On a cold winter morning I go to my woodshed and gather an armful of douglas fir and bring it to my woodblock to chop into kindling and smaller pieces. I then bring it inside and stack the furrowed grey-brown-orange wood neatly in my old Norwegian wood stove. The fire licks the side of the wood and roars into life as I sit with appreciation and wonder, taking in the heat and aroma of this old friend. I sit on the old Douglas Fir floorboards that they laid down in 1907 and sip tea made from its needles. I can smell the lemony scent of its needles opening my lungs, and the pores of my skin. I can feel the tree send its roots down into my heart and stomach bringing vitality and strength.
Douglas Fir is everywhere here in Oregon. It is in my neighbor’s backyards, in the park near my house, by the sides of the roads and up in the nearby forests. Doug Fir counts for 4 out of every 5 conifers here and is by far the most common tree of the bioregion. Perhaps that is why it is often so overlooked, nearly forgotten by herbalists and rarely considered for food. But Douglas Fir truly touches every aspect of my life. It keeps me warm in the cold of night. It shelters me in my home wrapped in Douglas Fir 2 x 4s, offers me its uplifting scent for aromatic baths and helps prevent flus and colds through drinking its tea. And perhaps most importantly, it acts as the lungs of the forests around me, gladly drawing in carbon dioxide and breathing out oxygen as well as a host of aromatic terpenes that are uplifting, calming and opening.
Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menzeissii) grows commonly from Northern California to British Columbia- mostly on the west side of the cascades. Its close cousin P. menzeisii var. glauca is found primarily in the Rocky mountains .
Douglas Fir grows rapidly, can live for over a thousand years and can reach immense heights of over 300 feet as an old growth tree. Most of the Douglas Fir we see is no more than about 100 feet as they grew after much of the massive clearcuts of the last century and a half. As they mature the bark ripples and unfurls into a great thick outer husk. That thickness helps Douglas Fir defend against the ravages of a forest fire. The flat green 3/4 to 1 1/2 inch needles encircle the branches and its cones are easily recognizable by their three pointed bracts that protrude from the scales. The cones hang loosely off the trees and fall down intact onto the ground. Douglas Fir is reproduced best when a fire has eliminated some of its competitors and created open space for the cones to germinate.
Douglas Firs love heat and sun (My friend calls them Sun Pigs). Douglas Fir is one of the first conifers to take up residence in an open area. Their shade and protection allows other trees like cedar and hemlock to grow until a mature forest develops. Heat and fire is key to understanding this old beast. From its ability to withstand forest fires to its love of open sunlight and its ability to act as an important wood for making fires, Douglas Fir has an affinity with the Fire element.
When talking about Doug Fir, its key to understand the larger ecological context of this tree. Douglas Fir is enormously popular as a tree used for lumber for construction. Because of that, native old growth stands of Doug Fir have been ravaged since colonization in the early 1800s. There is a deep wound around working with this tree because we have treated it so poorly. Because of its usefulness and how fast it throws, timber companies grow massive stands of Douglas Fir mono crops. Instead of working sustainably and selectively harvesting as part of a forest ecosystem, we have clear cut vast swaths of the Northwest. As herbalists we need to think of this larger picture of devastation that continues to this day. When we gather, it is essential that we don’t damage the health of the trees and the surrounding environment.
Douglas Fir tips can be gathered in the late spring into early summer. I find that the aromatics of this tree are at its height around Summer Solstice and younger 10-40 year old tress hold the most oils. The scent of those fresh needles is incredible-smelling of lemons and citrus. The older trees hold a deeper note, strong and rich. Its best to gather from a newly fallen tree if possible but one can carefully gather a few sprigs here and there from different trees in a group. Its key to think of those Doug Fir needles as the trees’ spoons, gathering energy from the sun to convert the carbon dioxide into fuel for the tree. We need to be very careful not to take too many spoons away so gather carefully and with respect.
