Jan 31, 2018

An Evergreen Winter: The Comfort and Protection of Conifers

The snow is falling in such ghostly flakes that I almost need to squint to see it. Each icy star is so tiny that it doesn't so much fall as dance through the air, whirling around me, kissing my nose and cheeks, melting even as it arrives at the very edge of my skin. It's the same sort of teasing weather that our small party of wildcrafters enjoyed in the woods last month at year's end. We made our way across the snowy landscape, seeking out evergreens to keep our homes jolly and stocked with conifer medicine for winter tide.

We were kept company by chickadees, and stalked the foot trails of deer and coyote, and something with larger paws...lynx, perhaps. We set off together, then wandered slightly off course from one another to find our own trees to whisper to. I lingered at a Douglas fir whose large boughs reached toward the place my dog was buried over a decade ago. Her bones are there still, and though I've been reunited with her in dreams over the years I was surprised at the fierce longing I felt while I was standing beside her resting place. I gathered a few small clippings and kept them tucked aside. Some of those fir tips were for tea, and it gave my heart mild comfort to think that I might be rejoining us in the smallest way by ingesting an infusion from a tree that was fed with her body.

I spent some time with Ponderosa pine, happily gathering up sprays of needles and brushing my hand lightly down the bark to collect any loose resin that had dripped the length of the trees. One pine had been scored heavily by a bear, and another next to it had fallen, its standing remains worn smooth by animals using it as a rubbing post.

There was juniper to be had as well, along with merry green wolf lichen, and a few bright red rosehips left on a stand of wild roses. Once our arms were full of our bounty, we found our way back to my friend's cozy kitchen where a pot of soup was warmed. Rum and eggnog was the seasonal aperitif and a delightful assortment of home-fermented foods accompanied the meal. We spoke of herbal medicines and the hard-won victories of our own peace and well being, while we nibbled on roasted apples topped with maple orange whipped cream.

Conifer medicine is good medicine year round, but there is something especially comforting about bringing evergreens inside in the winter months. The traditional scent of the holidays aside, trees in the pine family (Pinaceae) and some of their cypress brethren (Cupressaceae) are chock full of vitamin C and can offer aid in dealing with respiratory issues/infections, making these trees a perfect cold tonic. Anti-inflammatory and diuretic, the needles can also be infused in oil for a pain-easing massage blend for muscle and joints. Taken as tea, in nutrient-rich vinegar, or transformed into a soothing chest rub, pine, fir, and juniper can assist in keeping your body humming along through the coldest season.

In folklore and magic, conifers seem to act as guardian spirits and are especially useful as helpers for healthy and safe home-keeping. Their stories and lore echo the practical application of these stalwart trees by the original inhabitants of the land. Lodgepole pine was employed in home-building for First Peoples, providing the poles for tepees and lodges, and fragrant fir boughs were gathered as bedding and as floor covering.

Juniper has a history of aiding purification work, assisting in the clearing of both real-world pests, such as insects or rodents, and those of a more spectral variety. The fragrant shrub was used as funerary wood in some forest tribes, the smoke offering protective company to the departing soul. Even in fairy tale, juniper is burial chamber and underworld where the dead can be reborn, as the The Juniper Tree story tells. Cedar, and in the west specifically Pacific red cedar (Thuja plicata) was the conifer of choice for coffins and sea-faring vessels and had so many daily uses that it was known as "Mother Cedar" to the Salish peoples.

The south has its own evergreens (the devastating decline of longleaf pine in particular, is worth reading up on) and here too, in southern rootwork and hoodoo traditions, we see pine added to incenses and floor washes for protection and cleansing/clearing work. Cedar is used in work where gentle persuasion is needed, and evergreens in general can be considered money-drawing just by their nature and name.

Hoarfrost on pine, British Columbia

In my own practice the fir, pine, and juniper I collect in the woods before the winter solstice are bound together with words of protection whispered or chanted over the bundle. I often add a sprig of prickly wild rose, the maroon skin of the branches and the deep red hips lending a pop of red to my green swag. Sometimes I'll even attach a cutting of Oregon Grape, which has a decidedly holly-like look to its spiny leaves. This grand bundle will guard my door and household from December through until late January. The neighbours might give a side-eye to my lingering branches, their own holiday decor long put away, but my evergreen guardian is meant for keeping unwanted spirits from stopping by on a winter's eve and the bitter season doesn't begin to loosen its grip around these parts until February dawns.

As I find myself in the last hours of January now, my sentinel swag is retired and the greenery sorted and re-purposed for incense and magic-making. It pleases me to consider that the aromatic smoke of pine and fir wafting from my censer was once the ward at my home's threshold. This previous-incarnation adds an extra note to any clearing or protection work I do with the incense or washes I create with these trees. (While I might add juniper and cedar to a clearing incense blend, they are more often utilized in my ancestor practices.) If your practice follows seasonal or wheel-type observations, the arrival of Imbolc or Candlemass marks the traditional burning of Yule greens. Generally, these greens would not remain in the household after this point as to keep them indoors would be to invite in poor luck. I burn a small selection of my conifer branches in my fire bowl as a tribute to the passing season, and put the rest up in glass jars for future use.

I truly hope you have weathered your winter beautifully. Perhaps you've found comfort in hygge, coziness and good company, or you've ventured out to ski runs or sledding hills. If you didn't save your holiday greens for Imbolc bonfires or incense, don't fret. Soon, bright green fir tips hinting of citrus will emerge with the coming of spring and you can find new ways to enjoy conifer medicine and magic!

*Please note that conifers can irritate the kidneys with continual use. Please research and know your pines/fir/junipers/cedars before imbibing them (a good field guide or local forestry website will be of great help). Junipers and some pines are not recommended while pregnant or breast-feeding.

Articles and Recipes for reveling in conifers:

Gathering and Processing Conifers, from Rebecca at Thorn & Wonder

Incense crafting, from Sarah Anne Lawless

Evergreen salt scrub, from Rosealee de la Foret at Learning Herbs

Juniper berry spiced cookies, from Danielle at Gather

Foraging for Pine needles, from Colleen at Grow, Forage, Cook, Ferment

A Midwinter Herbaria, from Becky at Blood and Spicebush (Pine is mentioned)

I have another small batch of my conifer oil, bottled and listed in my shop, ready to take home.


Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer (specifically the chapter "Old-Growth Children" in which she speaks of cedars)

Edible and Medicinal Plants of Canada, Lone Pine
(Lone Pine produces beautiful field guides)

The Old Magic of Christmas, Linda Raedisch (chapter 12, specifically "Juniper")

The Untold History of Healing, Wolf D. Storl (chapter 2, specifically "Juniper")

USDA Ponderosa Pine guide


Anonymous said...

Beautiful! Beautiful! Some of my very favorite trees. I love reading about how you incorporate them in your medicines and practices. Happy Imbolc!

Debra She Who Seeks said...

Thank goodness for those touches of green during our long white winters! Imbolc blessings to you, Rue!

Rue said...

I've thought of you northern folk quite a bit this year. I hope you are seeing the earth again soon!

Magaly Guerrero said...

I've always been partial to a nice, warm, deliciously-scented conifer bath. The flesh and bones truly appreciate the soothing soak...

It's sooo good to read you again. :-)

Riverton Witch said...

I imagine it all smells just heavenly!

MrsDuncanMahogany said...

There is nothing compared to walking in a forest, to bathe in it's beauty. Blessed Imbolc to you!