The deciduous leaves are all down now, making a much needed mulch for the tender perennials in the herb garden, and for even the hardy northern plants, shrubs, and trees. Small creatures rustle among those leaves; they'll gather tidbits until the last minute! Now, one can see the conifers in their splendid dress, massive silhouettes at night, and cheery, velvety green in the daylight. We've had enough rain this autumn that they should be able to hold up well under the enforced drought of deep winter.

The garden tools are all oiled and put away - except for a pair of clippers and maybe a small hand saw. We start to think about the winter holidays, and evergreens' aromatic scent and lavish decorating possibilities. The conifers were all comfort trees for the early immigrants in this country, too. In the old world, people had traditionally brought in pine or fir boughs for the winter holy days: something green to hold the promise of spring, and the fresh aroma appreciated, too, in the closed-in living quarters of winter.

Pine and fir trees have been part of people's winter celebrations and good health for many centuries. The Scots Pine, for instance, which began growing in Great Britain shortly after the last ice age receded, was noted by Aelfric, a 10th century Benedictine monk who compiled a list of over 200 plants and trees of medicinal value in his time. And of course, much of that knowledge had been handed down for a couple of thousand years already.

Pine needle tea, or balsam fir needle tea,  for example, made a fine winter drink and had enough vitamin C to keep scurvy at bay in the long, hard winters, when stores of food were diminishing. Also the tannins, resins, terpenes and essential oils contributed to winter health in other ways besides adding vitamin C to meager diets. Such compounds made - and still make - good medicines for sore throats and coughs, for the congestion brought on by breathing in wood smoke particulates all winter, and for the pains of arthritis and rheumatism in the chilly, dark days.

Although the resins and sawdust of these trees can cause dermatitis in some individuals, early peoples used the needles and resins of pines and firs for their antiseptic, astringent, anti-inflammatory and analgesic qualities.

Here are ways you can use these trees as medicines.

You must know your tree species; take one or two good identification books out into the field with you, so that you can identify the trees easily. Be careful to clip back only as many needles as you need. If you are gathering resin, look to see which trees may have a wound already that is dripping resin, and carefully remove some of that resin. Never wound a tree. If you can't find resin already oozing, saw a small lateral branch very cleanly, right at the main trunk, and that will bleed resin for you at the sawn end. At home, you can cut many small "buttons" along that branch to use in the following formula.

Steep pieces of pine or balsam pitch in olive oil for two weeks. (Oil is a good solvent for resins and mastics. This is why working peanut butter into your child's hair tangled with bubble gum dissolves the gum!)

Pick the size (glass) container you want of finished product, and fill it to the top with the olive oil and pine or fir "button" mixture or the pieces of resin/pitch. Cap. Keep on your kitchen counter, and shake daily for 2 weeks. Then strain out the vegetable matter and you will have a nice massage oil for strained and sprained muscles, arthritis and rheumatism.

A tea can be made by picking a teaspoonful of fresh pine or fir needles for each 8 ounce cup. Pour boiling water over the needles in the cup, stir, cover with a saucer to keep in the volatile oils and let steep for 5-7 minutes, or as a medicinal tea, 10-15 minutes. Strain and drink. You may add maple syrup or honey. Several cups a day of this will loosen phlegm and congestion, ease a cough and sore throat.

For asthma, sore throats and coughs, simmer a handful or two of fresh needles and twigs (clipped cleanly from the tree) in a covered pan for 5-10 minutes and then remove it from the heat source. Sit the patient close to it, head covered with a towel from behind to make a tent to hold in the vapors. Have her lean over the open pan and breathe in the vapors. She or he should do this for 10-15 minutes often throughout the day, and the compounds rising in the steam will help open the lungs, sinuses and throat.

Happy Holidays!

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