Boreal Mead Making

Article first published in Yukon North of Ordinary

In the late summer, I was swamped with an abundance of berries. They seemed to come in at once: wild blueberries, cranberries, and rosehips. As I was drying most of these for our Aroma Borealis herbal teas, I realized I could do something else with the berries. I could make mead or honey wine.

Mead is the oldest alcoholic drink and created by fermenting honey with water and fruits, spices, grains, or hops. It was in fashion long before beer or wine, and its alcoholic content varies between 7–20 percent.

Despite the fact it’s an alcoholic beverage, mead has many healthy qualities. The naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria convert the sugars during the fermentation process into a high-energy, probiotic, and nutrient-rich elixir filled with anti- oxidant goodness.

Mead is often referred to as “Nectar of the Gods” or “Drink of Love.” The intoxicating concoction is believed to be an accidental discovery by hunter-gatherers who stumbled on a beehive filled with rainwater during the Stone Age. The beverage is said to have aphrodisiac qualities. Some theorize that during ancient times in Europe mead was given to newlyweds

for a full cycle of the moon to enhance fertility, which is where the word honey- moon comes from.

I taught a few courses at an herb gathering in Alberta earlier this summer and took a Mead Making 101 workshop with a local herbalist. As we taste-tested cherry mead the instructor had made, I thought how well boreal herbs and berries would work in the concoction.

I’ve never liked sweet wines and thought mead might be too sugary for my palate, but it’s actually dry, delicious, and not overly sweet at all. When I returned to the Yukon, I gathered all the necessary equipment and ingredients and started on this fun kitchen-alchemy project.

I was a bit intimidated by mead making, thinking I would have to make large batches and buy all sorts of fancy equipment. However, I learned that’s not the case. This past August, I spoke with local Yukon mead makers at Mount Lorne’s Ingestible Festival, which celebrates local foods and food creations. They confirmed small mead batches work best, plus they are simple and easy to make.

After chatting with Yukon organic grower and homesteader Shiela Alexandrovich, of Wheaton River Garden, I felt I was on the right track for making good, old-fashioned, homemade mead. Alexandrovich has created mead for many years and prefers making small four-litre batches.

“Traditional mead is basically honey and water that is fermented. The big thing for people is to not be intimidated or afraid of the process and to just go for it,” Alexandrovich explains. “Most things already know how to ferment if you give it half a chance, and using good quality, unpas- teurized honey is important.”

She has made mead from locally grown chokecherries and frozen rhubarb she had put away for the winter.

“A couple years ago I found some jugs of mead in the root cellar that I made 12 years ago, and it was delicious!” Alexandrovich says. “When you make your own alcohols from wild fruits and plants, the pleasure you get from looking at the colours and enjoying the taste is far greater than any- thing you can buy in the store.”

Use the following recipes and instructions to try your hand at making homemade mead. As Shiela says, “Just go for it.”


There are many boreal plants that can be used for mead. Choose your favourite boreal tea for your decoction tea base or experiment and have fun with other wild herbs and berries. *See instructions that follow for preparation.

Wild Cranberry
Winter Mead
 – A nourishing fermented honey
wine that is rich and full bodied.

4 cups (1 L) wild cranberries

2 tbsp. (30 ml) ginger
root, freshly grated

16 cups (4 L) water

2 cups (500 ml) unpasteurized honey

1 tsp. (5 ml) wine yeast

Blueberry Juniper Mead-Dark and rich and full of flavour.

4 cups (1 L) wild blueberries

2 tbsp. (30 ml) juniper berries

16 cups (4 L) water

2 cups (500 ml) unpasteurized honey

1 tsp. (5 ml) wine yeast

Rosehip Mead
- Just how you would imagine—
smells divine and tastes even better.

4 cups (1 L) wild rosehips

2 tbsp. (30 ml) wild-rose petals

16 cups (4 L) water

2 cups (500 ml) unpasteurized honey

1 tsp. (5 ml) wine yeast

Fireweed Flower Honey Mead
- A light, floral bouquet.

1/2 cup (125 ml) fireweed flowers (dried or fresh)

2 cups (500 ml) fireweed honey

16 cups (4 L) water

1 tsp. (5 ml) wine yeast

NOTE: Make sure all equipment and utensils you use are sterilized. *See recipes above for specific ingredients to create different types of mead.


Place berries and herbs in a stainless-steel pot and cover with 16 cups (4 L) of water. (If your tap water is treated, you may want to use spring water instead.) Heat slowly and simmer with the lid on for 5–30 minutes. The longer you simmer, the stronger your brew will be. Ideally, you want to warm the liquid enough that it will be reduced to 14 cups of tea decoction without boiling the plant material.

