The black spruce tree, botanically known as Picea mariana , is an iconic tree in boreal regions. This evergreen conifer is native to North America and lives throughout the colder climate of Canada and the northeast United States. The black spruce's other names are the bog spruce, eastern spruce, swamp spruce or shortleaf black spruce. Some of these names refer to the fact that it thrives in wet, soggy soil.
Black spruces are often Christmas trees, yet its uses don’t end there. Indigenous people of North America made poultices, infusions, decoctions, and other natural remedies for hundreds of years from black spruces. While harvesting parts of this tree to make natural medicines isn’t as widespread these days, its essential oil is reinventing its health uses.
History of the Black Spruce Tree
Picea is from the Latin word pix, meaning pitch - referring to the resinous substance these trees secrete. In the early 1700s, the black spruce's name was the Maryland spruce, hence the name Mariana . This term is from the New Latin word marianus, meaning “from Mary”. Strangely enough, this particular species doesn’t even grow in Maryland! 1
Black spruce oil was important to the Native American Lakota tribe for its use in traditional and spiritual rituals. It was a disinfectant, as well as a way to soothe and relax the mind. Apart from traditional rituals, it was also popular for use in meditation practices.
The inner bark of the black spruce was a poultice to reduce inflammation, as well as a tea to help with kidney stones, rheumatism, and digestive issues. Natives mixed the resin from the tree with oil and treated wounds, burns, rashes, scabs, sores, and other skin problems. People also chewed the resin to aid digestion. A decoction of the needles treated kidney problems and respiratory infections, while an infusion of the leaves was part of baths to soothe dry and irritated skin. The cones treated toothaches by chewing them and were made into a decoction to soothe sore throats or ease diarrhea.
The cones produce a yellow-orange dye that can dye fabrics such as linen, cotton or wool. Historically, North American Indian tribes would make a string from the roots of the tree and use it to stitch canoes and sew baskets, among other uses. The pitch from the trunk of the tree sealed the hulls of canoes. Black spruce also was a part of fish traps, drying racks and snowshoe frames. Nowadays, its light and soft wood does not make it ideal for construction. Still, flooring, crates and boxes, paper pulp and essential oils all can be black spruce.
Characteristics of the Black Spruce Tree
Black spruce thrives in wet, boggy areas, in soil that is poorly drained and highly acidic. It can also be found near the edges of swamps and along streams. This evergreen is extremely hardy and can tolerate very cold temperatures. This characteristic allows it to thrive in the boreal forest, a harsh biome found at northern latitudes. The black spruce can be found across every Canadian province and territory, as well as far Northern parts of the United States, Russia, Scandinavia and other parts of Northern Europe. This cold hardy tree can live up to 200 years.
The black spruce is the smallest of all spruce trees, often growing to an average of 30-40 feet tall. In some conditions, it has been known to grow up to 70 feet tall. Its leaves are stiff, four-sided needles that are blue-green to gray in color. The needles are very short, only 1/4 to 1/2 inches long. The cones are black to dark brown in color and very small, only growing to an inch in length. Black spruce bark is thin, scaly, and red-brown or gray-brown in color. 2
The black spruce is considered a serotinous species. This means that the cones will open slowly over time, yet open very quickly in the event of a wildfire. Black spruce actually benefit from occasional wildfires, allowing them to fully open their cones and spread their seed. 3
Black Spruce Essential Oil
The leaves and twigs of the black spruce tree contain powerful terpenes that help to heal and restore many systems of the body. The major chemical components of black spruce essential oil are camphene, a-pinene, delta-3-caren, and bornyl acetate. These terpenes contribute to its anti-inflammatory, analgesic and mucolytic properties.
The essential oil from the needles of the black spruce tree is rich and woodsy and offers a wide range of benefits. Aromatically, it relaxes both the mind and the body, reducing feelings of stress and anxiety. Breathing in this essential oil can also help to ease respiratory problems and clear congestion. Black spruce essential oil can also ease sore muscles and joints, boost circulation, and regulate hormones when used topically.
Ideas for Use:
- Mix a few drops of black spruce essential oil into a carrier oil to make a muscle relaxing massage oil. For an even more soothing effect, gently warm the oil before using. This same massage oil can help promote circulation all over the body.
- Mix black spruce and eucalyptus essential oils together with a carrier oil and beeswax to make a decongestant salve. When you feel congested, rub a little of this salve on your chest and under your nose.
- Diffuse black spruce essential oil throughout your home for a fresh, woodsy scent that can help lift your mood and ease feelings of stress and anxiety. Diffusing this oil can also help alleviate respiratory symptoms.
Nowadays, it is becoming less and less common to head to the forest in search of ingredients for natural medicines.
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