In the heart of winter's icy grip exists a steadfast symbol of endurance and resilience – the magnificent evergreen trees. With autumn behind us, many plants have shed their leaves in preparation for winter. Still, towering amidst the frost-laden landscape, these emerald aromatic plants stand tall and strong, exuding an enchanting aura of beauty and magic. Their verdant evergreen foliage serves as a poignant reminder of nature's indomitable spirit, offering us encouragement, inspiration, and unwavering strength during the harshest of seasons.

Throughout history, evergreens have played a key role in the fabric of human lore, embodying tales of hope, courage, and endurance. In many parts of the world, the winter season brought daunting uncertainties and challenging times. Evergreen trees became beacons of hope, a connection to the sacred and offering strengthened immunity and support to the emotional realm amidst the harshness of winter. 

From ancient traditions to the folklore of diverse cultures worldwide, these resilient trees have been revered for their ability to endure the winter's biting cold and emerge unscathed; and beyond their captivating allure lies a wealth of health benefits. In our exploration of these majestic trees, we'll dive into their storied past, uncovering the rich history and folklore surrounding them. You’ll learn of the diverse array of evergreens – Cedar, Pine, Fir, Juniper, and Spruce – including their benefits and ways you can incorporate them into aromatic medicine. 

We’ll also discuss critical harvesting techniques that emphasize safety and sustainability, and you’ll receive 3 wonderful winter evergreen recipes that harness this potent aromatic medicine. From an invigorating chest rub to soul-soothing incense, these recipes serve as a gateway to a world where evergreens not only inspire but also heal. Let’s journey through the enchanting realm of evergreens together.

History & Folklore of Evergreens

Throughout the holidays, homes are adorned with Christmas trees and festive evergreen wreaths, a tradition that traces back to ancient practices, before both Christmas and Christianity. The custom was (and continues to be) widespread, from Ancient Egypt to China, Rome, Hebrew traditions, Native American cultures, Germanic societies, the Scandinavian regions, and more. 

Bearing witness to the resiliency of evergreens during the winter, people from many parts of the world held the spiritual belief that bringing these hardy plants indoors would give them strength and resilience as well. Their presence symbolized renewal, offered hope, and invoked spiritual safeguarding. Due to their ability to stay “forever green,” many cultures hailed them as symbols of “evergreen life”' or “everlasting life” – hence their name, evergreen. These trees not only served as decoration and symbolism, but were also burned as incense, or steeped in pots of water over stoves or fireplaces for aromatic medicinal purposes.

Many cultures and peoples, including the Catholic nun and herbalist Hildegard von Bingen (1160 AD), believed that evergreen trees were sacred protectors to humans, guardians that helped shield them and their homes from malevolent forces and evil spirits. In Native American cultures, the practice of smudging to cleanse and purify includes the sacred aromatic plant medicines of Sweetgrass, White Sage, and Tobacco, but also many evergreens like Cedar, Pine needles or resin, and Juniper (and other plants).

The presence of evergreen boughs in the home supported not only the spiritual realm and mental health but also fortified physical well-being. The foliage of evergreens contains potent terpenes and medicinal compounds that, when released into the air and inhaled, work actively to strengthen immunity, which is especially helpful in the winter when sickness is prevalent. 

Many cultures also traditionally used – and still use – the aromatic medicine of these trees for other physical ailments, incorporating them into teas, herbal steams, incense, and topical medicine for respiratory system support and to promote the healing of wounds, and even consuming them as wild food. Let’s explore the most common evergreens used traditionally in medicine and their health benefits.

Traditional Uses of Evergreen Needles and Resins

Both the needles and resins of evergreens have been used traditionally in aromatic medicine by almost every culture for thousands of years. Resin is a combination of essential oils and other organic compounds that are secreted by trees as a means of protection from infection and pests. When a tree is damaged, resin exudes from the exposed wood, covering the wound and sealing it off from intruders. As it hardens over time, the resin creates a natural band-aid, allowing the tree to heal while fending off outside threats.

In essence, tree resins have a protective and healing nature – they contain powerful antiseptic and antimicrobial properties that help cleanse, heal, and protect. Many ancient civilizations witnessed this phenomenon centuries ago, recognizing that, similar to how resin effectively seals and mends tree wounds, it could also aid in the healing of wounds on humans when used externally. Mayan and Aztec warriors were often treated with melted resin or resin ointments after battle to prevent infection and speed recovery and healing. Resins safeguard trees and offer a similar shield to humans – a magical testament to our connection with nature.