B Strain warm herbal berry decoction tea through cheesecloth and return strained liquid to pot. C Stir unpasteurized honey into the warm herbal berry decoction tea and let sit until it has reached room temperature. D Stir in wine yeast. E Pour into 4-litre jug.
F Cork with an airlock (purchased at any winemaking supply shop). Watch your brew bubble. There should be plenty of
action and bubbling happening in your airlock. NOTE: You can let your mead ferment for two weeks to a month.

 Take a hose (available at winemaking supply shops) and place it in your mead to siphon off the liquid from the top. Put this liquid into another 4-litre jug. Continue until there is only sediment left on the bottom of the original jug. This sediment is highly nutritious and can be used to make salad dressing. If your brew is still fermenting, you can continue letting it age by putting the airlock on the new jug. If you want mead that is delicate and clear, clarify the liquid again in a couple of weeks.

You can find great bottles at your local recycling centre or buy them from your local wine shop. The secret is making sure the bottles are made to withstand pressure. Mead is a living ferment and will continue creating pressure, so ensure the bottles and lids can handle it. Otherwise, the tops may pop off while you’re storing them, which may lead you to lose your mead.

 These instructions yield one 4-litre jug of mead. 


Irish Cures Tradition


Irish Herbals.   (click on this link for easy reading)

North of Ordinary Irish Herbals.01._Page_1.jpgNorth of Ordinary Irish Herbals.01._Page_2.jpg

Article first published in Yukon North of Ordinary


The traditional healing practices of Ireland

On March 17, people throughout the world turn their collective gaze to Ireland to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. In Eire (Ireland) it is a holiday, when many go to morning mass, then attend costumed parades with music from fife-and-drum bands.

I noticed while celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in Dingle (on the southwest coast of Ireland) that most people wore fresh cut clusters of shamrocks on their coat lapels to show love and loyalty to their country and honour the teachings of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland.

It is said that Ireland has over 40 shades of green that weave through the rolling mountains, hillsides, and patchwork pastures of the north- western European country. The warm temperatures and amount of rain that falls throughout the year creates a perfect growing environment for all things green.

As an herbalist, I get excited when the land is green. While roaming the misty countryside of Ireland and shorelines of the North Atlantic, I found so many great land and sea plants for food and medicine. I gathered wild blackberries for jams and cordials, made dried nettle leaf into tea, used tinctured nettle seed to treat gout, and gathered hawthorn berries and numerous seaweeds to eat as a snack.

Wherever I’m travelling, my lens is always focused on the plants, as well as the culture behind them and the people who use them.

In Ireland, it is common to find disturbed soil plants that also grow in the Yukon, like fireweed, yarrow, dandelion, mint, rose, horsetail, and sorrel. European herbals like wild garlic, heather, St. John’s wort, vervain, and mullein are also very visible and easy to find.

The Burren, a region in North County Clare, is renowned for its limestone and diverse plant life (from rare orchids to Mediterranean, alpine, and arctic plants) that grow in rock crevices. Roseroot, or

rhodiola rosea, also grows in the Burren and happens to be one of my favourite medicinal plants.

Achill Island, in County Mayo, boasts a flora as varied as its topography. Rare arctic alpine species, such as juniper, are found on the peaks of Slievemore and Croaghaun.

There are trees throughout Ireland—many not at all like the Yukon’s boreal forests. However, there are plenty of trees we are familiar with, like pine, birch, willow, alder, and aspen. There are also beautiful replanted groves of indigenous Irish trees, like oak, hawthorn, rowan, ash, elm, and the blackthorn.

A strong Irish indigenous culture still exists and is widely expressed through Gaelic games, traditional music, and, of course, the Irish language (one of two official languages in the country). However, “Irish cures” are still a large part of the culture’s undercurrent. My curiosity was piqued at a local pub one evening when I was asked what I did in Canada. “I am an herbalist,” I said, and the fellow working behind the counter replied, “Oh, you work with the cures do ya girl?”

He went on to tell me a story about his family’s herbal cure for drawing out toxins from the body. He sketched out a picture on a napkin of a very familiar leaf that they use as a poultice to help pull out infection. He said there was a time when most families held a cure for a certain ailment.

That got my interest, so I started talking to people and asking questions about traditional cures. It became clear many use the same plant: plantain. One woman told me of her family’s cure for skin rash and boils. She said they make a poultice or an ointment from the plant to heal the ailment and stop itching. Another person reported their family held the cure for a cough by making a tea or cough syrup from the plant.


Everywhere one goes in Ireland, wild medicinal plants are growing and accessible. I’ve often thought the country had enough nettles to feed the world. And while many people may curse the stinging nettle, the plant’s healing powers are well-known. Nettle soup is a nourishing, traditional Irish cure used to flush toxins from the system. Nettles are rich in iron and also used as a traditional arthritis remedy.

