In an article published here on my blog, I outlined the medicinal use of balsam fir, Abies balsamea, for cuts, grazes and sores.
I then went on to describe how I had made use of the sap in helping a wound heal while I was on a wilderness canoe trip.
The article generated a fair few questions relating to whether there are any European species with similar medicinal properties.
John asks “are there any UK trees where sap has similar healing properties?”
Alan asks “Also interested, as above, in which commonly found Firs, Spruces or pines have an antiseptic quality to their resin/sap..”
Nick reiterates “Alike other correspondents, would ‘British’ pines afford a similar medicinal benefits?”
In some ways, the ethnobotany of North America seems to be better recorded than that of Europe, with explorers, anthropologists and ethnobotanists studying the knowledge and practices of First Nations over the past few centuries. And there seem to be plenty of good quality texts aimed at non-academic markets readily available.
The term ethnobotany, however, is a relatively recent one, as is the academic discipline so described.
People’s use of native plants and trees has been long recorded in Europe.
Pedanius Dioscorides, a Greek physician who travelled with the Roman armies, collected and recorded local medicinal herbs, ultimately writing a 5-volume magnum opus De Materia Medica, which translates to “On Medicinal Substances”. This work was first published in AD 70 and remained the authoritative source on medicinal herbs for over 1500 years.
More latterly, European attempts to catalogue and codify medicinal plants included, John Gerard’s 1597 Herball, probably most famously Nicholas Culpeper’s The Complete Herbal (1653) and George Graves’s Medicinal Plants (1834), published under the name Hortus Medicus.
There is a rich history of the use of medicinal herbs in western medicine as well as in folk medicine.
Indeed, the Royal College of Physicians still maintains a Medicinal Garden.
Common European Pinaceae
The pine family, Pinaceae, includes many of the familiar needled, cone-bearing trees such as cedars, firs, hemlocks, larches, pines and spruces.
In looking for European alternatives to balsam fir, Abies balsamea, it makes sense to look to other members of the family, which have similar characteristics.
In particular, European species of pines, spruces and firs have been widely used as sources of topical antiseptics, salves for burns, rubs and baths for rheumatism and for preparations to ease bronchial complaints and infections, including teas and the inhalation of vapours. We should also note that many of these species also provide a rich source of vitamin C.
Common European species of Pinaceae include Scots pine, Pinus sylvestris, Norway spruce, Picea abies, European larch, Larix decidua, and European silver fir, Abies alba.
All of the above species produce resin and in some texts are grouped together, particularly with respect to applications of turpentine to various skin complaints and even gangrene (e.g. Graves).
Culpeper refers to Pitch and Tar, “there are two sorts of pitch: the one moist, called liquid pitch, the other is hard and dry: they do both run out of the pine and pitch tree, and out of certain other trees, as the cedar, turpentine, and larch, trees, by burning of the wood and timber of them.”
Extensive Chemical Investigation
All of the above common species are commercially important tree species and as such their chemistry has been investigated extensively within the last century. Corrigan states in The Adverse Effects of Herbal Drugs: Volume 2 that “The chemical composition of the Abies species, e.g., Abies alba, is essentially similar to that of Pinus…”
Most Widely Used Herbal Baths
Pine baths are reckoned to be the most widely used of herbal baths to treat muscle aches as well as rheumatism and neuralgia. Scots pine, Pinus sylvestris, Norway spruce, Picea abies, and European silver fir, Abies alba, are all used for this purpose. According to Corrigan, the modern extract used is “a combination of the essential oil produced by distillation added to the inspissated aqueous extract”. Further he states “this extract can be obtained from the needles and young shoots”.
Scots Pine, Pinus sylvestris
This species is well known as the pine of northern Europe. In fact its distribution is massive, extending almost all the way from the British Isles, eastwards to the Pacific.
As noted by Graves, it is the only species of Pinaceae native to the British Isles and (was) found in abundance in Scotland as part of the Caledonian forests, the westernmost outpost of the European boreal forest.
The Caledonian forests of old, however, have been reduced to only three dozen or so remnants covering a total of only 44,000 acres.
It’s thought likely that folk usage of the tree for medicinal purposes reduced in parallel with the decline in distribution.
In the context of the topical use of the resin in Scotland, I’ve read several references to this being mixed with pork lard and beeswax and applied to sores and boils. This reference goes back to a 1919 paper written by McCutcheon, entitled Highland Household Remedies.
More generally, Scots pine sap has been used as a topical antiseptic, and green shoots used for tea, cough medicine and as an inhalation for respiratory problems.
Norway Spruce, Picea abies
Norway spruce is a native of the European mountains. It’s also found at lower altitudes further north. Norway spruce is widely planted as a forestry tree as well as for use as the traditional Christmas tree.
Culpeper referred to this tree as “The pitch-tree” and observed “The timber is fat, and does yield an abundance of rosin of divers sorts;”
Latterly rosin has become known specifically as a solid resin created by heating fresh liquid resin to evaporate off terpenes.
Culpeper seems to be referring to what we generally call resin and even notes that “All the kinds of rosin are called in Latin resina, in French resine…”
Significanly, Culpeper states “Rosin does cleanse and heal fresh wounds, and therefore is a principal ingredient in all ointments and plasters that serve for that purpose. It softens hard swellings, and is comfortable to bruised parts or members, being applied or laid to, with oils, ointments, or plasters, appropriated to that use.”
European Larch, Larix decidua
European larch is a deciduous conifer. It is native to central and eastern European mountains but now more widely distributed.
Preparations of Larch have been applied topically for eczema and psoriasis
European Silver Fir, Abies alba
European silver fir is distributed across central Europe to the north east and into Russia
Like its North American cousin balsam fir, the sap of European silver fir has been widely used as a topical antiseptic as well as in some cases as an anti-inflammatory (as cited here).
Multiple Medicinal Alternatives
So, while it may be that no one European species has served as such a geographically widespread treatment as balsam fir, Abies balsamea, has done within its native range, there are a number of native European alternatives.
In Europe there are a number of options of utilising related and chemically similar species, particularly Pinus sylvestris, Picea abies and Abies alba, which have been used historically and can still be applied to those uses today.
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