The medicine of resin extends beyond external use as well. Burning evergreen resin as incense releases antimicrobial volatile oils into the air, helping to cleanse and purify the air of pathogens. Many resins also have stress-relieving properties that help calm and center the mind. In incense, many resins are used as base notes for their heavier, sweeter aromas, and many also make great fixatives that help tie together the aromas of a blend and make scents last longer. They also act as a natural aromatic glue to help hold the shape of different forms of incense.

Both conifer needles and resins have been traditionally used in herbal steams, incense, teas, and topical medicine to help support the respiratory system, relieve cold and flu symptoms, and boost the immune system. Many evergreen needles are rich in Vitamin C, which is a big reason why Native Americans have historically used the tips of Pine needles to prevent scurvy. They also contain antioxidants and anti-inflammatory qualities, helping keep your body strong during the cold winter months.

Unleash the power of botanical resins to transform your
herbal practice for healing, beauty and enjoyment.

This all-inclusive program teaches you everything you need to know about incorporating resins and gums into your herbal or aromatic practice, along with various methods for crafting them into potent topical and internal medicines, beauty products, and other aromatic delights for enjoyment and wellness.

Types of Evergreen Trees

By definition, evergreen trees – also known as conifers – hold their needles and cones all year long. There are over 600 species of conifers and several main families, including Pine, Cedar, Juniper, Spruce, Fir, Cypress, Yew, and Hemlock. Evergreen trees are found growing almost across the entire globe, and their distribution is influenced by factors such as climate, altitude, and geographical location. Different types of evergreen trees are adapted to thrive in diverse ecosystems. This list covers some of the most common evergreens traditionally used in aromatic medicine, yet it is not all-encompassing.

cedar

There are only four types of “true” Cedar trees used in aromatic medicine: Cedrus atlantica, Cedrus brevifolia, Cedrus deodara, and Cedrus libani. Cedarwood essential oil is commonly produced from these trees, though it’s occasionally sourced from Western Redcedar, Juniper, or Cypress trees. Cedarwood is uniquely known as a natural insect repellent and is commonly used to protect against mosquitoes, ticks, and other pests.

Out of all the evergreen trees, Cedar incense is known for its grounding energy, offering a sense of stability in times of emotional turmoil. In addition, Cedar is traditionally used for both spiritual and physical cleansing, due to its strong antimicrobial properties and ability to support the respiratory system. 

Western Redcedar, Thuja plicata, is often thought of as a Cedar due to its name and similar physical and medicinal characteristics (although, it’s a member of the Cypress family, Cupressaceae, and not a “true” Cedar.) This conifer is well-known for its anti-fungal qualities and can soothe athlete’s foot, jock itch, ringworm, and other fungal skin infections when applied topically.

pine

Pine trees are the most common evergreen in the world, with over 120 species. They thrive in mountainous regions in the northern hemisphere. Both Pine resin and needles (Pinus sp.) have potent analgesic, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antioxidant, antiseptic, antispasmodic, antiviral, and decongestant qualities, offering powerful support to the respiratory system and wound healing. Pine trees, as members of the Pinaceae family, are rich in bornyl acetate, a chemical compound responsible for their distinctive "Piney" fragrance. This volatile compound is renowned for its ability to alleviate emotional stress and induce relaxation.

fir

There are more than 40 types of Fir trees in the world, which tend to grow in moist, cool areas of North and Central America, Europe, Asia, and Northern Africa. Fir (Abies sp.) needles and resin contain anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antiseptic, antimicrobial, and expectorant properties supportive to the respiratory and immune systems. Fir trees are also members of the Pinaceae family known to help ease stress and anxiety. Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) has very similar medicinal qualities, although it’s not a “true” Fir, as its Latin name means “false Hemlock.”

juniper

Juniper trees are in the Cypress family, Cupressaceae, and include Common Juniper (Juniperus communis) and over 50 other Juniperus species. Junipers thrive in dry soil and are often found in desert and high desert regions that receive little rainfall. Both the leaves and berries are traditionally used in aromatic medicine. Juniper berries are edible and are used in various culinary applications, including the production of gin. The berries are known for their carminative properties, which means they may help relieve digestive issues such as bloating, gas, and indigestion and promote healthy digestion. Juniper berries are often included in bitters tincture recipes for this reason. 

