, but if you are turning your oil into a lip balm or salve, you can also use grape seed, almond, hazelnut,sunflower, or sesame oil. Coconut oil will also work if you heat it first so it is liquid.
· Gather Douglas fir branches, and pull the fresh needles off the stems. You can often find fallen branches after a windstorm.
· Place the needles in the blender, and cover them with oil so the oil is about a quarter to half an inch above the needles.
· Blend until the tips are finely chopped.
· Pour into a double boiler, and gently heat on a low temperature for several hours to several days until the oil smells strong. You can turn the double boiler on and off, placing a lid on the pot when you are not heating it. Another option is to place the oil in a bowl in a food dehydrator so it heats gently for a day or two. Stir several times a day.
· Strain the oil with a muslin cloth. Compost the pressed plant material.
· Pour strained oil in a glass jar, label, and store in a cool, dark place for up to ayear.
Douglas Fir Lip Balm
Douglas fir is hands-down my favorite lip balm, especially in winter when I need a little lift on cold, dark days. Lip balms make a great holiday gift, and there are many options for containers including tins, glass jars, and roll-up tubes. This recipe fills about 25 .15-ounce roll-up tubes.
· ½ cup of Douglas fir infused oil
· 1 ounce of beeswax (grated or in prills)
· 10 drops essential oil Douglas fir or another true fir
Gently heat oil and beeswax until the beeswax is completely melted. Remove from heat, and place in a glass pouring container like a Pyrex jar. Add essential oil, stir, and pour into lip balm tubes.
Optional Ingredients: 1 teaspoon rosehip seed oil or Vitamin E oil. You can also add a little bit of cocoa or shea butter for healing dry,cracked skin. Grapefruit essential oil combines well with Douglas fir.
Arno, S. and Hammerly, R. Northwest Trees. 2007. The Mountaineers Books.
Krohn, Elise. Wild Foods and Medicines blog post: http://wildfoodsandmedicines.com/douglas-fir/
Pielou, E.C. The World of Northern Evergreens. 1988.Cornell University Press.
Suzuki, D. and Grady. W. Tree:A Life Story. 2004. Greystone Books Ltd.
Wohlleben, P. The Hidden Life of Trees. 2015. Greystone Books Ltd.