When the days darken, cold winds blow, and the damp settles into our lungs and bones, we can turn to our ancient plant allies, the evergreen and ever vital, conifers. Towering over the forest canopy, their top branches are always nourished by the sun but their roots extend deeply into the earth. And when winter makes demands on our reserves of energy, endurance and warmth, we can count on their grounding and revitalizing energy for support.
In this post, we’ll explore the many ways (from foods, teas, oils and salves) conifers nurture your body and uplift your spirits during the season we need it most. And if you explore the links you’ll find additional recipes and simple DIY tips to make these evergreen treats at home.
The healing powers of pine, spruce and fir lie largely in their volatile oils. Found in needles, bark, sap and resin, their essential oils have been found to help stimulate the respiratory system, decongest the lungs, boost the immune system, balance hormones, and bring circulation and warmth to cold muscles and stiff joints.
And as anyone who has smelled their fresh-cut branches already knows, their enchanting fragrance is a medicine all its own, helping calm the nervous system, reduce stress and cortisol, revive stamina and provide feelings of peace and wellbeing.
Plus they’re delicious and nutritious! Pines needles are high in vitamin B, C, A, and iron and a slew of minerals, antioxidants and flavonoids, and according to various studies they contain anti-viral, anti-inflammatory, immune system-boosting, cardiovascular-protecting, triglyceride-reducing properties as well. (Which goes a long way towards explaining their ancient reputation as a cure-all for practically anything!)
And their culinary potential for dazzling the taste buds is amazing. Studies have identified over 39 flavor compounds in pine needles and over 81 in pine bud/tips alone! There are even conifer enthusiasts (and here) who have analysed their taste signatures, describing pines as heady and citrusy, spruce as resinous and fruity with a rosemary-like flavor, and firs as sweet with candied orange peel overtones. Grand Fir is said to have a distinct tangerine or grapefruit top-notes.
People have been using conifers for food for thousands of years. Across northern countries pine nuts (found in the cones) were harvested, and needles were used to flavour beer and liqueur. Locally, BC First Nations also harvested pine nuts, used needles of pine, fir and spruce for teas, chewed their resin and sap, and scraped off the inner bark for dried cakes with berries. (see here if you want to try some!)
You can toss chopped needles in vinegars, finishing salts and even infuse in sugars (link here). But surely the easiest way to partake in their revivifying aromatic magic is a tea. My hand down favourite is the sweetly flavoured Grand Fir, easily indentified by its needles which lie flat on the branches, alternating short and long.
Just add a handful of needles to a cup of boiling water and let steep for 15 minutes. A tea made mostly from fresh needle tips will be brighter and sweeter, while one with older needles will be more earthy and woodsy. I throw in small twigs because the bark (high in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties) adds even more rich flavour, with just a hint of resinous bitter. It’s also nice to add a pinch of warming spices like cinnamon, nutmeg or cloves which bring their own potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory qualities to the brew.
You can further customize your blend by considering differing medicinal and energetic effects. According to this aromatherapy site, the oils of firs are warming and invigorating, “their straight-forward energy brings confidence and courage” while relieving nervous exhaustion and stress. Spruce helps support the adrenal glands, stimulate and increase energy, and are “centering, calming and focusing”.
Fresh or dried conifer needles (about a cup) can also be wrapped in a cloth bag and tossed in the bath for a revitalizing soaking. And blended with sea or epsom salts, they can be incredibly relaxing. And their essential oils diluted with olive or coconut oil, applied topically, can be beneficial as a muscle rub, bringing blood flow and circulation to stiff winter bodies, muscles and joints.
And let me tell you, on chilly winter days, a conifer salve (another recipe here) makes a perfect accompaniment for yoga. Massaging it’s restorative fragrance into the skin (which also contains scent receptors) before or after practice leaves you feeling supple and resilient, well, as an evergreen.
Coastal Forest Salve
Their oils and fragrance are said to support and stimulate different chakras as well. Pines represent the “the oldest aromatic energy on the earth” and are “linked to the oxygenation of our planet”, therefore their energy is grounding and supports the heart chakra and respiratory system. Canadian Hemlock “stimulates the imagination and inspiration while stabilizing the nervous system” and enhances the 2nd, 4th, 5th and 6th chakras, while Western Hemlock can “help dispel disturbances in your energy fields which are disrupting your health and well-being”.
Western Hemlock is prolific here on Vancouver Island, and according to herbalist Todd Caldecott, it’s powerful feminine energies were often called upon by local Coastal Salish women. “Boughs were often used to make special huts to house the women gathered in during menstruation. Among the Kwakwaka’wakw people of Vancouver Island, female warriors asking a boon of the god Sisiutl used Western Hemlock in their head-dress during ceremonial dances. Sisiutl is the two-headed serpent mentioned in all the Coastal First Nations mythology: an untamed deity of the earth, representing like the Indian goddess Kali, the wild darkness of nature from which all life begins.”
And for our European ancestors, the female life-giving magic of conifers was also honoured. During Yule festivities across the northern hemisphere, trees of pine, fir and spruce were revered as embodiments of the goddess (the Tree of Life) who never dies. And on the winter solstice (the longest and darkest night of the year) they were decorated with candles and ornaments symbolizing the everlasting light of sun, moon and stars, in her undying branches.
We still partake in this enduring mystery when we hang winter wreathes on our doors (symbolizing the sun and everlasting life) or stand before our own lit trees during this season. But we can also call on this old feminine wisdom by crafting a little evergreen magic of our own. So when the cold winds blow and spirits flag, brew up some tea, take a conifer infused bath, inhale their oils, and warm your skin. Gift yourself and those you love, with some comfort and joy!
And if you live in Victoria be sure to attend our Winter Evergreen Workshop where you will learn to identify local species and make (and take home) a potpourri of culinary delights like grand fir tea and infused sugar, and pine and spruce finishing salts and syrup. We’ll also be offering some of these tasty treats for purchase at the Moonrise Creative’s Winter Market along with our Conifer Bath Salts and Conifer Oil and Salve, as well.
But if you can’t make it, here is an easy recipe for a festive, tasty and medicinal evergreen syrup to make at home. Perfect for the festive season, you can add this to tea, cocktails, desserts or pancakes, or take it straight up as an enlivening winter tonic.
Grand Fir & Spruce Syrup
- 2 ounces or so of fresh Grand Fir needles (add a few clipped twigs if you want additional flavour and nutrients)
- 2 ounces or so of fresh spruce needles (and 2 small cones – optional)
- 1 ounce of fresh pine needles
- 1 & 1/2 cups of water
- 1 cup of honey
- pinch of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg or cardamom (whichever you like!)
- Put the plant material in a pot and cover with water. Bring this to a boil and then lower to simmer for several hours until the liquid is reduced by half.
- Strain the needles from your decoction. Then take remaining liquid and put back into pot, adding your honey. (You should have an approximately 2:1 ratio of liquid to honey.)
- Gently heat while stirring for a minute or two. Then remove and let cool. Your syrup is done!
(Note: All Conifers are edible excepting the poisonous Yew (which is easily indentified by it’s red berries in winter). Cedar is said to be toxic in high doses (a few needles are fine in a tea) and Ponderosa Pines should be avoided by pregnant or nursing mothers. Also avoid consuming the needles from the Norfolk Island Pine which is not native to BC and is often found as house plants/mini-Christmas Trees.)