Plant of the Month – Douglas Fir

Every year in May and June one of the continent’s tallest trees and an emblem of this region, our beloved Douglas-Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), starts to grow its new tips for the year. These young and tender tips are one of the main ways herbalists and Pacific Northwesterners like to use this plant as food and medicine. You’ll notice them as bright green extensions at the ends of the branches, easily distinguishable from the darker older growth needles. Some of the keys to telling Douglas-Fir apart from other conifers is the rounded needle display, with two white stripes running down the length of the underside of the needles, and downward-hanging cones with bracts that look like mouse tails, not to mention the deeply furrowed bark on the larger trees. 

The young and tender tips can be eaten in small quantities. You will get a burst of sour flavor, indicating this plant’s high vitamin-C content. The later season tips can also be used as a flavoring agent or in medicine, but they are more bitter in flavor. With its highly aromatic, antimicrobial volatile oils (terpenes), Douglas-fir tip medicine has an affinity for working in the lung and urinary tract and has been traditionally used as a general tonic. Helpful in clearing the airways as well as phlegm and excessive mucus, Douglas-Fir tip preparations can be used with coughs, seasonal colds, and flu. The tips can be taken in tea, tincture, syrup, or I like to make a delicious elixir with them, steeping them in alcohol and honey. You could also use Fir tips in a steam or in salve as a chest rub to breathe the volatile oils directly into the lungs.

More than just the tips, many parts of this tree can be used for healing. The pitch is a profound sealant, a technology used by the Salish, and is highly antimicrobial and antifungal, making a great salve to seal and heal injuries. I have used Fir-pitch or Fir-pitch salves for split-open wounds with amazing results–the skin knit back together within a day or two and healed quickly. Whether cracked hands and feet, burns, or dry skin from sun exposure, it’s a handy salve to have around. (Be mindful and test it out on a small patch of skin before using a bunch–it can be somewhat irritating.) When harvesting pitch from a Doug-fir tree, leave some around the tree’s injury so that it can continue to provide healing support for the tree itself. Traditionally used as a topical in cases of rheumatism, Fir washes and salves can also be warming and stimulating and help increase circulation to stiff joints and muscles. 

Douglas-Fir is a beautiful plant to use in a ritualistic way. Many cultures throughout the world have a tradition of using boughs or branches for clearing energy or as part of a transitional experience. The Salish used fir boughs similarly in cleansing, bereavement and womanhood ceremonies. 

There are many ways that we can bring Douglas-fir medicine into our lives as we explore and learn new ways of engaging with our landscape. When new to identifying plants in the wild, it’s important to get a couple of good field guides, such as Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast by Pojar and Mackinnon and the Peterson’s field guides. Be aware of toxic and poisonous plants in our area. Always be 100% sure of the identification of wild plants you intend to use for food and medicine and that you know how to safely prepare them. It’s also important to honor land permissions and consider your impact when harvesting herbs in the wild. Please explore and observe these plants during your time in Moran State Park but refrain from harvesting them there. If harvesting in another location, be sure you have permission to harvest. Never harvest more than 10% of a plant population in an area to encourage sustainable re-growth.

Contributed by Kristy Bredin

Featured Plants Pinesap and Ghostpipe

Plants get their energy from the sun, and that’s why they’re green, right? Not so fast! Some plants get their energy by digesting fungi in soil, completely lack chlorophyll, and are definitely not green. These peculiar mushroom eating plants include two species in the Genus Monotropa (which means one-way or one direction) that are found under deep forest canopy in Moran State Park. The more common of the two is Monotropa uniflora (one-way, one flower), which is a single-flowered white plant that grows in clusters also known as ghost pipe. Ghost pipe has a slender waxy white stem and a single downward facing flower. When bruised or when it goes to seed the entire plant turns black. Because of their waxy pallor they are often mistaken for fungi, but are in fact relatives of salal and blueberries. While ghost pipe is found in deep forests throughout the islands, its cousin Monotropa hypopitys (fringed pinesap) is most common in Moran State Park and rarely found on other islands. Unlike ghost pipe, pinesap has many flowers and starts off pink as it comes up and blooms a pale yellow. Like its cousin it is completely lacking in chlorophyll and gets all of its energy by eating soil fungi. You can contribute to our understanding of the ecology of these unusual plants by reporting where you see them using the Moran State Park Epicollect App! Download the Epicollect5 App from Google Play or the App Store, select Add Project and type in Moran State Park. With this app you can share photos and locations of interesting species in the Park including our mysterious fungi-munching Monotropas.

Contributed by Madrona Murphy, Photos by Russel Barsh