I spoke with Rosari Kingston, a medical herbalist, researcher, and chair of the Irish Institute of Medical Herbalists. We talked about the cures and traditional herbal medicine of the ancient people of Ireland. While researching, Rosari came across an Irish manuscript of names and medicinal uses for plants written in 1415.

“This is still living knowledge. There is more to indigenous Irish medicine—there is the story and the worldview. Indigenous medicine occurs within indigenous knowledge, so what was the worldview of the people of Ireland?” Rosari said. “This is what brought me back to the idea of the sacred holy wells, the patron days, the sense of seasonality.”

She works and lives by the ancient Celtic calendar, a pre-Christian Celtic system of timekeeping for each of the four seasons. Rosari honours the change of season with different plants. She also observes the importance of her surroundings.

“The land influences me because I am very conscious of sacred space. Some places are very potent, [such as] the faerie forts, which would not be touched even today,” she said. “The old stone circles, the wells, the holy mountains—these are all very sacred to our people.”

In Ireland, faerie mounds and forts are revered and are not to be messed with. There are many stories and legends about faeries, and expensive road detours have even been made throughout the country in order to avoid disturbing a faerie mound.

For Rosari, it is important to understand ancient Irish knowledge and how it integrates with modern medicine. “I think that traditional medicine worldview can never stay static. It always evolves.”

The ancient Celts, like the Aboriginal people of North America, believed that all things in nature were interconnected. Trees were venerated as sacred beings and identified as ancestors of human beings. Different trees had different traits and magical energies, including the power to heal.

Celtic priests, or Druids, utilized the ogham, a medieval alphabet used to primarily write an early Irish language. Each letter is named for a tree or shrub and is associated with a certain month of the Celtic calendar.

Celtic shamans believed that certain herbs held healing powers and used the ogham in their preparations. While concocting their remedies, healers drew letters from the ogham in the air over the mixture.

The old traditional ways are alive and continue to evolve in Ire- land thanks to family practices, modern-day herbalists, and the sha- mans of that ancient land. There are well over a hundred medicinal manuscripts writ


Wild roses


Article first published in Yukon North of Ordinary

We know summer has arrived in the North when we catch the sweet scent of heart-shaped wild-rose petals as it wafts on the boreal breeze, a reminder of the divine essence that surrounds us.

The subtle yet sublime scent of wild roses has been captured by ancient cultures through distillation into attars, essential oils, and aromatic rose water used by the likes of Cleopatra. Rose essential oil was prized in aromatherapy circles before it was called aroma- therapy. It takes 5,000 pounds of fresh rose petals to make one pound of pure, authentic oil.

The wild-rose bush offers a diverse range of healing properties, as the roots, leaves, flowers, and fruits of this northern shrub are useable. Most of the rose plant is edible. We tend to focus on the flowers and hips, but the leaves, the peeled thorny stems, and the roots can also be used for nutritional purposes.

In spring, before the petals open, a tea infusion of the astringent leaves can be used as a blood-cleansing tonic. The roots can also be used for this purpose. High in vitamins and minerals, especially vitamin C, the leaves contain bioflavonoids and tannins good for treating stress, infection, diarrhea, thirst, and gastritis.

Rose petals make an excellent backwoods “bush bandage” for cuts and scrapes, and they fit perfectly over fresh bug bites to take the heat out of the wound and stop inflammation.

The petals also have an emollient effect and help retain moisture in and on the skin. When infused in oil or used in the bath, rose petals are excellent for dry, mature, and dull skin. Petals can also be used to make skin salve or cream, or added to apple-cider vinegar or vodka and used as a cleansing facial tonic. One of my favourite pampering treats in the summer is a rose-petal facial steam; when I’m done, I use the water to soak my feet.

When harvesting rose petals, don’t over pick from one bush. When taking the flowers, leave one petal behind to ensure there’s a landing strip for bees so the flower can be pollinated, which will allow a hip to develop.

Petals are lovely in a hot infusion, but equally lovely in a sun tea. Rose-petal jelly is always a treat—light and delicate, yet complex and divine. It can be made with fresh petals in the summer or with dried petals any time of year. The flowers and leaves can be added to salads, jams, and jellies, and they look great on top of a cake. Try using the rosehips as a base for ice creams or sorbets, or even as a sauce for fish or other wild meats.

Yukon’s wild rose—known as nichìh in Gwich’in—is beautiful from spring through autumn. It’s a low shrub with stems covered in thorns, prickles, and leaves, with three to seven leaflets. The fragrant flowers are usually solitary on the stem with pink petals, many with yellow stamens. Sepals are prominent and green with glandular hairs on the back. Fruits are fleshy, red hips, elliptic or pear-shaped, with browned sepals still intact and erect.

