Douglas-Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)

Douglas fir“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.

Douglas fir has a long history of use in Northwest communities. Its wood & bark was used widely as building materials and fiber. Its pitch was used medicinally (for skin irritations, injured bones & coughs) and as a caulking and binding material for canoes. The decoction of the leaves and/or bark was used by several groups for rheumatism, as a remedy for seasonal colds, as a diuretic, and for unspecified kidney & bladder ailments. Its pleasant & tart taste made it a popular beverage among the Yurok people. A cold infusion of the needles was used as a mouthwash. The young fresh tips are abundant in Vitamin C and are a popular Spring food.

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:

  1. Place a handful of Douglas Fir branches in a mason jar.
  2. Cover ⅔ way with apple cider vinegar, top off with honey.
  3. 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:


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12 Responses

  1. Pingback : The Healing Power of Trees « New Urban Habitat

  2. Deanna

    The fir tip chai is such a nice tea. I would love to do a cold infusion of the tips and make a chai latte to retain the vitamin C. The tea is grounding and does reach those deep dark emotional places as Renee stated in the article. Such a beautiful combination. I will certainly be trying the shrub next and tincture next. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Chris Martell

    Awesome teaching here and wonderful writing. Thank you soooo much for this. Yes, the trees are indeed our ordinal guides to keeps us silly monkeys in line. 🙂

  4. Lauren

    This is a great article. I bought some “Douglas Fir Spring Tip Wild Harvested tea” and I drink it from time to time. I have bad birch tree allergies and have noticed that anything I eat that is related to the birch tree or that cross pollinates with it, such as apples, makes my mouth break out in hives. The other day at dinner I ate something and my mouth started to itch really bad from hives and I drank some of the tea (totally by coincident) and it made my mouth stop itching almost instantly! I was so surprised! I haven’t tried it again, but I really think it soothed the hives. I had no idea it had those kind of healing properties.

  5. Thanks for this work Renee. I found your blog when doing some researched on the possibility of making a tea from the needles of the small Christmas fir we have here in Germany. I’m thinking I’ll make a tea and preserve it with a little alcohol and use it as a cleansing room refreshener.
    Thanks for the encouragement and inspiration.

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