How do you tell the difference between spruce and fir ?

How do you tell the difference between spruce and fir ?

Understanding Conifers

How do you tell the difference between spruce and fir treesIn early December I wrote a post on how do you tell the difference between coniferous trees.

This mostly outlined some of the similarities and differences between Tsuga sp. (hemlocks) and Pseudotsuga (Douglas fir). In addition it included a little information on Abies sp. (firs).

In this post I am going to look at fir and spruce (Picea sp.) trees. So how do you tell the difference between spruce and fir trees? First of all, spruce trees.

Picea species (spruce trees)

How do you tell the difference between spruce and fir treesMy little Collins book notes there are around 40 species of Picea – wow! I definitely don’t know all of them. None are native to the UK. The Norway spruce (Picea abies) is the most common in Europe.

The book describes them “an uncomfortable bunch”.  To help me remember botanically, I use spiky spruce so I can relate to the uncomfortable bunch description.

scaly spruce bark

Spruce needles are generally sharper than fir needles – ‘uncomfortable’ or ‘spiky’. Sometimes they are described as whorled, like a bottle brush. The Collins book also describes a thin, scaly bark.

In the last post I mentioned that neither Abies nor Pseudotsuga species have a peg whereas Tsuga species do. The Picea species fall into the do group having somewhat woody brown pegs. However, spruce needles have no petiole, unlike the hemlocks.

How do you tell the difference between spruce species ?

On a spruce leaves (needles) could be flat or angled. With the Norway they tend to be angled, sort of having four sides. Sitka needles usually are flat. In fact the Collins book describes Sitka needles as “much flattened”.

I have personally struggled with this as a differentiating feature between the two species. Occasionally the Norway needles seems a little more flat than angled. Perhaps this is down to practice.

How do you tell the difference between spruce and fir
Picea sp. with pendent cones

Sitka needles are more spiky than Norway. Norway are green with very faint white lines. Sitka are paler on the underside.

The shoots of the Sitka are yellowy/whitish pale brown. Whereas those of the Norway are much darker, almost orangey-red. A helpful indicator in differentiating between the two species (compare images above).

The cones on spruce trees are pendent i.e. they hang down. The size of the cone varies. The Norway usually has larger, longer cones between 10-20cm. Cones have a sort of curve shape to them. You may notice in the images above. They are not hard like pine cones. In fact they are almost papery-like and squishy.

and some other coniferous and spruce notes…

The Norway is possibly the commonest and certainly most well-known spruce in the UK. It is the traditional Christmas tree. This is the species in Trafalgar Square in London every year.

Sitka, a North American species, is commonly grown by the forestry commission in wet forests. In fact it can be a little yellow if it doesn’t get enough water. It can grow quite well in Scotland but is rarer in drier areas south of the UK. Fast growing so popular for timber and paper production. Believed the third largest tree species in the world. The Douglas fir, mentioned in the previous post, is second largest.

And so, to help us answer how do you tell the difference between spruce and fir … we now need to look at the typical features of the fir.

Medicinal Uses:

Picea mariana more commonly known as black spruce is a popular essential oil. The oil is steam distilled from the needles. It is decongestant so beneficial for respiratory infections. Useful for nervous exhaustion. Energetically it is warming. I like it in vaporisation or inhalation when you are literally exhausted from coughing and spluttering.

It is reputedly beneficial in massage for muscle aches and pains and poor circulation although I personally haven’t used it in this way. It is an oil that I sometimes like the aroma of and other times detest.

Abies species (fir trees)

how do you tell the difference between spruce and firAs already mentioned above fir trees have no peg. If you pull a needle off a small scar will be left. You can see a small green scar where I have pulled out a leaf from the Grecian fir (image to right). The scar can just be seen to left of the text on the twig. It looks like a sort of round sucker.

Cones on fir trees are upright and erect. Think of soldiers standing to attention. They disintegrate on the tree so you will rarely find a cone on the ground unlike spruce or pine cones. The featured header photograph for this post shows cones on an Abies (fir) tree growing beside the church in Foix in the Ariege. You can clearly see the upright cones.

Some different fir species…

How do you tell the difference between spruce and firThe two photographs of the Abies cephalonica are from the Aude Arboretum. This fir is more commonly known as the Grecian fir.

