Guest Article Written By Dan Riegler, founder of Apothecary's Garden

As we enter another winter here in the Northern hemisphere, questions about chest rubs, cough and cold syrups, salves, and liniments for sore muscles and joints are increasing. Short days and long nights bring some of us a sense of dread with Seasonal Affective Disorder looming in the dark.

Literally dripping with an abundance of healing plant chemicals, our tree resins across the globe have traditionally addressed these discomforts and many more. Pine, Spruce, Fir, Frankincense, Myrrh, Elemi, and many more provide us with a wide range of therapeutic properties and applications.

These vibrant-smelling substances are well established as antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antitussive, and agents of emotional grounding and spiritual clarity. The anti-cancer and anti-arthritic properties of the Frankincense family are getting a lot of attention lately with the isolation and research of Boswellic acids. 

Mastic and other oleoresins are proven treatments for peptic ulcers. Myrrh essential oil and tincture are among the best healers for teeth and gums. Pine, Spruce and Fir resins share long histories of use around the world as decongestants, muscle relaxants and relievers of musculoskeletal pain.

One of the best-known uses of resins is to help treat and alleviate respiratory distress. Most are also used to heal and protect our skin, as they do for the trees that bear them. Pine, Spruce and other tree oleoresins ease our breathing, calm our minds and help break up phlegm so we can expectorate it (cough it up). The list of therapeutic properties our trees bring us grows daily as more research is performed and ancient traditions are examined.

More than Essential Oils

The past few decades, with the wonderful growth of Aromatherapy, we have focused on essential oils as representatives of the therapeutic powers of plants. However, in the case of oleoresins, the essential oils only bring us a small part of the healing compounds in the plant material.

In oleo-resins, the essential oils are the volatile constituents that evaporate before, and up to the boiling point of water. When these flammable chemicals have evaporated, many of the tree’s valuable therapeutic compounds, the “heavier” constituents, are left behind in the resin. Hence oleo, or essential oil, and resin = oleo-resin.

Solvent extractions such as Friars Balsam (an alcohol tincture of Balsam Peru, Balsam Tolu and Benzoin) can bring us a more holistic and whole product since they collect both the volatile essential oils and the “heavier” resins that remain after the distillation process.

In addition to burning raw resins as incense, using solvents provides us with a simple method for extracting many more of the valuable healing constituents from oleoresins, including much researched and talked about compounds such as Boswellic acids, Incensole and Incensole Acetate from Frankincense which recent studies have shown to possess anti-cancer and anti-anxiety properties respectively. These powerful healing compounds and many other constituents of our oleo-resins will not be found naturally in distilled essential oils. 

Alcohol and Vegetable Oil Extracts from Oleoresins

Alcohol extractions are pretty straight-forward. The alcohol readily dissolves most resins and volatile oils, bringing us the whole resin in the form of a tincture. We know much less about the therapeutic properties of the gum present in many oleoresins, however, if you wish to include them, a water/alcohol solvent mixture (such as vodka or other lower proof alcohols) will add these water-soluble gums to your medicine as well.

Oil-based extracts are not as well known, and there is less literature about making and using them. These too can bring us substantially more of the healing compounds found in oleoresins than their essential oils.

A vegetable oil such as olive oil will dissolve most, if not all, of the healing compounds in many resins. This type of infusion can be used as a base for a salve, crème or liniment, making it easy to use externally for respiratory issues, inflammations, muscle and joint pain, aging skin, and many other applications.

Considering that many of the active compounds in oleoresins are absorbed through the skin and some are able to pass the blood-brain barrier, these types of products can be especially effective when used externally.

How to Make a Versatile Resin-infused oil with Pine, Spruce & Fir Resins

Spruce, Pine and Fir resins stand at the top of my list as the very best oleoresins for respiratory complaints. And for many, they can be harvested in the backyard or within miles of their home. They provide wonderful healing properties for adults, seniors, children and even pets.  From an aromatherapy point of view, these resins are emotionally grounding, calming, elevating, and comforting.

As respiratory medicine, applied externally in a rub, these saps make a great winter medicine for colds, flu, and winter congestion. They help break up phlegm, open breathing passages, reduce irritating and dry coughs, deepen the breath, calm the mind, and encourage a restful sleep.

When used for tired and sore muscles and joints, they stimulate surface blood flow which helps remove toxins from muscles and joints, help invigorate tired muscles, ease aches and pains, reduce swelling and inflammation in joints and reduce the pain of sprained and strained muscles. They also help moisturize, increase the suppleness of skin, and help reduce wrinkles and crows feet.

