As winter sets in with unusually cold frosty weather, you may have noticed that you can see a lot further into the forest. The leaves have mostly fallen from the trees, and the smaller green things have died or are covered with a light blanket of snow. But among this more quiet, less green forest are towering giants, still thick with needles and frowns. This time of year we turn our attention to the conifers. They are suddenly bright and attractive, especially when covered in the shimmering morning frost.


 As the North winter winds blow down from our arctic neighbors, we look to the trees for fire, shelter and, believe it or not, medicine. Look around your surroundings and notice how many things are made of wood. Most of the world’s “finished lumber” is supplied from pine, spruce, fir, cedar and hemlock (1).

Fire is used to heat our homes, cook food and to gather around for stories. Though hardwoods are preferable, softwoods are cheaper and easier to come by. These trees have thousands of other uses in many different cultures throughout the world, including as medicine. Here in this article, we are going to focus on Douglas fir and Western Hemlock because they are noticeably abundant in all landscapes of western Washington.

Photo by Thomas Quine
Photo by Thomas Quine

Douglas-firs are planted in abundance for lumber and Christmas trees. They are also reestablished well after forest fires. But it is not the wood we’re after, it’s the needles. You can gather them from the shorter, younger trees or, better yet, right off the ground! When we get high winds here in the PNW, they blow off the higher branches, bringing an abundance of needles from up above. If you’re out on the trail, you can gather them up as you’re hiking and toss them in a pot for tea at night. The tea can help with colds and repertory problems. It is also high in vitamin C and has over 20 different essential oils, a few of which are found in citrus trees. This is what gives it its legendary beguiling scent (2).

Western Hemlock is a succession tree found in older forests. It is easily identifiable in the distance by its drooping top. Nate Summers of NatureSkills lets us know another fantastic use for the Western Hemlock:

conifers“The needles of Western Hemlock can be eaten as a survival food – and they’re quite tasty, with a lemon-citrus flavor. The needles suppress the appetite (useful when food is a challenge), and they are very rich in vitamin C. To make Western Hemlock needle tea, simply take a handful or two and add them to hot (but not quite boiling water), and then reduce the heat and simmer for between 10-20 minutes depending on your tastes. Try not to overcook the tea as vitamin C is damaged by heat. You can drink multiple cups of the tea as a warm, winter tea to drive out the cold and potentially prevent seasonal colds as well” (3).



Many of the other conifers in the area have medicinal qualities as well. As with any plant or tree, you’ll want to make sure you can properly identify it before use. Also, with wild foods and medicines, you’ll want to start with small doses, as our bodies may not be used to these complex nutrients.


For more wilderness tips from Kyle, check out Sound Mapping with Birds and A Berry Abundant Landscape: Foraging for Wild Berries.




(2) Duke, James. Handbook of Biologically active Phytochemicals and their activities. CRC. 199

(3) Nate Summers,


Update: This article was edited on December 15, 2014 to better attribute information provided from the source material.

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