Winter is often a relatively quiet time for the wildcrafter and gardener. Much of the plant world is asleep or dormant; napping seeds and cells rest up for the bustling, vigorous growth of spring. This is a good time to play with evergreens, who so graciously offer their gifts year round. I love to simply look at the different conifers and contemplate their forms. The stately, commanding and gentle grandparent of the forest- the Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) is dotted here and there around the variety of forested terrains we call home. Hemlock stands out as the only evergreen (save for a few Junipers) further “inland” from Lake Huron amongst the Beeches, Maples, Ashes, Elms, Cherries and Cottonwoods of the woodland bush.
Eastern Hemlock also graces us closer to the shores, in and around the wind swept sand dunes and in-land lakes directly off Lake Huron. Here the Eastern Hemlock is intermingled with other evergreens. White Pine (Pinus strobus) with its gentle, bright green needles stretches its branches out long and high, as if reaching for the sky. Red Pine (Pinus resinosa) is the more rugged of the two pines with rough, thicker, longer needles, brilliant red, brown, and grey splotchy bark and breathtaking form. “A strong tree knows how to bend in the wind,” my mother-in-law once told me and the wind blown pines of Lake Huron’s dunes seem to embody this, their stark branches jutting out from their trunks unevenly in different directions; stubbornly exuding their strength even as their growth habit submits to the will of the winds.
Also rugged is Juniper. Both Juniperus cummunis and J. virginiana grow here with their forbiddingly sharp foliage. Juniper is abundant with J. communis growing low to the ground and J. virginiana growing up to be tall, wide, full trees. Last but not least is the graceful and reverent Eastern Cedar (Thuja occidentalis). The cedars that grow back at the inland lakes are breathtakingly beautiful, healthy looking trees with abundant bright green boughs. Cedar boughs are a permanent resident in our home and indeed we pick cedar boughs whenever needed, in any season of the year- for tea, for smudging, for baths, for sprinkling on top of the wood stove to help purify the air.
The needles of all the evergreens mentioned in this post, and many other evergreens as well, contain copious amounts of vitamin C. Evergreen trees of North America are famous for being employed by the First Nations to treat scurvy in some of the earliest explorers to North America, although there is some uncertainty over exactly which species was used. Many evergreens share medicinal uses and can be used somewhat similarly. This is excellent as just about everyone can find some kind of evergreen indigenous to where they live.
Explore what is close by to you, get to know what evergreens are growing where you live and read up on their specific uses. In general, however, evergreen needles make an excellent tea to drink for taste or when you have a cold; the vitamin C being beneficial in this case. Evergreens have also been used to treat arthrtic pain and injuries, coughs and chest congestion, kidney and urinary tract troubles, as dressings for wounds, burns and injuries, for food and much more! The needles of evergreen trees are often employed medicinally, as well as the inner bark, sap and resins.
White Pine (Pinus strobus) grew abundantly in eastern North America until extensive logging of it by settlers in the 1800’s dramatically reduced stands of White Pine. White Pine grows straight and tall and the trunks were desired to be used for ship masts. After extensive logging of White Pine, not much seed remained to establish new trees, and hardwoods took over, changing the landscape of Eastern North America. White Pine can grow to 60 feet, however, White Pines in virgin forests grew much taller with the tallest White Pine on record reaching 230 feet! The seeds of White Pine are dispersed by wind and animals- squirrels, mice and voles- whose undisturbed cashes of seeds sprout new trees. Snowshoe Hares, Whitetail Deer and Cottontails all graze on the foliage of White Pine and Bald Eagles nest in the upper branches. (1)
Red Pine (Pinus resinosa) often grows together with White Pine. White Pine is five needled pine, whereas Red Pine is two needled. Both are impressive trees that germinate well in fire damage soil, and both pines are relatively shade intolerant needing sunlight to grow. Both White Pine and Red Pine are a pioneer species in disturbed ground, and also long lived climax species on dry sandy soils. (2) Both trees are impressive to behold, and at the dunes of the inland lakes grow rough and uneven, unlike the more manicured Firs and Spruces that are popular to plant in yards.