Wild roses are seen virtually all over the circumpolar North, but are frequently found along riverbanks, woodland clearings, or burns. In North America, wild roses grow from Quebec to Alaska, and south to New Mexico.

Wild-Rose Petal healing ointment

1 cup (250 ml) wild-rose petals 1 1/2 cups (375 ml) almond oil or sunflower oil
1/2 cup (125 ml) jojoba oil
1 tsp. (5 ml) vitamin E
1 to 2 oz. (30 ml to 60 ml) beeswax (depending on desired consistency)

1) Place rose petals and oil in a double boiler.
2) Warm slowly on medium heat. Let simmer for 20–40 minutes. Stir often. 3) Strain petals and wipe pot clean of all petals.
4) Add beeswax to pot and let melt.
5) Add strained oil. Once blended, pour into a jar.
6) Cap jar only after the ointment has cooled and solidified.

Wild-Rose Petal ice Cream

This treat has a sweet and delicate flavour!

2 1/2 cups (625 ml) heavy cream
1 1/2 cups (375 ml) half-and-half cream 1 1/4 cups (300 ml) cane sugar
5 egg yolks
2 tbsp. (30 ml) fresh or dried wild-rose petals

1) Place both creams and sugar in a medium-sized pot or double boiler.
2) Warm on medium-low heat until it just reaches a simmer, stirring to dissolve sugar.
3) Add rose petals and continue cooking, barely simmering for 10 minutes. Make sure not to let it boil.
4) Remove from heat and let petals infuse the cream mixture for 45 minutes to an hour.
5) Strain out petals. In another pot, whisk egg yolks and slowly add the rose-infused cream, stirring gently.
6) Heat slowly on medium-low heat, stirring until the mixture coats the back of a spoon.
7) Chill in fridge. Freeze in an ice-cream maker.

Rose Petal Jelly

The word lovely sums up the aroma and flavour of this delicate and visually pleas- ing jelly. Many years ago, I used to make this recipe and sell it in a fancy jar at the annual Christmas Spruce Bog Craft Sale, in Whitehorse. The best part of this jelly- making process is going out and gather- ing the petals among the bees. The colour variation of the petals—from a dark pink to a light pink—is visual medi- cine, and it feels exhilarating to fill your gathering basket with an abundance
of flowers from this aromatic plant.

2 1/2 cups (625 ml) wild-rose petals (fresh or dried)
2 cups (500 ml) water
2 cups (500 ml) cane sugar
1/2 cup (125 ml) white grape juice 1/2 cup (125 ml) red grape juice
1 package (57 g) powdered pectin 2 tbsp. (30 ml) rose water

1) Place petals, water, and 2/3 cup (150 ml) of the sugar in a saucepan. Bring to a boil.
2) Reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes.
3) Remove from heat and let stand overnight. This allows the petals to release their fragrance into the sugar water.
4) Strain flowers from syrup and pour the rose syrup in a large pot.
5) Add grape juices and pectin, and bring to a boil. Boil hard for 1 1/2 minutes.
6) Add the rest of the sugar and stir; bring the liquid back up to a boil. Boil the mixture hard for 1 minute or more. Remove from heat.
7) The jelly is ready when it coats the back of a spoon and has the consistency of syrup. You can check by placing a teaspoon of jelly on a plate and letting it cool; the surface should wrinkle when pushed with your finger. If it’s still runny, continue boiling and testing until the jelly sets.
8) When jelly is ready, stir in rose water.
9) Skim off any foam that has formed on top of the jelly.
10) Pour into jars, leaving 1/4 inch (0.5 cm) of space at the top of each jar. Secure lids and heat seal. Makes 3 cups (750 ml) of jelly.

Delicious dandelions


It’s the vibrant yellow plant that is hard to miss: dandelions. Herbaceous dandelions are one of the first foods to poke through the cool northern soil in spring. The plant’s long, thick, fleshy taproot can descend more than one-metre below the surface, which helps restore minerals and other nutrient-rich ingredients and create drainage channels in compacted soils.

The best times to gather dandelion roots are in spring (before the plant flowers) or in autumn (after the first frost). Young leaves are gathered in early spring and throughout the summer. Do not harvest roadside dandelions, as they may be full of contaminants from vehicles. Subsequently, lawn dandelions may be full of harmful pesticides.

Bitter compounds in the root give the plant its diuretic proper- ties, which in turn help purify the blood and liver, relieve muscle spasms, and reduce inflammation. Furthermore, the jagged, irregular-lobed green leaves have more diuretic action than the root.

