Evergreen Conifers—Winter Resilience
Evergreen trees play a central role in many winter holiday traditions. Their fragrant ever-green leaves remind us that we too can survive this cold dark season. During the COVID pandemic we are especially grateful to Northwest Evergreen trees for their teachings around resilience. From the generosity of cedar, to the strength of spruce, to the adaptability of Douglas fir—trees demonstrate how to endure hardship and build strong community. The gifts of trees are many including food, medicine, tools, shelter, beauty, and a place of refuge. This winter, connect with local trees through making a respiratory steam, preparing tea, and blending bath salts. Sometimes getting outside and connecting with local trees is the best medicine.
Exploring Evergreen Conifers
This winter our Tend, Gather and Grow curriculum development team will update the Tree Communities Module for at-home learning. Here are a few excerpts from the lessons on evergreen conifers. We will be releasing a new activity guide and tree videos this spring through a grant from ESD 113!
Evergreen conifer trees have been on our planet for 300 million years! They were the main source of food for plant-eating dinosaurs. It is a wonder that they have survived through so many drastic changes in our environment. Ice ages have come and gone, land has formed and receded, many species have developed and gone extinct, yet conifers have remained. They continue to thrive in some of the world’s harshest environments including the wind-beaten coast, the snow-laden mountains, burned areas and in the wake of glaciers. Evergreen trees have many qualities that make them resilient, here are a few examples:
- Structure: The shape of evergreen conifers helps them to survive in harsh weather. Most are pointed at the top in a triangular shape so they can shed heavy snow. Trees with small needle-like leaves like spruce, fir, and hemlock are more stable because the wind can blow through them, whereas trees with large leaves like maple are likely to fall over when they catch the force of wind or the weight of snow. Evergreen tree leaves have a waxy waterproof surface that conserves water.
- Making Medicine: Trees must be self-sufficient and produce their own food and medicine. When a tree is injured, it makes and releases pitch (also called resin) to cover its wound. Pitch is full of medicine that wards off diseases and repels species that might attack it. Over time, the tree usually heals.
- Building Community: Evergreen trees in a forest can communicate with each other by making scents that are carried through the air. These scents can warn neighboring trees of invading insects or diseases. They can even attract animals (predators) to eat the insects that are attacking them. Trees also connect through underground root networks and can share food and medicine with trees that need help. Working together makes the community of trees stronger and more resilient.
A Tree Essential Oil Apothecary
Evergreen conifers are often rich in volatile oils that act as antimicrobials. Take cedar for example: scratch the leaves or peel the bark and you will release essential oils. Cedar makes these oils to survive in cool wet forests where fungi and molds thrive. These oils are cedar’s medicine to repel insects, molds, fungi, bacteria and viruses. Our ancestors discovered this long ago and used tree medicine in and on their own bodies to ward off disease. People have used aromatic plants for medicine, incense, insecticide and perfume since ancient times. Tree needles are generally antimicrobial and immune stimulating. Many people find that the smell is uplifting and invigorating.
Essential oils are valuable remedies for helping us to stay healthy. They can improve circulation, combat infections, lighten fatigue and ease depression. People with coughs and colds may find essential oils helpful for stimulating lung tissue, thinning mucus, increasing expectoration, combating inflammation, opening respiratory passages, and easing headaches.
Essential oils are very potent and are always used in small amounts. Try using an essential oil vaporizer or diffuser in the room of someone who is sick. You can also put a couple drops of essential oil in the bath. If you are taking a shower, try putting a washcloth with 10 drops of essential oil in the bottom of the shower. As it heats up you will inhale the scent and create your own wet sauna. Some of our favorite wintertime essential oils include:
Cedarwood: The common cedar essential oil that you find is made from Cedrus atlantica, or Atlas cedar. It is native to Morocco and Algeria and has been used since biblical times. Cedar is used as a strengthening oil to counter fatigue and poor circulation. It is also decongesting, anti-microbial and immune stimulating. It can be useful for acne, dandruff and skin infections.
Douglas Fir: This oil has a lemony, uplifting fragrance that combines well with other oils. It opens respiratory passages, stimulates immunity and promotes circulation. It is useful for colds, coughs, muscle aches, and stress.
Pine: Several types of pine essential oil are available. Scotch pine, or Pinus sylvestris, is one of the most common. It can be useful to relieve congestion and open respiratory passages. Like other conifers, it is used in massage oils to ease sore muscles and stimulate circulation. Pine is said to be uplifting, strengthening and refreshing.
Spruce: Like other evergreen needle oils, spruce is uplifting and invigorating. The molecules in black spruce are similar to adrenal hormones in humans so it is useful for combating exhaustion. Many people with long-term stress or menopause have found that spruce helps to lift their energy and improve their spirits. 1-2 drops can be applied over the adrenals in the morning.
Evergreen Tree Facial Steam
You can use dried herbs or essential oil and will need a medium sized bowl and a towel. Place one handful of chopped leaves in the bowl. Cedar is a good medicine for coughs and colds because it helps to fight infection, increases circulation in the lungs and stimulates your immune system. Add 1-2 drops of essential oil if desired. Pour boiled water over the leaves until the bowl is about half full. Put your face over the steaming leaves at a comfortable distance and cover your head with a towel. Breath deep! Try to steam for at least five minutes. Pour more hot water in if necessary. For severe coughs or sinus congestion, do several steams a day.
Forest Bathing Salts
Dry the evergreen tree leaves at least a week in advance, as they are waxy, thick and slow to dehydrate. Gather fallen branches or prune branches from trees of your choice. Cedar, Douglas fir, true fir, hemlock and spruce are favorites. Spruce is a little tricky for children to work with because the needles are sharp. Dry branches in baskets or paper bags. You can speed the process by using a food dehydrator. Once dry, the leaves will come off more easily. Salts can be purchased in bulk at the grocery store. Pacific sea salt and New Zealand salt are commonly available. Some salts like Dead Sea salts and Hawaiian salts can be very expensive and are usually used for food or fancy body care products. Epsom salts are especially helpful for sore muscles and are available at most pharmacies. Essential oils are available at many health food stores, herb stores and online. Make sure to purchase pure essential oils, not synthetic fragrance oils.
+ 1 part dried leaves or needles from evergreen conifers
+ 1 part sea salts or Epsom salts
+ Baking soda (1 T. per cup combined leaves and salts)
+ Pure essential oils (about 10 drops total per cup of mixed leaves and salts)
Mix all ingredients in a bowl. Place about ½ to ⅔ cup in a muslin or organza bag. 4” by 6” bags are a good size for bath teas. Place your filled cloth bag in a plastic bag to preserve the fragrance. Place the entire bag in the bath and squeeze to dissolve salts. You can use the bag as a scrub or loofah on your skin.
Cedar Oat Bath
This simple recipe is especially soothing for irritated skin. Oats soothe itchy, dry skin while cedar stimulates immunity and fights infection.
+ 1 part dried cedar leaf
+ 1 part oat flour or powdered rolled oats
+ Essential oil of cedar, spruce, pine or fir (10- 15 drops per cup mixed cedar oat blend)
Cut or crumble dried cedar leaves so that it is in pieces that are ½ inch or smaller. In a bowl, mix half dried cedar and half oat flour. Add 10-15 drops of essential oil per cup of mix and stir well. Place ½ cup of mix into a muslin bag and tie. Place in a glass jar or plastic bag to retain scent. Place the whole bag in the bath and squeeze the bag to release the oat flour. The bath water will become “milky” and the cedar will infuse into the hot water. You can rub the bag on your skin like a loofah.