The Forests of the Northern Hemisphere cling to the slopes of limestone mountains as they point to the sky. Mountain slopes face the sea and rolls its mists to the trees that hang their mosses to the silent dripping ground. The wind howls at the mountain pinnacles of heat, cold and light and small trees crouch to the very ground for survival. Silent, dense, dark, from the soft ground the trees crowd in and the peat-like ground gives a soft yielding touch to foot, hoof and paw. The deep pools and lakes are crowded to their edge with the sombre tree witnesses of ancient times. All around is the sweet smell, bitter smell, fresh feeling of Conifers.
In Aromatherapy we have an increasing burden of legislation. Those belonging to one of the professional associations, otherwise known as trades unions, also have a burden of self imposed curriculum restricting the spread of materials outside a limiting core of essential oils. Politically motivated conservationists conspire to frighten us with doom-laden prophecies about the end of the ecosystem. Scientists declare the horrors of the chemistry of essential oils and the terrors of the unknown vegetation that grows unrestricted without the aid of the university!
The trees look on, perhaps with a sentient feeling of the countless generations that have drawn their benefits without the blessing of our modern society, the peasant, the goodwife, the sorcerer, the merchant, the healer.
Conifers do not form too much part of the materia medica of the average Aromatherapist. Cypress, that sentinel of the Mediterranean area, is probably the most used of this tree family. It was the first essential oil I ever chose with its sweet balsamic long lasting odour. I was taught that it was an astringent and diuretic and that it was particularly useful for minor bleeding such as for haemorrhoids, bleeding gums and for varicose veins. It is still my first port of call for such conditions. Little did I know at the time that this aromatic tree provided incense in Tibet or that it had chemistry rich in terpenes and alcohol. What I was taught and acknowledged was its traditional value which remains true.
The world of conifers remains relatively unexploited by Aromatherapists. Its Southern Hemisphere equivalents however, i.e. the Eucalypts, are quite popular for a variety of reasons. The commercialisation of eucalyptus as an over-the-counter old fashioned medicine gives it a familiar ring as well as the promotion of such materials by leading authorities such as Daniel Penoel and Mark Webb. In the North we have few champions of conifers. Yet it was only fifty years ago that those with respiratory disease or lung infections, even TB, were sent to the conifer forest for recuperation. The movement of wind against needle or leaf drenched the air with ionised micro droplets of health giving essential oils. (Should we in the European Union, by the way, now expect that each conifer forest be surrounded by signs warning us of the allergen content of the air produced by this dastardly stuff called nature? It’s enough to make you reach for your approved safe asthma inhaler!)
A review of essential oil suppliers also shows quite quickly those companies which are specialist to true aromatherapy, selling business to business, and those who are really in retail commerce selling to those who dabble in little brown bottles. The limited or extensive list of conifers often shows this difference. The world of trees we come across and may use include the pines, firs, cedars and spruce. Many of these trees do have similar major chemical constituents yet each has a distinct aroma born from both minor constituents and its energetic potential or DNA.
The other most commonly used conifers include Cedar usually C.atlantica, or the humble Juniper usually J.communis. Cedar oil has been exploited since the dawn of civilisation. It has long been a traditional ingredient in Middle East massage oils. It is a sedative for the nervous system and a circulatory tonic or stimulant. The oil has warmth that Cypress and the spikier Juniper lacks yet its major chemistry provides some unique components such as cedrol and atlantone. Cedar is however used as a generic term. The smell of Cedar we associate with pencils actually comes from a juniper, J.virginiana, common name Virginian Cedar. This oil is said to rely on cedrene as its major constituent giving quite a sweet but sharper odour than the true cedar. It was used for box making partly due to its insect repellent properties which can be utilised to beef up the usual lemon smells of such products. Due to its fragrance familiarity it is quite well accepted as a decongestant and where sinusitis is a problem. At the bottom of the USA we find Texas Cedar also a juniper, J.mexicana. It has similar properties to its Virginian relative although I have found it more beneficial for muscle rubs and articular problems. Both oils have major or predominant chemistry, in particular cedrene up to 80% and this sort of singular chemistry always says be cautious with me! Both oils can cause a little irritation but then another word for this is rubefacient which is desirable in some instances. Like most things, observation of use in practice and a sensible and cautious approach is valuable. After all, actions and reactions are individual and a therapist is paid to provoke, prevent or manage them not ignore a valuable material. The invaluable common juniper which has its virtues and downside in urinary affairs highlights this.