The incense or herbal steam of Juniper leaves is commonly utilized to support the respiratory system, ease congestion, and promote clear breathing. Topically, the leaves offer ​​antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic properties, soothing aches and pains relief, promoting healing, and reducing the risk of infection.

spruce

There are about 35 different types of Spruce trees (Picea sp.) growing throughout the northern temperate and boreal regions of the Earth. Like all evergreens, Spruce needles and resin are supportive of the respiratory system, but this tree also has a special affinity for nourishing the nervous system, as it is also a member of the Pinaceae family that contains bornyl acetate. Historically, Spruce needles have been brewed as a tea by First Nations people for respiratory ailments like coughs, sore throats, congestion, and other cold and flu-like symptoms. The needles are rich in Vitamin C and antioxidants, which can help boost the immune system.

When used topically, Spruce resin can help seal wounds, speed up the healing process,
and prevent infection due to its antimicrobial, antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic properties. Spruce resin in particular helps stimulate surface blood flow and removes toxins from the tissues. It is very effective at boosting skin regeneration and soothing many types of irritations like bug bites, burns, sunburn, cold sores, dry or cracked skin, and psoriasis. It is used in many clinical settings nowadays for treating skin ulcerations and other topical wounds. It has even been used to heal gunshot wounds in many cases, due to its effectiveness at tissue regeneration.

how to harvest evergreens

Given the abundance of evergreen trees and the diverse array of species flourishing in different global regions, it's likely you'll find certain types of evergreen trees growing where you live. When it comes to wild harvesting herbal plants, winter is often viewed as the slow season. But, as we know, evergreen needles are present all winter long. Additionally, winter stands out as the optimal time for resin harvesting. Although resin can be collected any time of the year, the tree's energy is most concentrated within its wood and resin during winter, rendering it more potent.

For an ethical and sustainable wild-harvesting practice, prioritize minimizing harm to the tree and its ecosystem. This involves gathering only what you can genuinely use and not wasting plant materials. Ensuring proper identification before a harvest is not only important for safety reasons, but it also guarantees you are not taking from a plant you will not use. It's very helpful to carry a guidebook to aid with tree identification – seek a reliable regional tree identification book with color illustrations and comprehensive details on identification.

Before you harvest, observe your surroundings. Avoid harvesting if the tree looks stressed or unhealthy, and only harvest if there seems to be an abundance of that tree in the area. Take only a small amount of plant material from several trees instead of a lot of material from just one tree. Like pruning, try to harvest in a way that promotes the health and future growth of the tree and doesn’t inflict harm.

how to harvest tree resin

Bring a butter knife and a glass container for storage. Keep in mind that resin is the tree's defense mechanism, so don’t take too much or you’ll risk harming the tree. Look for resin that’s fallen on the ground or has flowed away from the tree's damaged part. If you cut resin off a tree where it is damaged, that’s essentially like ripping off its band-aid. 

Scrape off the outer layer of resin using a butter knife and place it inside your glass container. It’s easiest to harvest hardened resin, which is another reason why colder weather offers ideal harvesting conditions, as resin hardens faster in cold weather. It may be hard enough to simply break off, rather than scrape. If you harvest fresher, stickier resin, use foil to help collect it and allow it to dry for weeks up to a few months before use.

how to harvest evergreen needles

Bring scissors or garden shears and a paper bag for storage. Look for freshly fallen branches to harvest from. If you can’t find any, use your scissors to snip the base of the evergreen needles or branches. Try to cut at the node – the area on a stem where buds are located – to help stimulate future growth. It’s okay to take one small branch from a few different trees, just be sure to cut at the base of the branch. 

If you are using the needles to make an herbal steam, you can utilize them right away; however, for incense and herbal oil infusions, you should dry them before use to reduce any possible water content in the leaves. To dry evergreen needles, keep the paper bag in a cool, dry location for several weeks. You can use a dehydrator if you have one, but make sure to keep it on the lowest setting so the fragile volatile oils do not evaporate.

cautions

This educational information involves aromatherapeutic and topical use only. Many types of evergreen plant materials are edible and have been historically consumed as wild food. However, not all evergreens are safe to consume – be sure you have correctly identified a plant species and confirmed it is safe to eat before doing so. The Yew tree (Taxus sp.) is considered poisonous and looks similar to Douglas-fir, Hemlock, and other evergreen trees. Always consult a medical professional before consuming herbal medicine, especially if you are pregnant or taking prescription medications.

