When 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 brighten your spirits – during the season we need it most. And please explore the links, you’ll find all kinds of recipes and simple DIY tips on how you can make culinary and medicinal conifer magic at home!
Conifers are a family of chiefly evergreen trees or shrubs of the class Coniferinae including the pine, fir, spruce, hemlock and other cone-bearing trees and shrubs – and people have been using them for food and medicine 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!)
And it’s no wonder they were traditionally used in many healing remedies. The volatile oils found in pine, spruce and fir needles, bark, sap and resin are used by herbalists and aromatherapists 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.
Their 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, cardiovascular-protecting, triglyceride-reducing properties as well. Conifer needles are one of the richest sources of polyprenols which stimulate the immune system, cellular repair and contain antiviral properties – in particular against influenza viruses! (Which all goes a long way towards explaining their ancient reputation as a cure-all for practically anything!)
Plus they’re delicious! Citrusy and herbaceous, 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, sharp and lemony, spruce as resinous and fruity with a rosemary-like flavor, and firs as sweet with candied orange peel overtones.
And they’re super easy to incorporate into a wide variety of foods. You can toss chopped needles into vinegars, finishing salts and even blend them directly (with a food processor) into sugars. (link here). The salts give wonderful flavour to fish, roasted meats and are great sprinkled straight up on apples or celery. My favourite seasonal use for conifer sugar is shortbread – I cream it into butter when making the dough and sprinkle on top once the cookies are baked.
Conifer needles are especially wonderful in teas. My hands down favourite is the sweetly flavoured Grand Fir, with it’s distinct tangerine or grapefruit top-notes. It is easily identified by its needles which lie flat on the branches, alternating short and long (see image above). 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 made 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.
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. I love to mix in dried rose petals and bits of cedar for additional fragrance. You could even further customize your blend by considering each conifer’s differing medicinal and energetic effects. According to this aromatherapy site, the oils of firs are warming and invigorating, while relieving nervous exhaustion and stress. Spruce helps support the adrenal glands, stimulate and increase energy, and are “centering, calming and focusing”.
Their needles can also make wonderful homemade oils and warming salves for topical application on the skin. These are beneficial as muscle rubs, bringing blood flow and circulation to stiff winter bodies, muscles and joints. They make a great lip balm too!
And let me tell you, on chilly winter days, a conifer salve makes a perfect accompaniment for yoga. (Recipes can be found here and here.) 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.
According to aromatherapists, 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 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.
And to close, here is an easy recipe for a festive, tasty and medicinal evergreen tonic syrup. You can use to this to brighten Yuletide foods and drink, but also as a tonic when you need a fortifying boost and feel a cold or flu coming on. And this festive season, it makes a wonderful flavor-packed syrup for tea, cocktails, and desserts. So gift yourself and those you love, with some conifer inspired comfort and joy!
(Note: All Conifers are edible excepting the Yew whose needles are thought to be toxic, though some herbalists use them medicinally. Cedar can be toxic in high doses but a handful of needles are just fine consumed in a tea. 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 sold as mini-Christmas Trees in supermarkets.