The land is alive, sacred, and has a resonance that contains all the elements. Great spirits and medicines are housed in the bodies of trees, in the rivers, lakes and streams, in the stones, and in all the plants and animals.
In the winter, a blanket of white snow covers the northern boreal forests—a deep silence emerges from the long dark nights. The green of the boreal conifers are beacons of vital life-force energy that keep northerners fuelled with the energy of spirit.
Evergreens signify hope, promise, and renewal and help mark the winter solstice and Christmas celebrations. These celebrations symbolize rebirth, the death of the old year, and the birth of the new year. In the Yukon, many families head to the bush and harvest boreal evergreen trees, such as fir, pine, and spruce, for their winter festivities. But before the tree is recycled, my hope is some may consider harvesting the needles and sap as medicine.
This is the official tree of the Yukon Territory, and the whole tree is considered powerful medicine among northern First Nations people.
The bark, flat needles, resin, pitch, sap, or gum is used medicinally. The needles can be collected throughout the year, but the vitamin C content in the needles is highest in mid-winter and makes for a nourishing winter tea. Fir-needle tea should be used in moderation though—no more than a cup a day.
Finely ground needles can be sprinkled on open cuts or made into a poultice to help heal wounds. It can also be put in the bottom of your shoes to ward off foot odour or in water for a foot soak. Your feet will absorb some of the beneficial proper- ties of fir, which will help keep you healthy and alert throughout the day.
The fir aroma is very uplifting and can help people struggling with fatigue. The boughs can be used in a sauna or bath, or placed in a pot of water on a woodstove. I like to make medicinal oil with the needles. Simply cover and soak one part dried or fresh needles in two parts olive, sunflower, or jojoba oil, shaking or stirring daily. After a couple of weeks, strain out the needles and use in the bath or as a body-massage oil.
The tree gum is collected as it flows up the trunk in the spring and throughout the summer. The smooth, grey, blistered bark is traditionally “milked” by northern First Nations for its aromatic resin and used as medicine as is or made into a salve to treat skin ailments such as boils, wounds, cuts, and abrasions. A pinch can also be used in a tea infusion to fight infections and respiratory congestion and help expectorate phlegm, heal a sore throat, or fight a cold or flu. The tea can also be used as a gargle, or rinse for mouth or throat infections, and to treat bad breath.
Fir, pine, and spruce trees are all in the pine family and can be used in many of the same ways with some subtle differences.
In the winter months, I tend to go through a bit of harvesting withdrawal, so I like to gather the hard, golden spruce-gum medicine and make salve. The tree gum is antimicrobial, analgesic, antifungal, and antiseptic and acts as a disinfectant. It is perfect for topical applications when made into a salve or ointment, or used in a steam or tea for lung congestion. In the spring, when the sap is running and sticky, it can be collected in containers and made into a light tea that acts as a spring tonic. Many First Nations people have grown up using tree gum as a lozenge for coughs and sore throats as taught by their Elders. All conifer gums are excellent for extracting splinters—put a fresh dab over the splinter and wait for it to be drawn out.
The spring is the best time to gather the fresh, light-green tips of the tree for a high vitamin C tea; otherwise, the older needles have a very musty smell and don’t make a great cup of tea. Fir and pine needles not only smell and taste better, but also have more nutrient value.
The greenish, hair-like lichen that grows on spruce trees known as usnea (commonly called old man’s beard) is also very valuable medicine. The lichen has been used as a mild antibiotic for centuries. It is reported to have antiviral, antifungal, and antibacterial actions. It can be used topically as infused oil for skin infections and as an alcohol tincture for colds, lung infections, and sore throats.
Note: Some people are seriously allergic to usnic acid in the lichen. If allergic, touching it can lead to a rash and swallowing it could be harmful. Lichen can also irritate the kidneys if ingested over a long period of time
1/2 cup (125 ml) of spruce, fir, and/or pine gum
1/4 cup (60 ml) usnea lichen
1 cup (250 ml) olive oil
1/8 cup (30 ml) melted beeswax
1) In a double boiler, heat olive oil and spruce gum until gum has melted. Pick out any remaining black globs.
2) Add beeswax and slowly heat the oil and beeswax mixture until it melts together, stirring occasionally
3) Turn heat off and remove the top pot from the double boiler.
4) Pour oil into a measuring cup. Make sure the bottom of the pot is wiped dry to ensure that no water falls into the measuring cup.
5) Using the measuring cup, pour the hot liquid salve into jars. When the salve is fully cooled, the lids can be put on. If the salve is not fully cooled, condensation will form and can cause the salve to go bad. Label the jars once it has cooled.
For soothing tired, sore, and inflamed muscles.
1 cup (250 ml) pine and/or fir needles
1/4 cup (60 ml) of spruce pitch
2 cups (500 ml) witch hazel or rubbing alcohol
1) Place pine needles and pitch in a jar with witch hazel or rubbing alcohol.
2) Let mixture sit for six weeks, shaking daily.
3) When fully infused, strain liquid and bottle the mixture. Liniments are for external use only; make sure to label your bottles appropriately to ensure the liniment won’t be ingested.
This is considered the tree of peace. First Nations people have long used pine and all the trees in the pine family for food, medicine, and shelter. When early settlers came north, the First Nations shared their knowledge of the properties and usage of the trees, which helped the settlers survive starvation, scurvy, and other fatal illnesses.
Tree needles in the pine family contain vitamin C, beta-carotene, starch, and sugars … and make a lovely cup of tea.
1 tsp. (5 ml) of crushed needles 1 cup (250 ml) of hot water
Pour boiling water over the needles. Let steep for 5 minutes and enjoy a nourish- ing nor thern boreal tea!