“Trees were our first teachers,” Bruce Miller used to say. Bruce (Subiyay) was a Skokomish elder, teacher & leader behind the Salish cultural renaissance of the last few decades. Bruce continues to be a powerful inspiration. and many continue 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.)
A resonant aspect of his teachings 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 represent a vast & untapped potential in the health & ecological field..
Douglas Fir is a truly seminal tree on the Northwest coast, being ubiquitous & easy 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. It’s named after David Douglas, a Scottish botanist who laid name claim onto this it after its introduction 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, approximately 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, in fact, an adaptation to shadier locations.) 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. To this day, you can still see its hind legs & tail poking out through the scales. (Hence the alternative name “mousecone.”)
Eluding simple categorization, it’s been taxonomically shuffled over the last few decades. It’s neither considered a true fir or hemlock. 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.
I find Douglas Fir to be a gentle anti-inflammatory and helpful for chronic, low-grade coughs. I particularly like it for neck/spinal cord muscle inflammation. 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.
This tree is common & its offerings plentiful. It’s quite easy to gather boughs blown down after a storm, though one can harvest boughs at any time of the year. The taste changes 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 your creations & processes accordingly.
For the following, fresh needles are best. Bark & dried boughs can be used for teas.
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.
One of my favorite preparations 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, 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.
Out of any preparation, I make teas the most frequently. Doug fir boughs have a strong & feral flavor, both stimulating and grounding when consumed throughout the day. I enjoy 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.
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 comes highly recommended.
- Rebecca has a few great posts on conifers on her site. You can start with this one on their gathering & processing.
- David Suzuki’s book, Tree: A Life Story, is a biography of Douglas Fir.