By Marilyn Wightman
“A herb is any plant that people can use” is one definition describing a herb and this certainly applies to conifers. The entire gymnosperm group differs from other herbs because they do not have flowers that produce seeds. Instead they develop their seeds in cone. Some have berry-like fleshy fruit.
Because of the high resin content of these conifers the essential oil has commercial applications in industry. Paints, inks and varnishes all use the refined products. In food preparation the resin is refined and processed into emulsifiers, stabilisers and binding agents for dressings and sauces.
The previous article on conifers mainly studied New Zealand natives and the southern hemisphere. The trees discussed in this next article nearly all belong to the northern hemisphere. They are the typical fir trees associated with the colder climates of the Asian, European and North American continents. The thick bark developed for cold protection and the foliage provides the highly resinous familiar scent of pine. The established human habitat has made use of these conifers as people adapted to their harsh winter conditions. Timber from these trees was utilised to provide structure and cladding for buildings and wood for warmth. Needles and cones were gathered and used for medicines. The inner bark of most conifers has been tried and tested and used for skin, internal use and inhalations for thousands of years. Picking lumps of resin off the exterior bark and chewing it as a gum was common practice. All four herbal methods of gathering the healing components of these conifers are used. Herbal teas are prepared from all tree parts; decoctions are boiled to extract the goodness from the hard bark; resins and essential oils are used and tinctures also have medicinal use.
Here are two more groups of the conifer family. These conifers grow over much of the northern world. Japan, Bhutan, Himalayan, Serbian, Bosnian, European species all occur in these plant groups as their botanical names show. The cultures of these countries need further investigation and research to discover the uses and medicinal applications of their specific native conifers. This article concentrates mainly on the North American cypress and pine families a s a result of visiting Canada several times and seeing their vast conifer forests. Robert Rogers wrote his own herbal manual and this outlines many of the North American native customs. I was fortunate to meet Robert one year when we both lectured at the Dominion Herbal College.
Cypress: The conifer trees in this group grow to the tall heights of the pine group. They have thick bark to protect against extreme cold. Their foliage differs from the familiar pine needles, staying dense, persisting nearly to the base, and the adult leaves are scale-like, thick and overlapping. The fruits are small, round and nut–like cones.
False Cypress (Chamaecyparis spp.) are mainly popular as specimen trees with their conical and column–like growth and mature shapes.
True Cypress (Cupressus spp.) differ from false cypress as they are less formal in their shape. Cupressus macrocarpa (Monterey cypress) is the familiar farm shelter in New Zealand. Popular in the 19th and 20th centuries, it is now superseded by other shelter tree choice.
Leyland Cypress ( x Cupressocyparis leylandii varieties) are all hybrids of Chamaecyparis nootkatensis and Cupressus macrocarpa. They are commonly grown as tall hedging in New Zealand and have superseded the macrocarpa as they form a dense growth from ground level which is preferable for blocking equinoxal winds.
Incense Cedar (Calocedrus decurrens) is one of a small group of five varieties. Incense cedar is native to North America and was cultivated for its pleasantly perfumed wood. The other four varieties are native to Asia where their fragrant timber is used.
Thuja: Considering the multitude of uses for all parts of this herb, the name is apt as thuja is known as arbour vitae – tree of life.
Eastern White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis) Foliage and bark are dried and used in decoctions and tinctures. It is a stimulant and helps clear inflammations, toxins, fungus and viral complaints. North American natives used it in the same ways as the western red cedar.
Chinese Arbour–Vitae (Thuja orientalis) This herb is used In Chinese medicine as it is bitter, astringent and cooling and treats complaints similar to those for which Thuja occidentalis is used.
Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata) Grows for over 1,000 years and will attain 40m. It is a coastal tree. The fibrous bark was stripped off and these lengths were used to make baskets, blankets, ropes and mats. Of a felled trunk the interior was burned out for canoe making. The timber lengths were used for the rafters of the long meeting houses, benches and coffins. Roots were woven into baskets and the thinner branches crafted into handles, drying frames, drums, rattles, fishing floats, whistles and harpoon shafts. As little smoke emits from the burning wood it was ideal for curing fish and game. The wood is slow to decay and today is used to make roof shingles, wall claddings, poles and fenceposts. The essential oil is used in the manufacture of perfumes, insecticides, shoe polish and deodorants.
