The Douglas fir tree is an evergreen conifer native to North America, although most people recognize it as one of the most popular Christmas trees. Although Douglas fir is the most widely used name, it is also referred to as Oregon pine, red fir, and Douglas spruce. Its botanical name, Pseudotsuga menziesii , literally translates to ‘false hemlock’, as it is not a true fir tree.
Even though many people associate Douglas fir trees with the holidays and the scents of winter, this popular tree has a long history of both practical and medicinal use. The needles, bark, pitch, and other parts were used by Native Americans in many aspects of their day-to-day lives. Nowadays, most people aren’t aware of the therapeutic properties of the Douglas fir tree. With the rise in popularity of essential oils, its benefits can be brought to light once again.
History of the Douglas Fir
David Douglas, a Scottish botanist in the Pacific Northwest in the 1820s, gave the tree its common name Douglas fir . He came on an expedition to find plants, and brought back over 200 plant specimens to Britain! One of these plants was the Douglas fir, and it still grows in Great Britain today. 1
A Scottish surgeon and naturalist named Archibald Menzies gave it its botanical name Pseudotsuga menziesii . In 1790, the British government appointed Menzies to accompany Captain George Vancouver on an expedition. His main responsibility was to keep note of all of the plants they came across, record their names, and determine whether English settlers could thrive as farmers. On Vancouver Island, he discovered a tree that didn’t have a name - the tree we now know as the Douglas fir.
Pseudotsuga taxifolia was the original written botanical name, which translates as “false hemlock with leaves like a yew”. It was later changed to Pseudotsuga manziesii to give credit to the explorer who first discovered the tree. 2
The tree grows from northern British Columbia, down to central California, east through the Rocky Mountains and south to northeastern Mexico. There are two different varieties, the coastal Douglas fir (subspecies menziesii ), and the Rocky Mountain Douglas fir (subspecies glauca) .
Characteristics of the Douglas Fir
Douglas fir trees can grow to immense sizes, with the tallest recorded reaching 329 feet tall in Coos County, Oregon. The largest known Rocky Mountain Douglas fir is also located in Oregon and is 139 feet tall. Only Coastal Redwoods exceed the height of these giants! 3 Coastal Douglas firs can live up to at least 500 years old, with some known to exceed 1000 years. Rocky Mountain Douglas firs have a slightly shorter lifespan, usually no more than 400 years.
Douglas fir trees have very thick, textured bark, which gives them the unique ability to withstand wildfires. The branches of very established trees are a significant distance away from the ground, which keeps their needles safe from fire. The ability to withstand wildfires gives them a leg-up in both survival and propagation. When a wildfire has cleared smaller shrubs and trees from an area, the Douglas fir tree is free to drop its seeds and sprout new life.
Legend of the Mice and the Douglas Fir
There are a few different variations of the legend of the mice and the Douglas fir, but the story is essentially the same in all.
In the story, a massive forest fire spreads throughout the Pacific Northwest, larger than any other fire the animals had ever known. All of the animals began to flee the forest, but the mice with their tiny legs were unable to keep up. They frantically ran around looking for shelter and asked a couple of different trees for help with no avail.
Finally, the mice came across a Douglas fir tree. It offered them the safety of its cones and told the mice to climb inside. The flames were close behind, and the mice made it halfway inside the cones before the Douglas fir had to close them in for safety.
Whenever you look at the cones of the Douglas fir tree, you can see the small tails and feet of the mice who crawled inside to escape the fire. 4
Historical and Medicinal use of the Douglas Fir Tree
Native Americans used the wood of the Douglas fir tree to make small utensils, tools, and fuel for the fire. The pitch could seal canoes, water containers, and joints when building.
The timber from the Douglas fir tree is extremely strong and dense, making it great for building. In more recent times, the timber has produced large beams, wood fiber in paper manufacturing, railroad ties and plywood veneer. The timber also makes furniture, fences, and flooring. 5
The needles of the Douglas fir tree contain a wide variety of terpenes, including a-Pinene, b-Pinene, limonene, camphene, myrcene, delta-3-carene, linalool, citronellol, and others. They have anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, antimicrobial, expectorant and sedative properties.
Native Americans used different parts of the Douglas fir tree to treat a wide variety of ailments. Some of these included headaches, rheumatism, stomach aches, the common cold, respiratory issues, liver problems, and arthritis. 6
The resin is highly antiseptic. It is an ingredient in a poultice to treat burns, scrapes, bites, minor wounds and other skin problems. The resin can also treat coughs, or ease the pain of sore throats by chewing on it. An infusion of bark eased excessive menstruation and stomach issues, while an infusion of the leaves helped problematic joints. An infusion of the young shoots was crucial to the treatment of kidney and bladder disorders while soaking the shoots in cold water made an effective mouthwash. 7
Douglas Fir Essential Oil
The essential oil derived from the needles of the Douglas fir tree is a lovely deep green color and has a sweet, woodsy scent. This oil can improve the appearance of skin and soothe tired muscles topically. It can promote the healing of minor wounds, flush toxins and ease the pain of cramps. It can also diffuse throughout the home to boost mood and ease respiratory symptoms. The oil may also support the immune system, increase energy and improve focus aromatically.
Ideas for use:
- Add a few drops of Douglas fir essential oil to a homemade salve to aid in the healing of minor wounds
- Mix a drop or two into your daily skincare routines, such as your cleanser or moisturizer, to help improve the appearance of skin
- Diffuse a blend of Douglas fir and frankincense to help promote feelings of peace
- Mix a few drops with a carrier oil and gently massage onto sore muscles
Nowadays, it is no longer common for various parts of the Douglas fir tree to be made into infusions, poultices, and other medicines. Yet with the use of Douglas fir essential oil, all of the therapeutic benefits of the tree are accessible to all. Whether you’re looking to ease the pain of respiratory symptoms, promote a positive mood or boost mental clarity, simply breathing in Douglas fir essential oil can do wonders for your health.
Photo credits: Fotosr52/shutterstock.com, ColinD.Young/shutterstock.com, MadeleineSteinbach/shutterstock.com, @iambradleyadams