My little Collins book describes the Grecian fir as having almost perpendicular shiny green leaves all around the shoot “radiating stiffly”. The leaves are certainly shiny green.

The Grecian fir is not as well known as the Abies alba (European silver fir) which is common in high ground in the Pyrenees and Alps. The wood is white hence ‘alba’. Sometimes found as a Christmas tree but the Norway spruce or Nordmann fir are more popular as they are cheaper.

How do you tell the difference between spruce and firAlthough Abies grandis (giant fir) is native from Vancouver to California it is described as the most vigorous silver fir in the UK, particularly in the damper, wetter North and West.

It has citrus-grapefruit smelling leaves. The Collins book describes this a “delicious tangerine scent”. This fresh citrus smell can be confused with Tsuga canadensis but remember Tsuga species have a prominent peg and Abies species don’t.

Another indicator for the giant fir is apparently the twig shoots are quite dark brown, almost black in colour. Not a great indicator without comparison.

Medicinal Uses:

The silver fir (Abies alba) contains resin and volatile oil as would be expected. The essential oil or the resin are utilised medicinally.

The resin is recommended by Menzies-Trull as a liniment. The liniment he indicates externally for respiratory or rheumatic disorders and also for impetigo – a skin infection.

The essential oil he recommends for inhalation.

So to sum up … How do you tell the difference between spruce and fir …


I read this little mnemonic somewhere which I thought was quite helpful. “Picea Pegs Poke-Out, Abies ‘Asnt Any!” You just need remember that Picea is spruce and Abies is fir. Remember spruce has no petiole unlike the hemlocks.


Picea or spruce usually will have more spiky needles than the fir. I think of Spiky Spruce, Feathery Fir. Okay so Abies aren’t what you would call feathery, more leathery really, but they are more ‘feathery’ than the spiky Picea.


One of the simplest ways to answer how do you tell the difference between spruce and fir is with the cones. Look at the tree. Cones on a spruce are hanging down. You are likely to find them fallen on the ground. Those on a fir are upright. It is rare to find fir cones on the ground.

Essential Oils to Help with Breathing Difficulties and Congestion

Essential Oils to Help with Breathing Difficulties and Congestion

At this time of year there are so many winter bugs. Using essential oils for vaporisation in the home or workplace helps support the immune system. If the dreaded lurgy has already hit select essential oils to help with breathing difficulties and congestion.

The following are some of the popular essential oils to support the respiratory system. Incidentally, many of these are trees.

Frankincense – Boswellia sp.

Boswellia carteri contains approximately 40% monoterpenes. Monoterpenes are antiseptic, bactericidal and antiviral (Clarke, 2002). However, Lawless (1995) notes constituents vary dependent on species of Boswellia used. West (2003) recommends frankincense for mucous conditions like catarrh and bronchitis. Monoterpenes aid in fighting infection.   

Renowned for its ability to slow down and regulate breathing. This is probably why it is often used as incense in meditation. Perhaps this effect on breathing, combined with the anxiolytic action, is why it is frequently found useful for asthma.

This was always one of my favourite oils. It has got quite expensive though so I tend to use it less frequently these days.

Cajeput, Eucalyptus, Niaouli, Ti-Tree – The Myrtaceae Family

essential oils to help with breathing difficulties and congestion.

Melaleuca leucadendron, Eucalyptus globulus, Melaleuca viridiflora and Melaleuca alternifolia are members of the Myrtaceae family. Price describes this family particularly beneficial for the respiratory system and highly antiseptic tonic stimulants.

As mentioned these essential oils tend to be more stimulant in action. Although these are great oils to use when you are under the weather if you find them too stimulating it is best to avoid bedtime use.

Balz (1999) notes 1.8-cineole is found in Melaleuca leucadendron, Eucalyptus globulus, Melaleuca viridiflora and Rosmarinus officinalis ct cineole*. This constituent strengthenairways and is expectorant. Price (2000) suggests the major action of 1.8-cineole is its mucolytic property. This property is beneficial for coughs and congestion in the respiratory tract. Penoel (1992) adds although 1.8-cineole often shows a strong bactericidal action, particularly against Staph aureus, it is generally considered much more effective in the treatment of viruses.  

So oils with 1.8-cineole definitely win a position on the list of essential oils to help with breathing difficulties and congestion.