Dandelion root has digestive and bitter properties, which are helpful when used for indigestion, spleen disorders, relieving heartburn and constipation, and stimulating the appetite.

If taken before a meal, dandelion root will increase the production of hydrochloric acid in the stomach, increasing bioavailability of nutrients, especially calcium. Some studies suggest that inulin found in dandelion root may assist in beneficial bacteria growth in the digestive tract.

In addition, the anti-inflammatory properties of dandelion root are used to treat rheumatism, gout, and eczema. The root may also help with lowering cholesterol and high blood pressure.

Dandelion root is getting a lot of press these days for its potential to heal an aggressive form of leukemia. Oncologist Dr. Caroline Hamm has gotten the green light from Health Canada to perform clinical trials with dandelion-root extract to help heal patients with chronic myelomonocytic leukemia (CMML), a type of cancer that starts in the blood- forming cells of bone marrow. Laboratory tests found the roots killed cancer cells without any toxic side effects. Dr. Hamm was inspired to research the plant’s effects after several of her cancer patients saw significant improvements from drinking dandelion-root tea.

High in sodium and potassium, young dandelion roots can be eaten as a nutritious vegetable. Like carrots and other root vegetables, the roots can be boiled, baked, or diced up and added to soups and stews.

Nourishing vinegars can be made with the roots, leaves, and flowers for use in salad dressings, sauces, and marinades.

Dandelion leaf is a nutritious vegetable high in calcium and vitamin C. The leaves can be eaten fresh in salads, steamed like spinach, added to a stir-fry, soups, and stews, and can also be used fresh or dried for making tea.

The bright yellow flower heads are com- posed of many small ray florets, as well as inner and outer green bracts at the base. The blossoms are rich in the “sunshine vitamin”—vitamin D—and are wonderful on their own, fried in a bit of butter and

garlic, or dipped into a savoury batter and baked or fried. They can also be added to salads for a splash of colour or used for Dandelion Petal Cake (*see recipe). Those with allergies and sensitivities to plants in the Asteraceae family may want to be cau- tious when first using dandelions as food.

Dandelion Petal Cake

The beauty of the dandelion flower shines through in this moist, delicious cake.


2 cups (500 ml) all-purpose flour 2 tsp. (10 ml) baking powder
1 1/2 tsp. (7 ml) baking soda
1 tsp. (5 ml) cinnamon
1 tsp. (5 ml) salt
1 cup (250 ml) cane sugar
1 cup (250 ml) honey
1 1/2 cups (375 ml) melted butter or sunflower oil
4 eggs, beaten
1 can (approx. 500 ml) crushed pineapple, drained
1/2 cup (125 ml) coconut, shredded 2 cups (500 ml) dandelion petals

1) Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C).
2) Mix dry ingredients in a bowl (except for sugar).
3) In a separate bowl, mix sugar, dandelion syrup, butter, and eggs until creamy.
4) Fold in pineapple and coconut. 5) Stir in dry ingredients until blended well.
6) Fold dandelion petals into batter. 7) Pour batter into greased 11” x
13” (28 cm x 33 cm) cake pan and bake for about 40 minutes. Allow cake to cool before icing.


Note: Icing is optional; this cake is great with or without it.

2 cups (500 ml) cream cheese, at room temperature
1 cup (250 ml) honey or maple, birch, or dandelion syrup Dandelion petals

1) Pour honey or syrup over cream cheese and blend together with a fork.
2) Spread icing on cooled cake. Decorate by sprinkling dandelion petals on top.

Dandelion Root Coffee

When properly brewed, roasted dandelion-root coffee closely resembles regular coffee in flavour and body.

6 or more large and fresh dandelion roots

1) Preheat oven to 250°F (120°C).
2) Wash roots thoroughly and finely dice them.
3) Spread chopped roots so they are about 1/2 inch (1.25 cm) deep on cookie sheets and put in the oven. This dries and roasts the roots at the same time.
4) After the roots dry they will begin to roast, turning from a blonde colour to a dark coffee colour. Stir roots on cookie sheet often to assure even drying and roasting. The roasting process can take as long as two hours. Be careful not to burn them!
5) Remove from oven and let the roots cool. Then grind them in a coffee grinder.
6) Store in a glass jar.

Preparing a cup of dandelion-root coffee

Use 2 tsp. of roasted root grind for each cup of water. You can make the coffee in a coffee press, with a tea strainer, or like instant coffee by just adding the grind to a cup of hot water. Serve hot. You can add any type of milk and sweeten with honey or birch syrup. Try experimenting—use it to make chai, lat tes, and mochas.

Tree medicine


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

Winter salve

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.

Ache-and-pain liniment

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.

