Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Spruce Pitch Oil

It might be premature to post about this project, since it's my first time trying it and I'm only part way through and don't have any final results to report on yet. However I'm really excited and have a good feeling that it's going to turn out awesome. So but just caveat lector, k?

And, I couldn't resist sharing these pics with you. I warn you though, the first one is admittedly funky looking. It reminds me of old, dirty grease that some sweaty line cook named Bubba just scraped out of the deep fryer, dontcha think?

Ah, but don't be fooled. Because if you could close your eyes and stick your nose into the jar and take in a deep, robust lungful, you would immediately be transported into a vast evergreen forest, surrounded by aromas of spicy, citrus-y coniferousness (yes I just made that word up). This bit of matter is the gooey, oozy, sticky secretions of the Picea genus. It's spruce pitch! And I'm so excited to be working with it.

Spruce pitch or resin is the sticky fluid that you can often see dripping down the bark of many conifers like pines and spruces. (I used spruce pitch for this, but hope to work with pine as well.) Look for it especially around branches that have been cut off or broken and other areas of damage, because this is the tree's mechanism for sealing up and healing open wounds. Now having said that, it is really important to keep this in mind when harvesting the resin. If you take too much or expose the wound the tree is trying to protect, you slow the healing process and increase the tree's risk for infection and disease. We don't want to do that!

What I have learned from experienced herbalists is that it is ok to harvest the overflow resin. So if the tree produces excess resin, you can take some of this as long as you make sure you aren't removing it directly from the open wound.

When I harvested my resin I actually spread and pressed some extra resin back into the wound, hoping that I might be helpful to the tree. I don't know if that is a valid assumption or not, but at least I don't think I did any harm. Perhaps someone who knows better can correct me.

Anyway, expect that your fingers, and anything they come in contact with, will get very, very stick in this process. Try doing this while walking your boss's dog, with leash and poo bags in one hand and resin jar in the other. It's fun! But don't worry, a little bit of vegetable oil on your hands with some soap and water, cleans them up good.

My plan is to infuse the resin in oil so I can make a salve from it (a combo of almond and olive oil in this case). I filled the jar with two parts oil to one part resin.
To extract the medicinal constituents like resin acids and terpenes like alpha and beta-pinene and limonene, moderate heat seems to work well. A bain marie on the stove would work fine no doubt, but it being the first day of spring yesterday, I brought the sun oven out for the first time this season and used that.
So here's how the infusion looked after a few hours in the sun oven. The oil is no longer clear. It has turned a deep orange/amber colour. Some bits of bark and needles have floated to the top and quite a bit of sediment has settled on the bottom. The oil smells divine already. I'm infusing it again today and will see how it looks later. The next step will be to strain the oil so it's ready to be used as is or turned into salve. I can't wait!
So what can you use it for? Well since this is my first attempt, I can't speak from experience, but there is a long history and even longer list of ailments that spruce resin has been known to treat including insect bites, removing splinters, skin infections, cold sores, eczema, sprains and strains, as a chest rub for respiratory infections...

Like I said, the list is long and I don't have experience using it to treat anything yet, but I'm looking forward to getting to know and working with this plant medicine.

I found this fascinating article on how the Gwich'in people traditionally used spruce resin and other parts of the spruce tree for food, tools and medicine.

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