The needles should be used right away for various purposes as they dry out easily and become withered and lose their scent and medicinal value. The woody stems of the tree will be somewhat more bitter and resinous and can impart a more deeper tone to teas and aromatic preparations.
On some Douglas Fir trees you may find resin seeping out in dribs and drabs from time to time. This resin is being produced to enclose a wound and any openings that could allow fungi and any invaders from getting in to kill the tree. The resin will close the gaps and also provide an aromatic scent that repels invaders and speeds wound healing. The resin can be gathered carefully if one only uses the portions that are dripping off and not integral to the wound healing process. You will get quite sticky here but gather the resin with a knife (not scraping but gently detaching the “overflow” resin and placing it in a small container to take home. The resin can be used right away (think salves, oils) or placed in the refrigerator for quite a while before going bad.
Medicine and Energetics
Common Name: Douglas Fir
Botanical Name: Pseudotsuga menziesii
Parts Used: Primarily needles, resin
Taste/Energetics: Pungent, sour, sweet, spicy, gently warming
Element/Planetary Association: Fire, The Sun
Actions: Expectorant. circulatory stimulant, immunostimulant, antimicrobial, analgesic, anxiolytic, anti-rheumatic, nutrient rich
Expectorant: Good primarily as a tea for expelling mucus and phlegm and to treat persistent non-productive coughs as part of a bronchial formula.
Circulatory Stimulant: Somewhat moving and energizing, helpful for moving blood and lymph, improving digestive motility
Anti-rheumatic: Useful in baths, sweats and in aromatic formulas for reducing the pains of rheumatism.
Analgesic: Works primarily in topical applications for reducing pain from sore muscles and joints. The resin of Doug Fir is especially useful for this.
Immmunostimulant: Douglas Fir has an immunostimulant property that is best received via tea or syrup preparations and to a lesser degree via tincture. This is primarily from its high content of vitamin C.
Antimicrobial: Externally Doug Fir is helpful for topical applications with salve or oil to ward off infection. Internally, the tea, syrup and tincture all assist in fighting off infections, especially of the upper respiratory system.
Anxiolytic: This is a term that means anxiety reducing but really Doug Fir shines as a mood booster, helping to sharpen focus, lift the mood and bolster energy. This is especially the case with aromatic preparations such as essential oil, hydrosols and an incense preparations.
Indications: Douglas Fir is best offered to people who appear to have their inner fire dampened. They appear low, fatigues, listless with poor digestion, lack of confidence and direction with potential for frequent colds and especially upper respiratory infections.
Nutrient Rich: Douglas Fir tips are rich in vitamin C which makes is useful as an immune boosting tonic.
Contraindications: Early stage pregnancy
Doug Fir tips are useful for many types of preparations and I’ll just mention a few.
The tincture of douglas fir can be made by folk method by placing the needles loosely in a mason jar with enough 50 % alcohol to cover with a 1/2 inch at the top. Then store in a dark corner of the house that is not too warm or hot, shake daily for 4 weeks, then strain. You can also weigh the needles and use 1 part by weight to 5 parts by volume for a more accurately made tincture. I will also blend the needles in my vitamix to allow for greater surface area and a stronger, more aromatic tincture. I will use the tincture as part of an immunity increasing blend or a lung formula as well as an ingredient for a “bitters” formula for making cocktails. I also will use minute doses (1-3 drops) to simply connect to the soul of the tree when I can’t go directly to it.
Forest Bitters Formula:
2 parts Doug Fir
1 part Oregon Grape
1 part Reishi
1 part Burdock
Doug fir goes great in teas and the needles can be gathered year round for this but I highly recommend only using fresh needles. Doug fir needle tea is wonderfully uplifting and lemony and lovely for lung congestion, at the onset of a cold or flu, or to help in a formula for circulation. I also would suggest working with it as an immune system stimulant and to stoke internal digestive fires. It goes well in a chai formula (see Renee Davis’ article that mentions this recipe) that includes cloves, allspice berries, cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg.