Needle tea

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!

Juiced up


Northerners go out in droves during the late summer and early autumn to their sacred—and sometimes secret— spots to gather enough wild berries to keep healthy through the long boreal winters. Boreal berries and herbs are packed with nutrients and complex taste sensations that make for delicious juices and smoothies any time of the day or year.

The simplest and quickest way to make a nutritious, raw juice is to combine fresh or frozen berries in a blender with cold water or a cooled herbal tea. Then simply pour, drink, and enjoy. I like to keep the berry pulp in the juice, which means not gulping it down, but chewing each mouthful. If this doesn’t appeal to you, just strain out the pulp. Adding a squeeze of lemon will enhance the taste and help preserve the juice a little longer.

Raw juices are the most healthful of beverages, but they do not last that long. When made in a blender, the juice will last a couple of days in the fridge. If you’re not going to drink the juice quickly, freeze it in portion-sized containers or make homemade fruit-sicles with it.

Basic Raw Berry Juice Recipe
Any of the boreal wild berries can be used. Mix and match for new and interesting juices. Imagine moss berry-raspberry juice. Yum!

1 cup (250 ml) berries (frozen work best)
2 cups (500 ml) cold water or cooled herbal tea
2 tbsp. (30 ml) sweetener (honey, birch syrup, cane sugar, or deseeded dates all work great)
Juice of one lemon

1) Place the ingredients in a blender. Blend on high speed until smooth. (This usually takes about two minutes.)
2) Pour, drink, and enjoy the antioxidant goodness in each sip. Strain if you don’t want the pulp.

I love having wild juices stacked up in the fridge; one of my family’s all-time favourites is wild cranberry juice. Because the juice is heated, it lasts for a couple of weeks in the fridge—that’s if you don’t drink it all first.

Most northerners gather wild cranberries, also known as lingonberries or lowbush cranberries, from the low mat-forming shrub in early autumn, after the first frost. The frost brings out this northern fruit’s tangy flavour sensations. Bursting with colour and zest, wild cranberries are one of the most recognized berries in the North. Wild cranberries are smaller and tangier than commercial cranberries, and pack a greater taste.

Cranberries—also known as natl’at in Gwich’in—can be dried, frozen, or kept in a cool cache over the winter months due to their benzoic-acid content that acts as a natural preservative.

Nutritionally, the berries are filled with calcium, iron, niacin, phosphorus, and potassium, as well as small amounts of protein and vitamins A and C. The seeds are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Cranberries contain high concentrations of antioxidants and flavonoids that can help lower blood-sugar levels and benefit the cardiovascular and immune systems. Its antiseptic properties make the berry good for preventing and treating urinary-tract infections. Wild cranberry juice is touted for its ability to prevent bacteria, such as E. coli, from binding to the wall of the bladder and for creating an inhospitable environment for infection.

Cranberries stimulate the production of digestive enzymes, so it’s good to have a handful before a meal. You can also add cranberry sauce to your meats to help with heartburn or indigestion.

Cranberry Juice
Recipe inspired by long-time Yukoner MaryJane Lawson.

2 cups (500 ml) wild cranberries
(or any boreal berry)
8 cups (2,000 ml) water
A large dollop of honey to taste (optional) A pinch of cinnamon spice

1) Bring water to a boil. Add cranberries and simmer until the cranberries split open (about 20 minutes).
2) Stir in honey and cinnamon.
3) Take off heat and let rest for a few hours until cooled down.
4) Strain out cranberries (save the berries to make fruit leather, put in smoothies, or to make jam or sauce with) and pour the juice into bottles or a juice container and refrigerate.

A fruit-and-yogurt smoothie is a wonderful thing. Packed full of goodness, flavour, and nutrients, the health benefits of smoothies are as diverse as the many ingredient combinations used to create them. Kids love them, too. Frozen wild berries are a great foundation for a smoothie.

Pink Drink: High-C Smoothie
This tastes great all year round, but it’s especially beneficial during cold and flu season.

1 cup (250 ml) cranberries (frozen)
1 cup (250 ml) rosehip tea
1/4 cup lamb’s quarters seeds (fresh or dried)
1/4 cup (approx. 50 ml) spruce tips (fresh, frozen, or dried)
1 cup (250 ml) yogurt
1 cup (250 ml) cow, rice, soy, or almond milk

Place the ingredients in a blender. Blend on high speed until smooth. (This usually takes about two minutes.)

Note: If the consistency is too thick, add more liquid; if it’s too thin, add more frozen fruit.