Winter Resin-infused oil Recipe:

  • 300 grams of fresh Spruce, Pine or Fir resin, or any mixture of them all.  A bit more if you have included lots of twigs, bark and needles. The fresher and more pliable it is, the more phytochemicals will transfer to your product. (Note that you can double or triple this recipe, or cut it in half. Just keep the same proportions of ingredients.)
  • 600 millilitres of Cold Pressed Extra Virgin Olive oil. Or you can use any oil of your choice. In general, a ratio of  1:2 resin to oil works well. 1:1 often yields a thick syrup consistency which is difficult to filter or work with.
  • In a water bath (a pot filled with water on the stove with a glass jar of botanicals submersed in it) combine oil and oleoresins in a glass jar or other container that holds double the volume of the resin contents. Make sure the water in the pot reaches to the height of the contents of the jar.
  • Clamp container to the wall of the water-bath (optional).
  • Bring water bath to a boil. Then lower to a simmer.
  • Stir, press, and agitate oleoresins periodically with a clean wooden spoon or other clean utensil, break up any chunks or lumps as best you can.
  • Leave in the simmering water bath for an hour at least, longer if using old, dry or hard material. Stir and break down the oleoresins periodically. Using a large mason jar works well. This way you can keep a lid on it when you are not stirring. I believe this will help keep more of the essential oils since the heat will make some of the volatile oils release from the oleoresin.
  • After an hour or so, when you think the oleoresins have broken up as much possible, and when it seems the oil and resin are homogeneously mixed. Put the lid on tight, turn off the heat and let cool to room temperature.
  • Get a clean, washed pillowcase (which you may have to rinse well with hot water and re-dry it so there is no residual odor of laundry detergent or any other aroma). Lay the open, dry pillowcase in a bowl, corner at the bottom, and pour the contents of the jar into the corner of the pillowcase. Scrape out as much of the jar contents as you can. Alternatively, you can use a nut milk bag or very fine cheesecloth. 
  • Collect the sides of the fabric in hand (keeping unneeded parts from being saturated with oil), and twist it so the mixture starts filtering out into the bowl. Squeeze as much as you can by hand. Twist it as if wringing out a towel to dry. Then, if you have one, cram the pillowcase into an herb press, and press out the rest of the liquid.
  • Pour all your liquid into a new jar or vessel with a lid. Let it settle for a day or two, then very carefully pour off, or siphon off the clearer liquid, leaving the sediment on the bottom.

You now have a potent,  fragrant, whole oleo-resin, medicated oil that works effectively “as is” rubbed on the chest and/or the back for respiratory issues, coughs, colds, congestion, bronchitis, asthma, etc. Or, it can be used “as is” for stiff, sore muscles; joint pains; sprains; and other muscle and joint issues. Or, you can add essential oils appropriately to whichever application you choose to use your oil for. Or, if you like, you can use it as a base for a salve (explained below).

If you like, you can add essential oils to compliment the applications you are using your extract for; such as Rosemary, Eucalyptus, and Peppermint essential oils for respiratory issues; Chamomile for sleep; or Wintergreen or Birch for use as a muscle rub.

Keeping the percentage of essential oils to around 2% of your total volume is the best recommendation and reduces the chances of skin irritations. This mixture will keep for years, as oleo resins by themselves do, and the oleo resins will help keep the vegetable oils from going rancid. 400 IU, (one gel cap), of vitamin E to each cup or 250 ml. of medicated oil can be added as an extra precaution against rancidity down the road, or add a small amount of Benzoin essential oil. Both these additives/preservatives have skin healing properties.

How To Make a Salve from Your Medicinal Oil

  • Pour the oil you made into a glass vessel that holds at least twice the volume of the oil.
  • Clamp it onto the wall of your water bath (optional).
  • In a separate, second jar in the water bath, break, scrape, grind or shave raw beeswax. About 1/4 – 1/3 of the volume of oil you are working with.
  • Bring the water bath to a boil. Then reduce to a simmer.
  • When the beeswax is completely melted and both materials are at the same temperature, pour a little beeswax into the oil and mix well.
  • Put a drop or two of the hot, well-mixed, oil and wax on a cold or room temperature plate.
  • When it cools to room temperature, test its consistency. If it is too soft or liquid, add a little more beeswax to your oil.
  • Test again and repeat until your salve is exactly the consistency you want. If by chance you add too much wax and your salve is too hard, you can add a small amount of room temperature oil to your salve, test and adjust it.
  • If you are adding essential oils to your salve, do so during the cooling down point, after removing the salve from the water bath. It is easier to measure and pre-mix the essential oils before you make the salve, just put them aside and add them at the end. You have at least 10 good minutes to mix and adjust the essential oils to your liking.

Remember to keep clear notes, especially on the quantities of essential oils you are adding. If it is a success you will want to reproduce your recipe as precisely as possible in the future and avoid disappointments. Make sure you have closable containers ready to receive your salve. Slowly and carefully pour your salve into the containers. When it is cool and solid, put your caps or lids on. That’s it!

Your salve will keep for years. Hopefully it will not last that long, and it will get used quickly for its wonderful healing properties. It will make a great gift, providing comfort through the worst parts of colds and flu, to family and friends.

Article Written by Dan Riegler, founder, Apothecary's Garden

For the widest selection of sustainable, ethical, fair trade, wild-harvested and organic plantation-grown tree resins, salves and tinctures, and other raw aromatic botanicals, visit Dan's world-renowned shop Apothecary's Garden below and receive 10% off your first purchase using the coupon code TREEMEDICINE10. 

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

*The statements above have not been evaluated by the FDA. 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.

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