Pseudotsuga menziesii: Windows into Forest Medicine

This was one of 3 trees covered in my Trees, Humans & Healing talk at the 2nd Dandelion Seed Conference in Olympia last weekend. I wrote an expanded piece on Douglas-fir, which may behoove the reader to peruse before or after grazing this post. 

Origins & Ecology 
Douglas-fir is the dominant tree west of the Cascade Mountains and is this continent’s second tallest tree (exceeded only by the Redwoods in the South). It’s found in coastal regions stretching South into the Santa Cruz Mountains up to West Central British Columbia, and East into Northern Idaho and Western Montana.

Douglas-fir is, as a name, a misnomer. It’s not a true fir (which belong to the Abies genus). Its genus, Pseudotsuga, translates to False Hemlock. Other common names it’s had over the years include Oregon Pine, Oregon Spruce, Red Fir. Due to confusion around the name ‘Douglas-fir,’ some botanists have proposed the name ‘Douglasstree’ as comfortably distinct from other conifer common names. It got its name from a Scottish botanist, David Douglas, who conducted a botanical expedition to the Pacific Northwest in 1825. During his tour, he also named a number of other plants: Doug-fir mistletoe, Douglas aster, Douglas gentian, Douglas buckwheat, Douglas onions, and more. Its species name, menziesii, is named after Archibald Menzies, another Scottish naturalist.

Doug-firs migrated to the area at the end of the Wisconsin Ice Age 11,000 years ago when the climate transitioned from subarctic to temperate. This brought mild/wet winters & dry summers to the West—conditions which favor conifers. The first species to migrate North was Lodgepole pine. And as the area warmed, Douglas-fir began to enter the landscape.

This tree has a special relationship with fire. The seedlings are shade intolerant and require sunlight penetration through the canopy to grow. Forest fires that clear out the understory/deadwood are necessary for them to proliferate. (This also happens when an area is logged. In fact, the logging practices of the last 200 years created artificial disturbances that enabled Douglas-firs to thrive.) Doug-firs possess thicker bark and a faster growth rate than most climax trees of the area (such as Western Hemlock and Western Red Cedar). This quality gives Douglas-firs a competitive advantage when the forest experiences a major disturbance such as fire.

Observing its needle spread is not the most reliable way to identify this tree. Needle layout changes depending on light strength. In shade the needles flatten out, and in sun they circumvent the branch. A better way to indentify Douglas-fir is by examining its cone, which has 3 characteristic bracts between the scales that resemble mouse legs & a tail. (One of its nicknames is ‘mousecone’.)

Harvesting & Use: Boughs & Needles
The boughs & needles are used medicinally. They can be gathered & used year round. It’s one of the few medicines we have available to gather during the winter.

The tree’s flavor changes throughout the year. In the spring, the tips are bright green, tart, and packed with Vitamin C. Many people harvest the Spring tips to snack on fresh or dry for tea. Progressing through the season, they become less tart, more aromatic, and may be a tad bitter. (Because the flavor varies throughout the season, it’s good to taste your Doug-fir preparations while they’re infusing to avoid oversteeping.)

The needles & bark contain resinous compounds that, when extracted, can be expectorant and soothing for congestion and lingering coughs & colds. My favorite blend (if I had to choose) would be Douglas-Fir Chai.

-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. 

I’ve heard of people gathering the resin deposited on the outside of the bark, tincturing it, and using it for sore, inflamed tissues (similar to Myrrh tincture). The resin could also be melted into a salve for a warming balm for sore muscles, bruises, joint pain, and rheumatism.

There’s something about the verticality & upright nature of Doug-fir trees that I draw meaning from when considering its medicinal qualities. In Chinese medicine, the Wood element is associated with Spring, vision, and asserting a way forward. So I incorporate Doug-fir into my days when I’m feeling stagnant, unsure about direction, slouchy, unclear.

Trees, particularly fragrant ones, help ground & center us. In Japan, there is a practice called shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) consisting of long sessions of deep inhalation in the forest. Recently, clinical research has focused on aromatic compounds & heart rate variability (a measure of cardiac stress). Aromatic plants can have a relaxing effect on neuromuscular tension & the autonomic nervous system, which subsequently affects mental & perhaps cardiovascular health. They can also help us function more in a more balanced & focused manner due to their effects on our olfactory senses. (Throughout our evolution, new smells signaled a new change or environment.)


  • Decoction
    • best. Chai. ever.
    • for low-grade coughs & colds
  • Infused honey, olive oil, & vinegars
  • honey: for teas, coffee, ice cream, etc,
  • olive oil: salads, vegeteables,
  • vinegars: salad dressings, compress for sore muscles



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1 Response

  1. Lovely article Renee. I think we tend to overlook this amazing tree because of how common it is. But it really is one of the main guardians of the NW and a powerful healer on many levels. Thanks for your good words…

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