*Note: Rosmarinus more commonly known as rosemary is a different botanical family. However, dependent on the growing conditions some plants are particularly high in 1.8-cineole.

a little more specifically on … the different eucalyptus essential oils to help with breathing difficulties and congestion

Davis (1996) describes Eucalyptus globulus a purifier and recommends using in a burner where there are negative energies. Some sources (including Price, 2000) suggest Eucalyptus globulus too strong for use with babies and young children and generally recommend Eucalyptus smithii as an alternative. I personally would agree and would add Eucalyptus radiata as another alternative. 

Price (2002) consider both smithii and globulus high in cineole. However globulus is usually a little higher and may be as high as 85%. The smithii type is considered to have better quenching properties for aromatic medicine/ aromatology use but the globulus type is considered an excellent expectorant and antiseptic with the antiseptic property also beneficial for urinary tract infections like cystitis.  

Eucalyptus citriodora has a lemony scent. Frequently added to anti-mosquito blends. This has a very small amount of 1.8 cineole. The chemical composition is predominately aldehydes. Although a useful oil not so beneficial in a winter congestion blend.

Eucalyptus staigeriana has slightly more 1.8 cineole than citriodora but not nearly as much as globulus or smithii. However, it is still useful as it has approximately 30% monoterpenes. However, it will not be just as clearing as globulus or radiata varieties.

and a little more specifically on cajeput…

Melaleuca leucadendron or cajeput contains between 45-65% of cineole (Davis, 1988). Davis believes cajeput clears nasal passages by reducing mucus production and inhibiting bacterial growth in colds, flu, catarrh and sinusitis. In addition, it has a pain-killing action beneficial for the aches and pains associated with flu, head colds and sore throats.

and on to a European pine tree….

Essential Oils to Help with Breathing Difficulties and CongestionMembers of the Pinaceae family are effective for respiratory disorders particularly catarrh. Pinus sylvestris, more commonly known as Scots Pine, is a powerful air antiseptic and therefore beneficial used in a vaporiser or burner. It has been used for this purpose on burns units as a preventative against infection in severe burn patients (Price, 2000).  

A study discussed by Nicholls (1998) highlights its anti-infective action.  The study used aromatograms, 50 essential oils and 175 patients with infectious conditions. Pinus sylvestris was one of the oils in the top 10. Definitely a tree oil worthy of a sniff! It is high in those infection busting monoterpenes. 

It is one of my personal favourite essential oils to help with breathing difficulties and congestion. I like it blended with a little sweet orange essential oil. In addition it blends well with eucalyptus and lavender. In Scotland I liked walking in the pine forests when feeling a little under the weather.

So how best do you use essential oils to help with breathing difficulties and congestion ?


If travelling, whether air travel or simply the daily commute to work, a handkerchief works well. Simply add two or three drops of your chosen essential oil or blend of oils to a tissue or handkerchief. Ideally keep the tissue in a sealed bag to retain the aroma throughout the day.

Some essential oils will stain so if a favourite cotton handkerchief perhaps add the oil to a paper tissue or handkerchief-sized piece of old cotton sheet instead.

Essential Oils to Help with Breathing Difficulties and CongestionThere are so many vaporisation options for the home. A wide range of electric oil diffuser are now available to purchase. The price range of these varies greatly so shop around. Ideally try to find one in use. Some shops selling them often have a model or two you can try in the shop.

If seeking a cheaper option, ceramic burners using tea-lights to warm the essential oil and water mix work well. The disadvantage, for safety, you must remember to blow out the candle if going out or when going to sleep.

I would also recommend you choose one with a large enough water and oil well bowl. Some are particularly small. If the bowl is too small the mix often evaporates before the candle has had chance to burn down. The result is a gloppy mess on the bottom of the ceramic bowl.

Steam Inhalation

You can also add four or five drops to a bowl of hot water. Lean over this bowl for steam inhalation. Please take great care to avoid stinging eyes or burning your face. Keep a safe distance and keep your eyes closed. Some of the stronger more potent oils may sting your eyes. Steam inhalation is a great way to help clear congestion in the nose and head.


Essential oils do not disperse in water. Blend a couple of drops in ether a tablespoonful of oil or full fat milk. Add this to the bathtub for a soak, sit back, relax and breathe.

These days fewer and fewer homes have bathtubs. In these situations use a basin and prepare as a foot or hand bath instead.