Juniper: Various junipers have medicinal uses. A wide range of illnesses were treated by the North American natives.
Juniper (Juniperus communis) is one of the better known herbal trees. The berries are used to treat coughs, colds headaches, dysentery and mumps. Juniper berries are also popular in cooking. The berries are the main flavouring of gin, which derives its name from the Dutch word for juniper.
Other junipers are:
Chinese Juniper (Juniperus chinensis)
Syrian Juniper (Juniperus drupacea)
Greek Juniper (Juniperus excelsa)
Rocky Mountain Juniper (Juniperus scopulorum)
Red Cedar (Jumiperus virginiana)
True Fir: The botanical name comes from ‘abeo’ meaning ‘arising’, which acknowledges the immense height these trees attain. ‘Furh’ is an old English name and ‘fyr’ is a Danish name for ‘fire’. Like all members of the Pinaceae family, fir trees have the typical needle foliage and large cones.
Silver Fir (Abies alba) The leaves and resin are used for coughs, colds, rubbing liniments and bath extracts. The turpentine extracted is used in the paint industry, rosin, pigment and ink production.
Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea) Medicinally the essential oil is used in cough medicines. Externally it is used in bath extracts, oil rubs, ointments, creams and as a mouth wash.
Subalpine Fir (Abies lasiocarpa) Both of these are used in similar fashion by the Cree and Cheyenne of North America. Subalpine fir interbreeds commonly with balsam fir to form hybrids. The oil is distilled commercially but the clear resin found in bark blisters can be used to treat cuts, burns on the skin, chewed for chest pains, taken as a tea for infections, coughs, worms and to purify the bowel. Boiled bark is used as a poultice for boils and internally for infections.
Other firs are:
Pacific or Red Fir (Abies amabilis)
Santa Lucia or Bristlecone Fir (Abies bracteata)
Greek Fir (Abies cephalonica)
Colorado White Fir (Abies concolor)
Farges Fir (Abies fargesii)
Nikko Fir (Abies homolepis)
Korean Fir (Abies koreana)
Cork Fir (Abies lasiocarpa arizonica)
Caucasian Fir (Abies nordmanniana)
Spanish or Hedgehog Fir (Abies pinsapo)
Noble Fir (Abies procera)
Spruces can claim American fame for the birth of the commercial chewing gum industry in Maine and Portland around 1850. The wood is famous for its resonant quality, and the timber is used for musical instruments, including organ pipes, guitars and mandolins. Antonio Stradivarius used Norwegian spruce to make his violins.
Norway Spruce (Picea abies) Spruce beer is the traditional preventative for scurvy and was commonly used on sailing ships.
White Spruce (Picea glauca) The young buds in spring can be collected along with new shoots and made into a tea that has lemony overtones. It was used to treat respiratory and sinus problems using a steam inhalation.
Black Spruce (Picea mariana) The buds, bark and roots all have traditional North American native use. The pitch or gum forms in tear-shaped lumps on the outer bark and these were used to waterproof canoes and baskets.
Brewer’s Weeping Spruce (Picea breweriana)
Serbian Spruce (Picea omorika)
Caucasian or Oriental Spruce (Picea orientalis)
Colorado Spruce (Picea pungens)
Himalayan Weeping Spruce (Picea smithiana)
Hemlocks: Tsuga is the Japanese word for ‘tree mother’. Originally hemlocks were classified under spruce. They were later given their own genus, as this group of conifers has a particular odour to the foliage. It has a similar smell to the hemlock herb, which has been described as “very close to cat urine”. When we stayed in Canada the trees were pointed out to us by our host. The lower boughs are contoured. From the trunk they extend out and dip down before curving up. Horse riders went through stands of hemlocks at their peril as it was easy to ride into these lower branches and get injured, hence the local name of ‘widowmakers’.
Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) These trees live for 500 years and attain a height of 30m. North American natives used the tannin of the bark to cure leather. The same tannin solution was used to soak baskets to make them watertight. Cut boughs were used to make springy bedding. Wood was carved into serving bowls, spoons, roasting spits, spear shafts, bows and elderberry picking hooks. The curved circular grain of knots and joins was especially carved to make fishing hooks. Medicinally hemlock was used to treat coughs and colds. It is antiseptic and has a high Vitamin C content. Commercially it is much valued for cabinetry, doors, windows, staircases and mouldings. The pulpwood is especially valued for its alpha cellulose contentm which is used in cellophane, rayon and nylon production. In industry it is used as a tanning agent and the production of pigment and cleansing agents. The powdered cambium is combined with alum root powder to make a fungicidal foot powder. Its many uses attest to its Japanese name of tree mother.
Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga caroliniana)
Northern Japanese Hemlock (Tsuga diversifolia)
Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla)
Mountain Hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana)
Douglas Fir is closely related to the hemlocks, hence its botanical name of Pseudotsuga. It’s named after two botanists, Mr Douglas and Mr Menzies, who were professional rivals. Mature douglas fir trees are the second tallest conifers in the world. Their edible seeds provide a rich f ood source for the indigenous birds and wildlife. The undergrowth of these conifer forests of the Pacific Coast teem with squirrels, raccoons, chipmunks, deer, bears and wild cats, which all depend on the trees. Douglas fir is renowned for its fine timber, which is used in building construction. (Our house, built 25 years ago, has this timber for its framing. It is popular as it is not susceptible to insect attack, it is long–lasting and it does not need chemical treatment.)
Cedar: The many attributes of cedar are recorded from the ancient Egyptians to the carpet makers of Turkey, as the fragrant refined oil is valued. They are closely related to the larches and make attractive ornamental specimens.
Cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani) is used for its antiseptic and insect deterrent qualities. Added to jasmine, it is used to produce soap. The wood is used in joinery and to make insect–proof containers.
Atlas Cedar (Cedrus atlantica)
Cypress Cedar (Cedrus brevifolia)
Himalayan Cedar (Cedrus deodara)
Larch: Larches are unique to the conifer family in that they are deciduous. In autumn the leaves turn yellow and drop. In spring the green of the newly emerged foliage is a stunning moss-green shade.
Tamarack (Larix larincina) Natives of Alberta used the pliable wood to make snowshoes, toboggans and canoes. The bark was stripped and the inner part made into a tea used for washing sores and inflammations by the Cree.
Western Larch (Larix occidentalis) was used in similar ways to tamarack. It will grow twice as high and is used for making medicinal brews using the inner bark.
Pine: All seeds from pine trees are edible. Called nuts, the seeds of limber, white, Swiss and Italian pines are large enough to be grown for edible seed harvest. Pine seeds generally are 50% oil, 30% starch, 5-10% sugar, 10–15% protein and mineral in composition. The fossilised resin of pine is called amber, which is fashioned into jewellery.
Pumilio Pine (Pinus mugo) This low growing pine is native to central Europe. The essential oil is used in perfume production and is used medicinally to treat lung congestion.
Western Yellow or Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa) Up to 600-year-old trees will attain 30m height. The inner cambium of the bark is a food source. The pitch, or resin, was used as a chewing gum.
Bristlecone Pine (Pinus aristata)
Mexican White Pine (Pinus ayacahuite)
Lace-bark Pine (Pinus bungeana)
Swiss Stone Pine (Pinus cembra)
Beach or Shore Pine (Pinus contorta)
Bosnian Pine (Pinus leucodermis)
Horsetail Pine (Pinus massoniana)
Montezuma Pine (Pinus montezumae)
Corsican Pine (Pinus nigra var. maritima)
Long Leaf Pine (Pinus palustris)
Japanese White Pine (Pinus parviflora)
Mexican Yellow Pine (Pinus patula)
Italian Stone Pine (Pinus pinea)
Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris)
Japanese Black Pine (Pinus thunbergii)
Bhutan Pine (Pinus wallichiana)
The initial European settlement of New Zealand and its conversion to farmland saw a continuation of burning off the original forest that had been started by Maori. Much of the cut timber coming from New Zealand was the indigenous coniferous species. In the early 1900s sustainable forestry started in New Zealand. Forward–thinking people in the forestry industry and government had begun the NZ forestry service and were already limiting the amount of native timber that could be culled from the diminishing forests.
The decision to replant deforested areas in species of exotic conifer species was already underway. A century later New Zealand still has an economic dependency on conifer tree production and forestry.
References: Roger’s Herbal Manual – Robert Dale Rogers; The Complete Handbook of Garden Plants – Michael Wright; Encyclopedia of Herbs and their Uses – Deni Bown.