A favourite winter activity of mine- while the kids skate on the frozen lakes- is to collect needles from both White Pine and Red Pine, as well as the Junipers and Hemlock. Once allowed to dry the needles are used for tea, as well as soaked in oil and rubbing alcohol for salves and liniments.
Red Pine is a “self-grooming” tree meaning that after time the dead lower limbs will fall off. Where these limbs have fallen off is an excellent place to search for Red Pine resin, a pungent, sticky exudation from injuries on the trunk. The resin can be collected and soaked in either oil or rubbing alcohol; the resulting extracts make superb additions to salves and liniments for muscular aches and pains.
Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), unlike the other evergreens, is shade tolerant and grows well with the pines and junipers in the dunes as well as away from the dunes in the hardwood forest. It is a tall, regal tree with dark fissured bark and long elegant limbs. The Hemlock is a tree of a climax forest. As its needles shed to ground, the forest floor becomes more acidic, making it harder for any species other than Hemlock to grow. Hemlock bark was once prized by the tanning industry for its high tannin content, and many trees were cut and stripped of their bark, the trunks being left behind. Deer like to graze underneath the Hemlocks in wintertime, when Hemlock’s dense branches trap snow above leaving a clearing for the deer who like to brouse on the lower branches. Being rich in oils, lower, dried branches of Hemlock can be collected as kindling for starting fires. (3)
A simple sensory delight is to pick the boughs of Cedar (Thuja occidentalis), any time of the year! Subtle yet unmistakeable, the scent of cedar boughs brings comfort and contentment, as well as many useful healing properties. Cedar is used to smudge; we put broken up boughs of cedar on top of the wood stove in the winter, the aromatic particles released this way help to clean the air. We use fresh Cedar boughs in tea when we feel a cold or flu coming on.
Cedar is anti-viral and is an excellent tea to help clear up the sinuses. Cedar bough tea was (and is!) commonly used to treat coughs, colds, sore throats and bronchitis. For persistent illnesses with fever, we often brew up a tea of Cedar and Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum).
In the spring, the moist inner bark can be collected and eaten fresh or dried and used like a flour. Cedar produces both male and female cones on the same tree, though on different branches. Cedar is susceptible to fire damage because the bark is thin and oily, it regrows well where rotting wood can send out shoots from the roots or branches if there is enough moisture. Fallen cedar trees can also take root from the underside and regrow in this manner. White tail deer, porcupines, squirrels and other woodland animals commonly feed on Cedar.
Junipers are the most widespread evergreens in North America and around the world with a number of different species being found, as well as many local variants of species, due mostly to variations in climate. Junipers are intolerant of shade and found in open, often sandy environments where they offer protective vegetation for fragile soils.
The familliar green to blue Juniper Berry is a popular confection of many birds and mammals including robins, waxwings and wild turkeys. These animals help propagate Junipers by depositing seeds- often in openings in hardwood forests- which have passed through their digestive tract, preparing the seeds for germination.(4) Humans, also, are fond of Juniper Berries, using them to produce liquor (gin), as seasonings for food, and for medicine. Juniper Berries are active in the urinary tract and thus have medicinal uses for urinary tract infections, as a diuretic, and as part of therapies to treat arthritic pain, the berries helping to carry off metabolic wastes from the body. Caution should be used with Juniper Berries, however, as they can be a strong medicine; too frequent use can cause upset stomachs and irritate the urinary tract rather than heal. Also, Juniper Berry tea should be avoided in pregnancy. As it is stimulating to the urinary tract, it can also stimulate the uterus.
Juniper Berries are also used to make Juniper Berry Essential Oil, a somewhat common and popular essential oil which again, is used in salves and liniments for the treatment of muscular aches and pains. Like Juniper Berry tea, the essential oil should be avoided in pregnancy as it can stimulate the uterus. I love Juniper as a medicine and use Juniper Berry essential oil, Juniper Berry infused oil, as well as tea and infused oil made from the boughs of juniper. I also like to slip some crushed Juniper Berries – and Maple Syrup- in with Deer steaks slow roasting in the oven. Delicious!
Thanks again for joining me on this journey with the evergreens close to my home and my heart. I hope this will inspire you to explore and experiment with evergreens found in your area, and to share your experiences and stories here!
Some more pictures just for fun: