Douglas Fir: Folklore & Medicinal Uses
Douglas Fir Fable, History, Identification, Food & Medicine
Douglas fir is a thing of scent memories. From my early childhood, when my grandparent’s grew them for Christmas trees. From my teenage years, skipping school and fishing in the foothills of the Cascades. And now, as I forage fall mushrooms in the sweet, damp forest, or even when I simply step outside my home. I am surrounded. I feel deeply connected to the great and majestic tree. Deep in the roots of my maternal heritage is Native American blood, so perhaps it is not such a leap for me to consider this special tree of great spiritual significance – a totem, if you will.
Douglas Fir Fable
The Douglas fir has long been associated with protection by the native cultures of the Pacific Northwest. Native folklore weaves a story of a great forest fire and a mouse seeking refuge in the canopy of the tree. The Douglas fir thought its thick bark would protect it from the ravages of the fire below and invited the mouse and those that would follow, to climb into his massive canopy and find shelter in his cones. The mice did so, leaving their feet and tails exposed beneath the thumb shaped scales of the cone – and both the tree and the mice survive the great fire. Other versions of this fable portrays mice seeking shelter from a dire storm or deep snow and famine. Alas, they are all stories of protection, albeit some short lived. Some stories end with an angry tree trapping the mice in his cones after they ate all his seeds, while another tells of a red tail hawk snatching up the departing mice. Such is nature, both beautiful and cruel.
Douglas Fir History
Douglas fir is named for the Scottish botanist David Douglas. Perhaps it is no coincidence that I find connection with the same tree, as the paternal side of my family is exclusively of Scottish ancestry, immigrating to the states only in the 20th century. Anyhow, David Douglas introduced this great tree to European botanical society in 1827, before allegedly meeting a grisly end at the horns or hooves of a bull a few years later whilst hiking the mountains of Hawaii. Such is nature, here again, sometimes cruel and brutal. While Douglas possesses the posthumous glory of the common name, the proper Latin name, Pseudotsuga menziesii, hails from rival botanist Archibald Menzies. To be clear, the Douglas fir is not a true fir, and, as such, is not a member of the Abies genus with the Fraser, Noble and balsam firs, among others. Instead, Pseudotsuga translates to “false hemlock”, and the Douglas fir is rather uniquely its own “brand”.
Douglas Fir Idenification
If you haven’t read my post on Douglas fir shortbread cookies (and I think that you should), you might be needing of an identification primer. Douglas fir is a tall evergreen, native to the Pacific Northwest, filling the western landscape from British Columbia to Northern California (there is also variety that resides in the Rockies). The needles are characteristically soft and fragrant, spiraling around the limbs, tightly toward the top of the tree and more open below. The pendulous cones hang from the branches and display those tiny appendages from the mice of lore. The thick, craggy bark is thought to be somewhat fire resistant. In recent years, Douglas fir in the PNW has been stricken with horrendous fungal disease (Rhabdocline and Swiss Needlecast), the likes of which I have seen brown and devastate a natural landscape. Here with the cruelty, again.
Douglas Fir Food & Medicine
With lore, history and identification out of the way, let me share with you the great medicinal virtues of Douglas fir. The needles contain a wide variety of monoterpenes such as α-pinene, β-pinene, limonene, myrcene, camphene, Δ3-carene, and terpinolene, as well as monoterpene alcohols such as α-terpineol, terpinen-4-ol, linalool, citronellol, and fenchyl alcohol. Other Douglas fir constituents include esters and aldehydes. With these functional constituent groups in mind, Douglas fir offers anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, antimicrobial (bacterial, viral and fungal), expectorant, and sedative properties. Perhaps this is why a walk in a evergreen forest opens your lungs, frees your breath and sets your mind at ease. The needles are a great source of vitamin C, too. Traditional uses of Doug fir needles include for the common cold and chest complaints, asthma, headache, liver stagnancy, and inflammatory conditions such as rheumatism and arthritis. I like to collect the brilliantly green tips in the spring from healthy and well established trees (do NOT harvest tips from seedlings or diseased trees). They are positively florescent and lime against the backdrop of the dark needles. At this young stage the needle are tender and citrus-y. In the fall, when the needles are seasoned, they take on a deeper, more balsamic note. I even collect the resinous exudate from the trunk to infuse the oils for our Homespun Wildwood Lotion – a sticky, but wonderfully aromatic experience!
Here are a few suggested uses for a Douglas fir bounty:
- Infused vinegar: Use for dressings, or as a base vinegar for fire cider. Place clean Douglas fir tips in a jar and cover with raw apple cider vinegar, weigh down the needles to keep submerged. Infuse for 4-6 weeks, strain and bottle.
- Infused gin: For the most holiday-ish of martinis! Place clean Douglas fir tips in a jar and cover with a decent quality gin, weigh down the needles to keep submerged. Infuse for 4-6 weeks, strain and bottle.
- Douglas fir sugar: Place a few sprigs of clean and dry Douglas fir into a jar of organic cane sugar to infuse the sugar with its forest-y aroma. Use for baked goods or to coat the rim of your martini glass.
- Baked good: Finely mince thefresh needles and use in recipes like my Magical Douglas Fir Shortbread
- Seasoning salts: Add finely minced and dried needles and your other favorite herbs and spices to a sea salt blend – especially good on roast poultry and fowl.
- Tea: Create a nourishing and immune stimulating tea like this Forest Friend blend, with reishi, nettle, oregon grape root, cinnamon and orange.
Douglas Fir Recipe: Forest Friend Tea
- 1 oz dried Douglas fir tips
- ½oz dried stinging nettle
- ½oz reishi chunks
- ½oz Oregon grape root
- ¼oz cinnamon chips (optional)
- Combine ingredients in a large bowl. If your Douglas fir or reishi is still in large pieces, you may want to pulse in a food processor or blender until the mixture is of fairly uniform size.
- Store in a airtight container, in a cool place out of direct sunlight.
- To make tea (or more appropriately termed, decoction): Gently simmer a heaping tablespoon of the loose tea blend for 15-20 minutes in 8-10oz of water. Strain and sweeten with raw honey as desired.