DIY Winter Evergreen Recipes

herbal steam

For a decongesting evergreen herbal steam recipe and step-by-step instructions, refer to our blog post about herbal steaming here.

Eucalyptus Pine Chest Rub

You can massage this lung-opening chest rub into the chest, neck, or back to help alleviate respiratory issues like cough and congestion, or other symptoms related to colds and flu. Be sure to work in a well-ventilated area, as Camphor is quite strong. This recipe is intended for short-term use utilizing a dilution rate of 4-10% for essential oils. Please refer to our Essential Oil Dilution Chart for dilution safety guidance when using different measurements for your recipe or when creating a chest rub for sensitive individuals. We always recommend applying a small patch test on your skin before using.

Supplies Needed:
A crockpot or stove pot and a stove or heat source like a hot plate
Clean and dry glass jar with lid
Spoon or chopstick to stir
Thermometer
Water
Funnel
Metal tin(s) or glass jar(s) with caps for storage
Labels and pen

Ingredients:
2 cups olive oil 
1 cup powdered Pine resin (or evergreen of your choice)
0.5 fluid ounce Camphor crystals or crushed Camphor tablets
1.5 fluid ounce beeswax: pastilles or grated
30-50 drops of Eucalyptus essential oil

Directions:

1. First, pour the olive oil into your glass jar, then place the powdered resin in and mix. (If you can’t find powdered resin, you’ll need to powder it yourself by using a mortar and pestle or designated electric grinder. If needed, you can place your resin in the freezer for 30 minutes before grinding to help avoid it sticking to your tools. It’s ok if it’s not a fine powder, just grind it down as much as you can to help the resin melt.) Avoid filling the jar more than ¾ of the way full (you’ll want enough room to add beeswax later). If your contents are too close to the top, use a larger jar.

2. Fill a small pot (or crockpot) halfway with water and place it on the stovetop.

3. Place your jar with the oil and resin directly into the water. Make sure the water level is high enough that it covers all or most of the ingredients in the jar so the heat from the water will warm up the infusion thoroughly, but not too high that it might get in the jar. If the jar floats and doesn’t rest on the bottom of the pot, remove some of the water or transfer your oil and resin into a smaller jar.

4. Bring the water to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. (If using a crockpot, place it on high for 30 minutes or so, then turn the setting down to low.) Use a thermometer to make sure the oil stays between 190-210 degrees Fahrenheit during the extraction process.

5. Allow to sit on low to medium-low heat for 1-6 hours, checking on it often to mix and break up any clumps.

6. Once your resin is mostly dissolved, you can move on to the next step. Some resins won’t dissolve completely due to their makeup, so just make sure about 80-90% of the resin is dissolved.

7. Add your beeswax to the glass jar and stir.

8. Once the beeswax is fully melted, remove the jar from heat and mix in the Camphor until fully melted.

9. Mix in your essential oil.

10. Pour directly into storage containers using a funnel and let cool completely before capping.

11. Label with all ingredients and date, noting that it is for adult use and external use only.

Fresh Forest Loose Incense Recipe

Ingredients:
2 parts Pine resin
2 parts Spruce resin
1 part ground dried Rosemary leaves
1 part ground dried Lavender flowers

Directions:

1. Use a mortar and pestle to grind down the Rosemary and Lavender.


2. Reduce the Pine and Spruce resin to small chunks, but they do not have to be finely ground.


3. Add your ingredients together in a small bowl and thoroughly mix. Most of the loose herbs should stick somewhat to the resin.


4. Burn pinches of your incense on hot charcoal and enjoy!


Note: Shake or mix well before every use so the finer powder does not settle to the bottom and change the blend.

the expansiveness of evergreens

Across the ages, evergreens have stood strong, serving as enduring symbols of perseverance and offering grounding energy. If you are lucky enough to live near conifers (most of us are), go for a walk and spend time in their presence, breathing in their aromatic gifts. Discovering the art of incense crafting and creating herbal preparations with these magnificent trees is an adventure in itself – a journey that unveils the secrets of these aromatic wonders, paving the way for a deeper connection with nature's resilient companions.

Article Written By Melissa Szaro

© 2024 The Northwest School of Aromatic Medicine. All rights reserved.

*The statements above have not been evaluated by the FDA, and are for educational purposes only. This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. This article should not be taken as medical advice. Please consult your physician before you use this information for health purposes.