“Fable says that cranberry is a cure for heartache, but far more prosaically the sauce wards off scurvy.” – Martha Louise Black, Yukon Wild Flowers (1940)

The flavour sensations, aromas, and nutritional value of wild berries make them the perfect ingredients for healthy raw juices and smoothies. Wild plant juices and smoothies are a great way to start the day and are excellent for your health. All you need is a blender to get started!


Considered an antioxidant super-fruit, wild blueberries have very favourable health benefits, including claims of fighting certain stresses that can lead to chronic illness and premature aging. The antioxidant activities of the wild blue fruit are said to be higher than those of many other fruits, including apples, raspberries, red grapes, and strawberries.

Antioxidants are beneficial for heart health because they help control the bad cholesterol that contributes to cardiovascular disease. They may also help regulate blood pressure and fight atherosclerosis, a plaque buildup inside the arteries.

Blueberries are also touted as having excellent anti-inflammatory properties that help reduce chronic inflammation in the body. Laboratory studies have provided evidence that consuming wild blueberries may help with eye fatigue and slow down, or even reverse, eye disorders, such as macular degeneration and cataracts.

Eaten raw, made into tea, juiced, or eaten in foods, blueberries, like cranberries, contain chemical compounds that prevent the bacteria responsible for urinary-tract infections from attaching to the bladder wall. Traditionally, blueberry leaves were used to treat gastrointestinal ailments, such as diarrhea and upset stomach. All parts, including leaf and stem, may be useful for lowering blood sugar in type 2 diabetes.

Rich in vitamins A, C, E, K, riboflavin, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and sodium, fresh or frozen blueberries are a must for a morning smoothie.

Purple Smoothie

1 cup (250 ml) wild blueberries
1 cup (250 ml) yogurt
1 cup (250 ml) rice, almond, or soy milk

Put ingredients in a blender. Mix until smooth. Serve and enjoy!


Moss berries have the highest levels of anthocyanins of any of the northern berries, according to research conducted at the University of Kuopio in Finland. This makes them extremely antioxidant-rich, so eating the berries will help combat oxidative stress caused by free radicals in the body, assisting in the prevention of disease.

Moss berries also contain the compound quercetin that acts as a powerful antihis- tamine. It can relieve the symptoms of allergies, reduce inflammation, and pro- vide pain relief for aches, pains, and the symptoms of arthritis.

High in vitamin C, moss berries sweeten up with the first frost of the season. They can be used on their own or in combina- tion with other berries, like blueberries, to make pies, muffins, pancakes, syrup, sauce, or fruit leather.

Making a juice or adding the berries to a smoothie is a great way to benefit from all the goodness this unique northern berry offers.

Blueberry-Moss Berry Juice

Antioxidant power!

1 cup (250 ml) wild blueberries 1 cup (250 ml) wild moss berries 4 cups (1 L) cold water Sweetener to taste (optional) Juice of one orange

Place the ingredients in a blender. Blend on high speed until smooth. (This usually takes about two minutes.)


This highly nutritious fruit is great when made into a juice, and no deseeding nec- essary! Very high in vitamin C and usable iron, rosehip juice is thick and delicious. The rosehips can be used fresh or dried.

Rosehip Juice

2 cups (500 ml) wild rosehips (dried or fresh)
8 cups (2,000 ml) water
A large dollop of honey to taste (optional)

1) Bring water to a boil, add rosehips, and simmer on low for about 30 minutes.
2) Stir in honey.
3) Take off the heat and let rest for a few
hours until cooled down.
4) Strain out rosehips (save to make jelly with), pour the juice into bottles or a juice container, and refrigerate.

Wild tea


A northern campfire is not complete without a piping-hot cup of aromatic Labrador tea. It not only warms you up, but also provides a burst of vitamin C.

Labrador tea was and still is used as a substitute for black tea in the North. It is caffeine free and has a mild narcotic effect. It has an interesting forest-like flavour: a little bitter, a little astringent, a little spicy, and a little camphor-like.

Last spring, I was in Old Crow with the late Gwich’in Elder Ruth Welsh. We went up Crow Mountain with a group of friends to gather last autumn’s berries and one of Ruth’s favourite tradi- tional tea plants—Labrador tea, or as said in her Gwich’in lan- guage, Lidii masgit. Ruth said she preferred to gather and drink the smaller-leafed tea plant from high on the mountain because it tasted better, was cleaner, and the medicine was more potent.

The leathery green leaves with their woolly, rust-coloured underside are commonly gathered in the spring or throughout the summer and made as a tea for coughs and colds, relaxation, and sleeping problems. Inhaling the steam that rises from the tea is recommended to clear sinuses.

Juicy, light-green spruce tips are also used as tea and very popu- lar in the North. The vitamin-C-rich conifer tips have a unique tree-like lemon flavour, but are also reminiscent of the taste of tra- ditional green tea. The tips that are gathered are the new growth at the end of the needled branches of white spruce (Picea glauca) or black spruce (Picea mariana). The Gwich’in word for both white and black spruce is Ts’iivii.

Springtime spruce tips usually emerge in stride with the tasty vitamin-C- and vitamin-A-rich fireweed shoots. They taste great raw right off the tree, dried for a tea, canned, jellied, or frozen in the freezer.

Spruce tips are also excellent to break up lung congestion when used in a tea, steam, or as a wild food. Medicinally, spruce’s antiseptic properties help with pneumonia, whooping cough, and croup.

We know summer has truly arrived in the Yukon when the sweet scent of wild roses wafts all around us and their bright pink flowers draw us to their beauty.

On a hot day, drinking rose-petal sun tea not only keeps you hydrated, but gives the body extra energy to combat the heat. Using the sun’s fire energy is an ancient way to extract the subtle rose flavour and healing constituents from the petals for an aromatic, pleasant-tasting, solar infusion.

To prepare a solar infusion, place fresh or dried petals and water in a clear glass jar or teapot. Place in direct sunlight for several hours, allowing the warm, radiat- ing energy of the sun to gently heat the water, releasing the petals’ fragrance and other nutrients into the water. Drink freely and enjoy eating the petals that are floating in the tea.

Later in the season, after all the petals have dropped off the rose plant and gener- ally after the first frost, the vitamin-C-rich rosehips form and are harvested and dried for tea. Vitamin C is an essential nutrient most famous for its ability to strengthen the capillaries and connective tissues.

Three rosehips contain the same amount of vitamin C as one orange, and Rosa acicularis found in the Yukon has the highest vitamin-C content of any rosehip in the world. Rosehips are also full of bioflavo- noid, making the herb a truly heart-smart food and a wonderful tonic plant that can keep northerners healthy and warm throughout the long, cold, dark winters.

Rosehips are also high in healthful vitamins and minerals such as calcium, iron, magnesium, niacin, phosphorus, potassium, protein, riboflavin, selenium, sodium, zinc, and vitamins A and E.

The playful scent of wild mint (Mentha arvensis) is refreshing, yet has a multi- dimensional aroma that has a subtle, earth-like smell and flavour that makes it a unique and interesting tea.

Drinking mint tea in the morning is stimulating and helps clear a tired mind; it can also deflect oncoming headaches and alleviate nausea due to motion sickness. Mint-leaf tea aids digestion and helps ease indigestion, gas, heartburn, ulcers, nausea, and colic.

Gather fresh mint leaves before the heat of the day. You can pluck each leaf by hand or use a pair of scissors and give the patch a little haircut. Don’t worry; it will grow back quickly.

Ingest yarrow tea (Achillea millefolium) the minute you feel a cold coming on and it may help stop it from taking hold. Yarrow is an immune stimulant and acts as a mild expectorant, helping get rid of excess phlegm. Gargling with yarrow helps prevent or heal a sore throat, inflamed gums, or mouth infections.

Yarrow makes great bush medicine. Prepared in a tea, the leaves and flowers of this plant have the ability to stop internal bleeding. Accidents on northern trails can happen, and this plant may make a difference if you have a long way back to ameni- ties. I consider yarrow one of nature’s best band-aids. For cuts and scrapes, chew up a few leaves to make a spit poultice and place over the affected area. A bleeding nose can be remedied by putting a gently chewed leaf up your nostril.

The boreal forest is teeming with so many great tasting medicinal teas. Getting out and respectfully gathering the plants invokes a wonderful feeling of well-being and a connection to a timeless northern ritual of being on the land.

How to prepare a wild herbal tea
A fresh- or dried-leaf infusion is the best method to prepare herbal tea. Break up the leaves into small pieces (this releases the aromatic oils) and add a pinch per cup. Pour boiling water over the leaves. Cover to avoid releasing the volatile oils and infuse for five to ten minutes. You can sweeten it up with a wee dollop of honey or birch syrup. Enjoy!

Tea brief
Drinking fresh or dried herbal tea is one of the simplest ways to receive the health benefits of wild plants. Herbal teas are caffeine free, nourish- ing, and relaxing to drink—almost all smell good. Ingesting herbal teas on a regular basis can help tone, soothe, nourish, and balance the body.

Drying herbs
Drying herbs immediately after gathering them preserves their vitality. The dried herb should look energetic and true to its colour—not tired and spent, which happens when herbs are dried too hot and too fast or in direct sunlight. Optimal conditions for drying fresh herbs are out of direct sunlight in a well-ventilated area, with low light and low heat. The most common ways to dry herbs include drying bundles, drying racks, baskets and bags, dehydrators, and low-temperature oven drying.