When you’re feeling sad, lost, or lonely, what do you do?
I love to walk in my garden and commune with the trees, especially the spruce trees. I love to listen to the birds sing. I love to sit in a sunny place near my roses or in my sunroom and reflect on my seventy plus years on Earth and smile and dream my next adventure. I also love to join my friend, Alix Chartier, an avid ethno-botanist from Seldovia, and gather wild plants to make healing salves and oils for my friends and family.
People have felt a sacred connection to plants and trees since ancient times. With the resurgence of organic gardening and a renewed regard for the earth, many are searching for their cultural heritage to rediscover their own connections to Gaia, or Mother Earth. According to the Life Science Essential Oils Pocket Reference, Seventh Edition, “The Lakota Indians used black spruce to strengthen their ability to communicate with the Great Spirit. Traditionally, it was believed to possess the frequency of prosperity.”
Janice Schofield Eaton was one of the first outdoorswomen in Alaska to write about her relationship with plants and trees in her book, Alaska’s Wild Plants. Others soon followed, most notably Beverley Gray from the Yukon Territory with The Boreal Herbal.
Gray believes that, “Plants are energetic beings with a perceptive intelligence and awareness. All systems of life on Earth and in the cosmos are interrelated. The human species can heal through connection and identification with nature and the plants that nourish, house, clothe us, and keep our air and water clean.” If this is your experience her words will resonate with you. If this is not your experience, come with me. Let’s make friends with the spruce trees. Gray recommends using spruce medicine as an analgesic, antifungal, antimicrobial, antiseptic, and disinfectant.
It can be prepared as a cream, essential oil, foot soak, hydrosol, infusion, liniment, poultice, salve, steam, tea, syrup, or wash.
If you have spruce trees growing in your own garden, let’s start there. Greet your tree, smile, and state your intention. “Hello,” is a nice way to start. You can “bow,” if that feels right. I find this a very satisfying thing to do when I want to show respect, humility, or gratitude to the labyrinth, a mountain, a river, or a person much older than myself. I often bow in the presence of death, remembering how much death has to teach me about living until I, too, die. After you greet your tree you might say why you’ve come, or you might ask, “Tree, do you have a teaching for me?” Then listen deeply until you begin to imagine some sort of response. Thank your tree for its teaching. If you feel a connection to your spruce tree and would like to gather some needles or pitch to make a salve or medicine, ask the tree if this is okay. Many tribal elders believe you must leave a gift for the tree if you have been given permission to gather. If you live in an area with traditional elders, ask them what is acceptable. Beverley Gray believes this giving is an acknowledgement of an energetic exchange that takes place when you state your needs or intentions and listen for the answer with a plant and its community. “In my practice,” says Beverley, “I have chosen to leave a piece of my hair, a song, a stone, or sometimes just a smile and a blessing. We each have our own unique and special way of being grateful and saying thank you.”
Once a spiritual connection is made with your tree, prepare your work space and jars.
Quart size Mason jars are wonderful for making both hot and cold infusions. They should be sterilized and ready with their lids. You will want to have a nice carrier oil on hand in large quantities. I use organic avocado oil, coconut oil, and olive oil for most of my medicines.
When everything is ready, I go into the garden and harvest from the spruce trees that my children and I planted over thirty-five years ago. If you have children with you, teach them to nibble on the tender tips for joy and health. They taste like bright citrus candies and are full of vitamin C. Besides, children love to talk to trees and laughter and play is the highest form of communion and blessing. After thanking your trees for sharing, gather enough tips to fill your jar half full. A good rule when harvesting is to never harvest more than 10% from any one plant or area.
With spruce trees, I’m careful not to harvest from the very tops or ends of the branches unless I want to limit the size or shape of the tree.
Spread your spruce tips on parchment paper or a clean towel and leave overnight to evaporate some of the moisture from them. This is recommended for all plant materials. Excess water in your oils or salves could lead to spoilage. Fill your jar half full of tips then fill the jar completely with your favorite oil. I use organic olive oil with my spruce tips. For a cold infusion place your jar on the counter and turn daily to agitate the tips in the oil. I place my oils where I can see and touch them every day. That’s part of the joy.
Leave your spruce tips and oil to infuse for two to four weeks, then strain through cheesecloth into a clean measuring cup. Gray recommends adding ¼ teaspoon of vitamin E per cup of spruce oil to help preserve it. If you would like to make a salve you can gently heat the oil in a double boiler and then add two tablespoons of melted beeswax per cup of the hot spruce oil. The bees wax can be purchased from any good health food store. I use a glass jar in a hot water bath to melt the beeswax, taking care to keep the jar from touching the bottom of the pan. I pour the blended salve into small jars, and let them cool completely before putting on the lids. Make sure to label your salves with the date and ingredients.
Editor’s note: In South Central Alaska, look for new spruce tips beginning in late April and early May.
Judith Lethin is an episcopal priest, chaplain, retreat leader, and grandmother. She has lived in Alaska for over 54 years and was formally adopted into the Haida Tribe, Raven Moiety, in Haida Gwaii by Elder Merle Anderson, and informally adopted in Shageluk by Athabaskan Elder Katherine Hamilton. “My own great grandmother and great, great aunts made medicines from native plants and I feel a kinship and respect for all our elders who understand so many of the great mysteries. I hope to learn all I can and share what I know with others, especially the children,” said Lethin. “Besides Merle and Katherine, I have learned from Ellen Savage, Lucy Hamilton, Lillian Elvsaas, Janice Schofield Eaton, Alix Chartier, and the Elders and teachers at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. Dogedinh, thank you.”