Wild Harvesting in the Winter Months: Tree Medicine
Collecting medicine in the winter is something that I’ve been keen to dive more deeply into. It seems obvious to look firstly to the evergreens, as their abundant greenery in a landscape of bareness are acutely alive and verdant in the winter months. In our products, we use the evergreens mostly in our matter:outdoors essential oil blends as their scent is reminiscent of being in the woods and for the benefits they offer for pain relief, circulation and on the respiratory system.
Here in southern Ontario, with our mixed forest ecosystem we have a variety of species of the evergreens; pine, spruce, fir, white cedar, hemlock and juniper, to name a few. In this post I will focus on white pine, spruce and juniper, as these are what I have available to me on walks where I know the surrounding environment, the species I am working with and are growing in my garden.
A Few Notes on Harvesting
Harvesting your own medicine is a rewarding and grounding practice that offers an opportunity to connect with our natural environment helping deepen our relationship with the plant world.
Thankfully evergreens are abundant and easy to identify, harvest and dry. However, caution must be taken when harvesting and taking herbs internally. Having proper identification is key.
A sustainable way to harvest evergreens is through collecting fresh fallen branches. You can tell if the plant is still fresh by its colour, whether the leaves are still flexible, and by crushing some needles in your fingertips to see if they smell aromatic. If harvesting directly from the tree, prune gently by snipping tips of the needles and harvesting from lower branches.
When harvesting, always remember to…
- Know what you are harvesting – proper identification is key, use a field guide.
- Take only what you need.
- Know where you are harvesting, be sure it is not treated with chemicals. If you're harvesting in the city, be sure it is not close to roadsides or pathways.
The Evergreens — AKA Conifers
It should be noted that the evergreens have many similar properties. Most are edible except the Yew (Taxus spp.) which is toxic, and are a perfect example as food as medicine. They all have an affinity for the respiratory system, helping with ailments of the lungs hence why we use balsam fir in our baby’s own chest rub.
Their essential oil — the characteristic evergreen smell from the needles and sap are antimicrobial and can be used externally for healing wounds. They also offer circulatory stimulating properties to aid in body aches and pains making them soothing in baths and rubs. heat rub, bath salts.
Eastern White Pine (pinus strobus)
Identification: The official tree of the Province of Ontario, you can identify these majestic trees from its cluster of long needles forming from a single stem.
Medicine: White pine makes a delicious tea using fresh or dried leaves. It is high in vitamin C (ascorbic acid) and has an affinity for the lungs especially as an expectorant. A stronger expectorant can be made with brewing the twigs, needles, sap and bark which can be used for lung issues like COPD, helping to thin mucus and alleviate coughs.
Suggested Uses: Tea, cough syrup, steam
Caution: Not all members of the pine family can be used medicinally. The Yew (taxus spp.) looks like pine, but is poisonous. You can tell you’ve harvested Yew, when you crush leaves and they don't have a distinctive evergreen scent. Also, some pines are considered abortifacients so should be avoided during pregnancy.
Spruce (picea glacula)
Identification: Spruce are commonly known for their pyramid Christmas Trees form. Their needs are small and have four sides to them which you can roll on the fingertips.
Medicine: The essential oils and fresh needles can be used for sinus congestion and inflammation and work nicely as a herbal steam to help with sinus congestion and deep lower respiratory infections. Also great for a bath, its emotional attributes lift the spirits and is good for exhaustion; perfect for the winter blues.
Suggested Uses: Bath, Steam, Tea
Juniper (juniperus communis)
Identification: We use juniper in our Body Wash Shampoo and our Biodegradable Soap for its natural antibacterial properties. Juniper can be identified by having flat scales for needles and blue waxy berry. Note: There are many poisonous varieties of juniper so having proper identification is key.
Medicine: Juniper is most well known for its use in flavouring gin, but it has many other uses. The berries can be harvested when ripe and used as a spice or steeped in vodka for your own gin-like infused cocktails. It should also be noted that the berries make a great digestive aid due to its bitter action and are a nice addition to a bitter tonic.
Native Americans use all aromatic parts of the plant to clear “bad vibes” and protect against black magic. The plant is often used as incense and for smudging to clear negativity.
Its diuretic and antimicrobial action make it helpful for cystitis and the urinary tract system, however, caution should be taken as it can over stimulate the kidneys so should be avoided when there is any kidney disease.
Its essential oil is antibacterial, pain relieving and promotes circulation. Cosmetically it has been used for cellulite.
Suggested Uses: Cordial, culinary spice, smudging
Caution: It is best to be used short term for its effects on the kidneys and should be avoided during pregnancy
Here is a simple recipe to get you started.
Thyme & Pine Needle Sore Throat TeaIngredients:
- ½ cup fresh green eastern white pine or
- 2-3 tbsp of dried needles
- 4 or 5 fresh thyme sprigs
- Boiled water
- Honey to taste
- Drying pine needles is easy. You can collect fresh pine needles for use in tea, or dry them in a brown paper bag. When drying you may want to cut into smaller more manageable pieces.
- For fresh pine sprigs use ½ cup depending on how strong you want the tea, for dried use 2- 3 tbsp.
- If using fresh needles, cut needles into 1" pieces .
- For thyme sprigs you can use them whole. They are super delicious and anti-microbial.
- Place needles and thyme sprigs in a mug or teapot. Pour boiling water over herbs and steep for 5 – 10 minutes (the longer you steep the stronger the tea)
- Strain and add honey to taste.
Evergreen Steam or Bath
- Large basin or pot
- 1 handfuls of fresh spruce tops
- 1 handfuls of fresh juniper
- 1 liter of hot steamy water
- Towel & tissue
- Bring water to a boil over stove top, then turn off heat. Drop the handfuls of herbs into the water and stir until they are submerged. Allow the plants to steep for about 10 minutes in the steamy water. You can transfer to a basin or do your steam over the pot.
- Put a towel over your head, and close your eyes, putting your face over the steaming pot. Breathe in the steam and beneficial essential oils for a minute. Take a break, and repeat. Stay under for 5-10 minutes coming out as needed. You may find you will need a tissue handy to blow your nose. If respiratory symptoms are acute, you can do this 3 times a day.
- For a Bath, you can transfer the steeped herbs (being sure to strain herbs before putting into the tub) to your bath and add 3 tbsp up to a ½ cup of epsom salts. Sit back and relax.
Evergreens are beneficial for the respiratory system possessing antimicrobial and anti-spasmodic properties. As a steam it would be helpful for respiratory ailments like COPD, coughs, deep bronchial congestion and cold and flu symptoms as the steam gently penetrates the mucus lining helping to alleviate dryness and congestion.
In the bath they will help relax muscles and offer similar respiratory benefits. The essential oils contained in the plant offer immune enhancing and restorative properties, making perfect as a winter bath.
- Fresh juniper twigs - hand length (6-7 pieces)
- Cotton thread or hemp string
- Lay several sprigs of herbs on top of each other. You’ll want to make it thick, as it will lose volume when it’s dry.
- Secure the bottom of the bundle with a double knot. Start at bottom and criss-cross on either side and make the bundle tight as you wrap the string.
- Tie a double knot at the top and lay flat to dry on a screen or hang in a cool dry area away from sunlight. Let the bundle dry for several days, it will need to be completely dry before you can burn it.
Smudging is a calming ritual that can be done before a meditation or yoga practice or simply to change the energy of a space. The aroma of juniper is considered to be purifying and comforting, offering positive energy. You can add other evergreens and herbs to the smudge like spruce, sage and rosemary.