“Trees were our first teachers,” Bruce Miller used to say. Bruce (Subiyay) was a Skokomish elder, teacher & leader who was a driving force behind the Salish cultural renaissance of the last few decades. I learned about him just a few months after my arrival at the Evergreen State College. Though he had already passed, Bruce continues to be a powerful inspiration. Many have since continued his work of revitalizing Salish culture and rekindling the connection between plants and people. (For more information, see links at the bottom of this post.)
One aspect of his work that always resonated is the consideration of tree as teacher. There’s something about trees that stirs something inside us. Humans have long felt a unique kinship with the trees. And their medicinal qualities haven’t been fully explored yet.
Douglas Fir is a truly seminal tree on the Northwest coast, being biquitous & easily to indentify. This beloved member of the Pine family (Pinacea) is Oregon’s state tree; its silhouette is the centerpiece of the Cascadian bioregional flag. And perhaps unsurprisingly, it gets its common name from a someone named Douglas. David Douglas was a Scottish botanist who laid name claim onto this tree because he introduced it to the Scone Palace in Scotland in 1827.
One of our contintent’s tallest trees (with old growth trees easily over 300’ in height), Pseudotsuga menziesii stretches from present day British Columbia to Northern California, from the coast to the west slopes of the Cascades. (A related species, P. menziesii var. glauca aka Rocky Mountain Douglas Fir extends to Colorado). It likes well-drained and rocky soils, and can thrive in full sun or shade. It extends from sea level up to 5000 feet. It grows fairly quickly, 13-24” annually. Our largest trees reside in the Quinault Rain Forest on the peninsula, though some of the leviathans on the Western slopes of the Cascades around Mt. Rainier are certainly contenders. Its leaves are flat, short (2-4 cm), somewhat soft and spiral around the branch. However, this isn’t the best way to identify this tree, as some of the spray may be flat on lower branches. (This is an adaptation to shade.)
A better way to identify Douglas Fir is to check out the cone. The cone has 3 bracts (see photo above) in between each scale. An old Californian story says the cone came to look this way when a mouse took shelter in it. As a terrible fire was sweeping through the forest, the tree cone offered shelter to the grateful creature. And to this day, you can still see its hind legs & tail poking out through the scales. (For this reason, I like the name “mousecone.” It has a certain…punch to it.)
It’s played taxonomic musical chairs over the last few decades. It likes to elude categorization. It’s neither considered a true fir or hemlock. As a result, the genus Pseudotsuga was designated for this hybrid group, meaning “false hemlock.” Past common names include Yellow Spruce, Red Spruce, Red Fir, Oregon Pine, Douglas Spruce. Good grief! Just think of it as the conifer found everywhere with the cone that has the mousetail on it, and you’re all set.
I use Douglas Fir and find it to be a gentle anti-inflammatory, and helpful for chronic, low-grade coughs. I particularly like it for neck/spinal cord muscle inflammation. I haven’t used it or received any feedback on its use for kidney uses or bladder ailments. For these purposes, I use it in teas, infused vinegars, oils, and elixirs. Its volatile oils make infusions especially delicious. Due to its aromatic qualities, it’s helpful in colds, coughs, and some types of headaches. The decoction makes a nice bath & facial steam–clarifying, grounding, purifying. For me, this tree has a strong relationship with the Water element, and with penetrating deep, dark places of the soul that are in need of healing.
I haven’t tinctured Douglas Fir needles, but would love to hear from someone who has. The more I work with it, it seems like it may have a beneficial effect in stagnant liver conditions. But this remains to be elucidated. The Wood Element in Five Element Medicine is associated with Spring, the time of rapid growth and vertical movement. The officials associated with that season are the liver and gallbladder. These are things to ponder & observe.
This tree is plentiful, and it’s very easy to gather boughs blown down after a storm. You can gather it at any time of the year. The taste does change throughout the seasons, with the Spring tips being more tart, and Winter’s needles being more aromatic, sometimes borderlining on the bitter. So nibble some before you use it, and adjust accordingly.
In terms of preparing it, you can use your imagination. (Also, I highly recommend checking out Ananda’s post on the subject. See link below.) For the following, fresh needles are best. You can dry everything else and use it later for tea.
Infused honey: Use a generous amount of chopped needles in a mason jar. Cover with honey. If there’s plant matter above the level of the honey, flip the jar over once a day to discourage mold growth. Keep it in a warm place, and taste it periodically. In 4-6 weeks, the honey should have that regal conifer flavor.
Infused olive oil: Cover with olive oil, keep in somewhat warm place. Don’t use heat to infuse it. It’s easy to overshoot. Let it sit for 6 weeks. The flavor is heavenly! Lovely drizzled on goat cheese & fruit, used in a salve, or made into a beautiful facial cream like Rosalee de la Foret did.
Infused vinegar (great on salads), butter (good in patés, eggs, fudge), brandy…you get the idea. It’s good in just about everything.
A preparation that really packs a punch is a Douglas Fir shrub:
- Place a handful of Douglas Fir branches in a mason jar.
- Cover ⅔ way with apple cider vinegar, top off with honey.
- Cover and let macerate for 3-4 weeks. Start tasting it 2 weeks into it. Strain it when the flavor comes through.
I use this like Fire Cider. At the onset of a cold or sore throat, or just for an afternoon pick me up, I’ll put a splash of this in a mug of hot water. You can add more honey, ginger, or even a little lemon juice. It’s one of the things I like to keep in my bag.
Out of any preparation, I make teas the most frequently. It’s gentle, has a great flavor, and is both stimulating and grounding drunk throughout the day. I highly recommend brewing the needles with Reishi, Turkey Tail, or other medicinal mushroom. It also pairs well with Devil’s Club for immune support & inflammation (especially rheumatism), Labrador Tea for coughs & colds, or hawthorn berries for an uplifting & stimulating beverage. One of my standbys is Douglas fir tips/Hawthorn berry/Reishi fruitbody/Astragalus root/Laborador tea leaves. It’s a good ally in Winter.
My favorite, if I had to choose, would be Douglas Fir Chai.
In a smallish pot or crockpot, toss in:
- Handful of Douglas Fir tips
- 3 whole cloves
- A few allspice berries
- Cinnamon stick
- Pinch of cardamom pods
- Pinch black (or pink or white) peppercorns
- Pinch of chopped nutmeg
Slowly heat up to a low boil. Simmer for hours. Strain into mugs, and sweeten with a little honey & cream. Now you’re prepared to brave anything.
This is a tree that I’d love to see more connection with. As abundant and available as it is, this tree can lend a helping hand in getting through Winter’s challenges. I’d love to see more people work with it, and am excited to hear other people’s experiences. It’s not the most widely popular plant ever, but a big part of me thinks it should be. Drop me a line or leave a comment!
For more on Douglas Fir & tree medicine:
- Watch Teachings of the Tree People, a short film on the life & work of Bruce Miller.
- Elise Krohn has a great post on fir, spruce & hemlock tips on her blog Wild Foods and Medicines.
- Ananda Wilson’s post on conifer tree potions is a must read, and inspired this post.
- Rebecca has a few great posts on conifers on her site. You can start with this one on gathering & processing them.
- David Suzuki’s book Tree: A Life Story, is a biography of Douglas Fir.