As the ubiquitous tree of the Pacific Northwest, Douglas fir has a rich folklore, history and abundant food and medicinal use. Try a Douglas fir tea recipe for respiratory support.
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.
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 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 Identification
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.
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 the anti-oxidant powerhouse 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 needles are tender and citrus-y, with a slight sour note nodding to it’s outstanding antioxidant properties. 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 lotion, cream and salve making.
I am a trained herbalist with a degree in Complementary and Alternative Medicine, I am not, however, a doctor. Posts in this blog are for informational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice. Before using any herbs, check for appropriate dosage, drug interactions, and contraindications. Information contained herein is not intended to treat, diagnose, cure or prescribe. Please consult your primary care physician regarding your specific health concerns.
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 the fresh needles and use in recipes like my Magical Douglas Fir Shortbread, eggnog, profiteroles, and frangipane tart!
- 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 Recipe
Douglas Fir Forest Friend Tea
- 1 oz dried Douglas fir tips
- ½ oz dried stinging nettle
- ½ oz reishi chunks
- ½ oz Oregon grape root
- ¼ oz 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.
Somewhere I read a story about Native people treating scurvy-afflicted trappers with a tea made from the new needles of the spruce tree, and wondered if any conifer would also work. There are lots of Douglas firs with their newly emerged needles surrounding me, so I’ll have to go harvest some. Thank you.
Douglas fir needles, as well as most other edible conifers, are very high in vitamin C and would have been an excellent treatment for scurvy at the time. Thank you for visiting my blog! 🙂
Devon, thanks for such an inspiring post. 33 years ago, when I was on my honeymoon, we dug up a baby douglas fir tree on the side of the road, outside the Westgate of Manning park in BC. We put “Douglas” in a pot for a couple years, sort of as a mascot. He moved with us until we bought a small acreage in BC’s lower mainland. We planted him and watched him grow over 20 years into a magestic tree. But I didn’t know he had any other value than his beauty. I wish I had your blog post to guide me 30 years ago. I, too, have native and scottish ancestry.
I just shared your post on my Facebook page.
Wonderful! I love your story about “Douglas”.
I love your blog and I thank you for all your Facebook shares!
I love the Earl Grey cookies. Will you post more recipes.
Yum! Earl Grey cookies sound so good!!! I will have to try some… I have several recipes for cookies on the blog, including a Doug fir shortbread that we adore in our household. You could use the “search” box in the sidebar for “cookies”, or if you scroll down there should see a category labeled “Cookies” – clicking on that we give you all the recipes that I have filed on that category. Thanks for visiting my little blog, Beverly!
Beautiful article, thanks for researching and sharing. I’d like to harvest and dry the tips. Any suggestions how best to preserve the medicinal quality while drying? I have a dehydrator and i have a small shed that gets to a good 95/100 degrees F and can block out the light. Thanks
Thank you! I would recommend using your dehydrator or make sure that the area of drying has adequate air flow. The needles do take some time to dry — but they smell so lovely while they are doing so!
I really love all the information you have in this article about our ubiquitous and lovable Doug Fir. I have live among these beauties all my life, and my family enjoys tea from their needles every year. Now we have more recipes to try! I really appreciate the time you took putting together this article.
Hello! I am wondering if the inflammatory properties of the Douglas Fir could be advantageous for someone who is experiencing autoimmune disease of the skin and digestive tract? Trying to find something, as my friend’s immune system keeps attacking more and more of his body.
*anti inflammatory properties*