Kat Mackinnon, Botany Director, CSCH
Tree medicine has all the herbal actions you could ask for in an apothecary, along with often being in delightful abundance. Sustainable, practical, and beautiful, these keystone species are well worth getting to know.
There are hundreds of medicinal trees and shrubs in the Southwest. To keep this giant medicine chest from becoming overwhelming, we’re going to divide it into two main groups: flowering and coniferous (or if you’d like to be a bit more technical, Angiosperms and Gymnosperms). Looking at these groups is not only useful for identification, but also for looking broadly at medicinal uses. In this article, we’ll be exploring the latter group, the Conifers.
Conifers Make Cones
Sometimes botanical terms make delightful intuitive sense (yes, it Conidoes happen!). Conifer is one of those terms. From the Latin conus, meaning, you guessed it, ‘cone,’ it refers to cone-bearing trees or shrubs. Pines, Junipers, Redwoods, Hemlocks. If you find a tree in North America that makes cones, chances are pretty good it’s a Conifer (the exceptions being Cycads growing in subtropical climates, or a stray Welwitschia, a rare plant that grows almost exclusively in Namibia, and is considered by many experts to have one of the most satisfying Latin names to pronounce). For the most part cones have no fleshy, life-sustaining bits on them, leaving their seeds rather ‘naked’ as they mature (this is why they’re called gymnosperms – gym comes from the Greek root word for ‘naked.’ Yup, gymnasium literally translates to ‘place to train naked.’
Conifers are Evergreen – except when they’re not …
Along with their signature dense cones, Conifers often have needle or scale-like leaves that tend to persist throughout the year, from which they get their label ‘evergreens.’ The only troublesome bit about this common name is that not all evergreens are Conifers, and not all Conifers are evergreen. A common northern Conifer, the Larch (Larix laricina), ruins the whole convenient naming thing by dropping its needles every autumn. Meanwhile, Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius), insists on keepings its foliage throughout the Colorado winter, even though its never made a cone in its life.
Conifers tend to populate more inhospitable spaces. They are older, evolutionarily speaking, and I daresay scrappier than their deciduous, flowering brethren. Hence the immense variety of Pines, Spruces, Firs, and other evergreens in Colorado and the Southwest in general. They need less light, water, and nutrients than the flashier Maples, Cottonwoods, etc. They are the Edward Abbeys of the tree world, tending towards craggy toughness and arid climates (though there are moisture-loving exceptions, Redwood and Swamp Cypress being perhaps the most obvious).
An important factor regarding Conifer medicine is that these persistent little creatures store medicine in their bark and leaves evenly throughout the year. This means that Pine bark and needles are just as ready to harvest for food and tea in winter as in summer. Now, this doesn’t mean that there’s no difference in when you harvest. In the warmer, wetter, lighter seasons, the medicine tends to be a bit sweeter. Both needles and bark are storing up sugars and water for all their worth during this time. For most species one of the best times to harvest bark is late winter / early spring, when you get concentrated medicine with just a bit of sweetness.
———–Limber Pine (Pinus contorta) Colorado, 11,000 feet ————–
The price for this year-round harvest is that the medicine from Conifers is generally a bit rough around the edges. They are often more resinous, and therefore harsher on some of our filter organs (kidneys being the biggie). Not the end of the world, but we mitigate this by either keeping our doses lower, or formulating with more gentle herbs.
———–Limber pine cone resin———–
Part used: leaves, ‘berry’ (the berries on Junipers are actually modified cones … )
Medicinal Use: I think of this as our more resinous (and potentially more irritating) Southwest version of Ginger. It’s a carminative with mild bitter action, as well as a warming respiratory tonic and mild expectorant, which can also encourage menstrual flow with stagnant menses. There is of course the action it has as a urinary antiseptic, but I find I use this less for urinary stuff and more for its above-mentioned attributes. Juniper also makes a fantastic disinfectant smudge (the berries on coals are my favorite).
Due to its resinous nature and the high volatile oil content in these species, Juniper is best avoided by pregnant folks and those with kidney issues.
Pinus spp. (Pine), Picea spp. (Spruce), Abies spp. (Fir), Pseudotsuga menziesii (Douglas Fir), Pinaceae
Vitalist Actions and Energetics: warm and dry, stimulant, diffusive
Actions: mild-moderate stimulant expectorant, mild-moderate laxative, mild diuretic, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, mild vulnerary
Parts used: bark, young stem, leaf, seeds, immature male cones, resin/pitch
Pine is one of my favorite medicines. If I could sweat pine resin, I totally would. As both a physical and energetic medicine, it is one of the most appealing. It has a gentle presence that belies its sheer toughness. Spruce and Fir are pretty darn similar to Pine, which is why I put them under the same heading. There are subtle differences though, which I am still in the process of exploring. So far Pine seems to be the heavier hitter, at least the species here in the Southwest. The parts of these species all have their own potency and powers. Generally, the more resinous parts are stronger in action.
There is a caution floating out there that Pine medicine should not be consumed during pregnancy (due to the high vitamin C content and associated potential for miscarriage). I traced this caution back to the source, which was an incident back in the 70’s involving a pregnant cow and 40 pounds of bark, twigs and needles, consumed in exclusion to anything else, over a few hours, which caused the cow to abort. I would defy any being to not have a negative result after consuming the equivalent amount of herb. There are no human instances recorded of this as an issue. At any rate, in my practice I don’t use herbs with pregnant bodies anyway, but now you have some context for the “caution.”
Excerpted from the original publication “Tree Medicine” in the Mountain West Herb Gathering conference notes, 2016