We have many favourite trees, not only are they varied and beautiful but each has its own unique qualities, wonderful uses and amazing stories. There is one we have fallen in love with. It is the Douglas Fir.
We wanted to share why we love Douglas. Because the next time you go for a walk and pass a tree, odds are, that it is as every bit as special, and lovely, as Douglas is.
Pseudotsuga menziesii is arguably the world’s biggest beautiful tree. It was introduced into Britain from the Pacific North-West (BC/Oregon) in 1828 and near us, in Devon, we have the oldest and the first in the country. Its not the biggest – it is just 135 feet high – that goes to its brother at Reelig Glen, near Inverness, standing at majestic 217 feet. It is the tallest conifer in Europe. However even this is dwarfed by the tallest living one at a dizzying 327 feet back in Oregon.
The Heywood Douglas Fir, in Devon, and the one at Reelig Glen are mere children. They can live to over 1,300 years. Few of these giants have been saved from the lumberjack’s saw.
This was because it was a very valuable wood. It is one of our hardest ‘softwoods’. In fact it is harder, heavier and tougher than many of our hardwoods, making it ideal for construction. Back in its homeland of the Pacific North-west it was used for tools such as spear and harpoon shafts by the Native Americans. Its wood and bark was used widely as building materials and fibre. Its pitch was used as a caulking and binding agent for canoes. The bark contains pitch, it burns with a lot of heat and almost no smoke, so it is prized as a fuel. The small roots have been used to make baskets. A resin is obtained from the trunk was used in the manufacture of glues, candles, as a cement for microscopes and slides and also as a fixative in soaps and perfumery. The list of its uses goes on and on!
Its usefulness undoubtedly meant that it was taken and planted across America and Europe aiding its distribution. But Douglas Fir is a great coloniser in its own right – it is one of the first to inhabit open spaces but is also, due to its very long life inhabits the oldest forests. It is a beautiful tree with its straight boughs of soft needles.
We love Douglas Fir because it is a wonderfully aromatic tree. You can tell, from the rich, candied citrus scent that emanates from the trees in warm weather instantly what tree it is. The soft needles make the most wonderful needle tea. In fact it is the main ingredient of the teas we make for our tea ceremonies. Packed with vitamin C and flavonoids it is a refreshing and healthy drink with a surprisingly rich flavour.
Douglas fir was often employed medicinally by the native peoples who used it to treat a variety of conditions.
An antiseptic, anti-microbial resin is obtained from the trunk. This was used as a poultice to treat cuts, burns, wounds and other skin ailments. In fact when I suffer a minor cut or burn in the woods I seek out the blistered bark of the younger trees in order to seal the burn or glue closed the cut. A poultice was also used to treat injured or dislocated joints as was an infusion of the leaves used as a wash and a sweat bath for rheumatic and paralyzed joints. Even young shoots have been placed in footwear to keep the feet from sweating and to prevent athletes foot!
The resin, from the trunk’s little blisters can be used in the treatment of coughs and the hardened resin can be chewed as a treatment for sore throats. Whilst a tea made from its young shoots can help treat a cold, probably due in part, to its high vitamin C content. An anti-septic mouthwash is made by soaking the shoots in cold water.
An infusion of the young, green bark has been used in the treatment of excessive menstruation, bleeding bowels and stomach problems. An infusion of the twigs or shoots has also been used in the treatment of kidney and bladder problems. Even a decoction of the buds has been used in the treatment of venereal disease!
The tree is a veritable pharmacopeia. One of the most interesting aspects of the health benefits of Douglas Fir is the phytochemicals the tree contains – high levels of alpha and beta pinene which have anti-tumour effects and the airborne phytoncides the tree gives out which raises the NK Cell count in the body – effectively raising the level of our immune system. One walk can elevate this for up to 30 days.
When we go on our Forest-Bathing walks we always try to spend time near Douglas Fir. One of the most enchanting aspects of the tree is the versions of a Native American myth relating the story of a frightened mouse looking for someplace to hide. In one version the mouse is trying to evade a fox, in the other the mouse is trying to escape a forest fire. In both versions, the mouse tries to hide in a Douglas Fir cone. The mouse was successful in evading the danger in both stories. To this day, when you look closely at a Douglas Fir cone, the mouse’s back legs and tail are still visible beneath the cone’s scales!
Next time you take a wander through the woods. Spare a thought for this lovely gentle giant.