One company lists, among others, Douglas, Maritime, Scots and other Pines alongside Black Spruce, Balsam Fir, Caucasus and Silver Fir. Amongst this group are some of the freshest and nicest aromas around. The Balsam Fir, indicated by its very name as practical and useful in all respiratory disease and incidentally useful in genitourinary conditions, has one of the finest conifer scents perhaps matched only by Siberian Pine. The latter in my opinion rates the very best for perfumery, as well as conifer fragrance in medical conditions. It has that living freshness that is a tonic and is well worth using as a recovery agent or tonic during and after viral disease and bacterial infections. Try it for the common cold! It has warmth yet freshness not found in, say, Tea Tree. You will have already noticed that common names are notoriously misleading with conifers. For example some cedars are, in common parlance, junipers. Siberian Pine is not a pine but Abies alba or Silver Fir. Yet there is of course a real pine from Siberia (at a fraction of the price) P.sylvestris. Be sure you know what you are really buying.
One of the most popular conifers amongst the more experienced Aromatherapists is Black Spruce. Spruce oil is well known as an energetic oil in Aromatherapy terms and is recommended for genuine, effective yoga and meditation blends. It is used in psychic work and for grounding people. This may also perhaps be extended to those trying to deal with drug abuse, especially those too high or on a bad trip. Put in other terms we find that Black Spruce has a good balance of terpenes and esters. Kurt Schnaubelt proposes that this oil has hormone-mimicking compounds that will establish hormonal balance in thyroid and adrenal glands. Franchomme too highlights this aspect, referring to cortisone like action. This makes Black Spruce a definite endocrine system tonic. Other indications for its use would certainly include rheumatism and prostrate problems. Black Spruce is not an oil to be marginalized.
At some time or another few of us in the north will have failed to walk through a conifer forest. No doubt we were struck by the almost tangible presence of the trees, in particular the quietness. We would have noticed the structure of the tree that takes our eyes upward toward the light. Everything is structured to the upward plane, generally around the central trunk. The conifers give us the tallest and oldest trees. The Yew for example can be many thousands of years old! Sitting in a Yew forest can give rise to some interesting thought processes as the trees give off an odour (gas) that is slightly hallucogenic. The Druids used to throw the abundant pollen on fires to give a ‘puff of flame’ to impress the locals! In recent times the Yew has also contributed to providing one of the most effective anti cancer drugs. According to Goethe the Conifer family opens up to ‘the most basic and primordial feelings of creation’. In our walk we would also have been struck by the freshness of the air, even on a summer day, and been surrounded by a certain tang in the air. We may have spotted resin oozing from trunks or noticed the cones that somehow link to warmth in our minds, perhaps even a folk memory of the fossilised resins – golden amber. Invariably we can relate these trees to the nervous system, lungs and glands.
The ubiquitous common Pines should not be forgotten. I love the odour of the Maritime Pine, P.pinaster, but others prefer the Scots (or Norway) Pine. P.sylvestris in its many guises is both common and useful and I believe overlooked. Could that be simply because its fragrance is so commonly used in household products? Its properties are straightforward as a rubefacient, pulmonary antiseptic and hepatic and urinary antiseptic. It is strongly anti fungal. Why not make your own antiseptic household cleaners using pine? It is a strong tonic too and a little known point made by Franchomme is its pancreatic action and anti diabetic action. It has a good reputation in treating bronchitis, asthma and sinusitis. Whilst we consider the exotics of this world we should perhaps reconsider those common and relatively inexpensive oils that probably grow just around the corner.
In many ways Conifer oils are waiting to be discovered. Of course with the ever-tightening constrictions of standardisation of Aromatherapy, especially through state education, a new generation of not so near to nature Aromatherapists is being birthed. Before it is too late and they are consigned to history, we can revisit the value of these under utilised conifer oils and look toward the pioneers of aromatherapy who had no qualms about a wider use of essential oils. They had a profound approach to their clients or patients as individuals, seeking out what was best and applicable to their needs. Often the choice was based as much upon aroma as textbook reference. Go sit and walk among the trees then. After all they are symbolically referred to as there for the Healing of the Nations.