For an immune boosting tea try
2 small sprigs of douglas fir tips
1 tablespoon Elderberries
1 teaspoon Rose
1/4 teaspoon Licorice
Add mix to a pint jar and then fill to the top with hot water and allow to steep for 20 minutes. Strain and drink.
Douglas fir goes great in an immune boosting and strengthening tonic syrup. Here is a recipe:
5 sprigs of douglas fir tips
2 tablespoons of elderberries
3 strips of astragalus
4 strips of Reishi (about an ounce)
Add ingredient together in a pot and add a quart of water. Decoct for 45 minutes until water reduced about in half to a pint. Strain and allow to cool to tepid temperature and add 1/2 to one cup of honey. Mix together and then place in a jar and store in the refrigerator. This will last about a month. Take one to two tablespoons a day to improve immune function.
The essential oil and hydrosol of this old beast is incredible. The yield is highest in late Spring/early summer when the new fir tips are at their most aromatic. The yield is about .3 percent at this time. That means from distilling 5 kilograms I might only get 15 ml of oil- a very small amount However I will also receive about a gallon of hydrosol from my 15 gallon still. The essential oil can be added to soaps, candles, bath salts etc. I like to use the hydrosol for a variety of uses- as a spray for clearing the air, for a face toner at night, as a household cleaner, and in small amounts for making cocktails.
Simply fill up a mason jar loosely with douglas fir tips and then add enough oil to cover with a half inch of space at the top. I generally use olive or fractionated coconut oil. Allow to sit in a warm space (by a fire or in front of a sunny window) for a few weeks and then strain. This can then be turned into a salve by putting the oil in a double boiler with one part beeswax to 8 parts doug fir oil. Heat the stove gently until the beeswax melts- then place in tins and allow to cool until it becomes a hard salve.
The resin can also be used to make a wonderful oil or salve. Weigh the resin you have collected and then place one part resin to eight parts oil in a double oiler (like one ounce of resin to 8 ounces of oil). Heat up the oil gently on a stove and allow the resin to dissolve. You may find that other particles, dirt and wood bark are also in there. Strain very carefully with a fine mesh and then store as oil or make it into a salve. The resinous salve is much more woodsy with deeper aromatic notes than the fir tip which is much more bright and lemony. I also find it to be more analgesic.
Cocktail “The Doug Fir”
1 ounce neutral spirit such as vodka
1 tablespoon simple syrup
1 dropper full of douglas fir tincture
1 teaspoon doug fir hydrosol
There are few ways that I work with Douglas Fir here. The first one is to simply place a number of tips in a mesh bag that allows them to infuse in the bath water and also easily removed afterwards. The next is to add a pint or two of hydrosol to my bath and the third is to make bath salts. Here is my simple recipe for that.
1 quart epsom salts
1 tablespoon douglas fir infused oil (I also play with cottonwood oil here.)
15 drops douglas fir essential oil.
Add essential oil to infused oil and mix well and then add to epsom salts and stir in until fully dissolved. Use one pint to one quart of epsom salts per bath.
And finally- perhaps the best way to interact with Douglas Fir is simply spending time with this majestic and underappreciated creature in there woods. There is significant research that “Forest Bathing”- the simple act of spending time in nature taking in the scent and sight of the land. Studies have shown significant reductions in stress hormone markers and decreases in anxiety and depression from those who regularly engage in a practice of forest bathing.
This article written by Jon Keyes, Licensed Professional Counselor and herbalist. For more articles like this, please go to www.Hearthsidehealing.com. You can also find me at the Facebook group Herbs for Mental Health.
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Comfort and Joy: The Healing Power of Conifers Danielle Prohom Olson
Douglas Fir Fable, History, Identification, Food and Medicine Nitty Gritty Life- Devon
Some Effect of Douglas Fir Terpenes on Certain microorganisms Andrews, Parks and Spence
Effect of various essential oils isolated from Douglas fir needles upon sheep and deer rumen microbial activity. Oh, Sakai, Jones and Longhurst
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