Decongestant Salve

A decongestant salve is ideal to rub on your chest when you go to bed at night. Choose an oil you find relaxing to aid sleep in addition to helping breathing. I like frankincense in a decongestant salve with a little drop of warming ginger too. Experiment with blends to see what works best for you.

more information…

Finally if you would like to find out a little more about using essential oils to help with breathing difficulties and congestion look out for the next Thyme Breaks essential oils course.

How do you tell the difference between coniferous trees ?

How do you tell the difference between coniferous trees ?

Understanding Conifers

how do you tell the difference between coniferous trees
description of Douglas fir from Aude Arboretum

I should probably title this trying to understand conifers. What a minefield! For the last year or so I have attempted to get to grips with conifers. What is the difference between a fir and spruce, a tsuga and pseudotsuga, a cedar and larch and then pines, cypress, juniper and yew ….. Yikes! So how do you tell the difference between coniferous trees ?

Although only three native conifers in the UK, Scot’s pine, juniper and yew, there are tons throughout Europe. Of course, our three native conifers have all been used medicinally. Many of the European, and indeed worldwide, conifers are medicinal too. Naturally I am keen to learn more about them but first of all it would help to be able to identify them.

So … how do you tell the difference between coniferous trees ?

Tsuga sp. – hemlocks
how do you tell the difference between coniferous trees
Tsuga canadensis – front and underside of leaves (needles)

First up I’ll have a look at the Tsuga species. More commonly known as hemlocks. To my knowledge they are all native of North America. I don’t believe any are European. However, I may be wrong there.

My little Collins British Tree Guide tells me there are ten species. I certainly haven’t actually met ten Tsuga species. They are in the Pinaceae family which includes cedars, firs, spruces, larches and of course, pines.

The photos of the Tsuga canadensis here were taken at the Aude arboretum. T. canadensis is more commonly known as eastern hemlock. I’ll use this species for descriptions.

What do I know or what have I learnt?

how do you tell the difference between coniferous treesMy little book recommends one should look at shape, shoots, colour and leaves to identify.

Tsuga species have a prominent peg. So what does that mean?

Well if we have a look at the close up of my photo of Tsuga canadensis you can, hopefully, see the leaves are coming out from a little sort of perch, or peg. The leaves also have a small stem, or petiole.

The leaves are short and flat. Dark green and shiny, or glossy, on the top. On the underside (see close-up) they are light green with two very visible white lines.

Leaves of this particular species are mostly pectinate. This means they are comblike. On the close up where they are nearer the tip they are less comblike. In the other image above you can see the lower leaves (needles) are indeed more comblike than those nearer the tip.

so … how do you tell the difference between coniferous trees within the hemlock species ?

As I said I don’t know many of the hemlock species but I have learnt a little about identification. If trying to differentiate between eastern hemlock and western hemlock (T. heterophylla) apparently the leaves of the western variety are less pectinate (comblike). Also the eastern hemlock twig is described pubescent. This means the twig has sort of short soft hair. Whereas the western hemlock twig is described wooly.

In addition, the western hemlock smells sour like the poisonous hemlock plant. The eastern hemlock is much fresher some suggest a pine or lemony aroma. Crush a leaf to check.

how do you tell the difference between coniferous trees
cones from a Tsuga sp.

Furthermore western hemlock is generally a taller tree with a single trunk and low sweeping branches. Other Tsuga species tend to have multi-trunks.

Finally the cones of Tsuga species are small, never more than 3cm. The eastern hemlock usually no larger than 1.8cm and the western hemlock around 2.5cm. The image of the cones shown here I took last year. It is a Tsuga species but I am unsure which species.

Medicinal Uses

I have never used a Tsuga species medicinally and know little of its medicinal value. However, native American Indians apparently utilised it for its astringent and antiseptic properties.

Indeed Menzies-Trull, a UK herbalist, describes the main pharmacological action as astringent. In addition, he adds antiseptic as well as anti-microbial and anti-fungal, against candida. In particular he discusses Tsuga canadensis.

He describes the bark as being an original ingredient of an days-gone-by pick-me-up tonic known as Composition Essence. I thought oak bark was utilised in the essence with ginger and chilli. However, I suspect there were a few variations of Composition Essence.

Pseudotsuga menziesii – Douglas fir

Next up the Douglas fir. I love the cones of this tree. The foliage is described similar to a fir (Abies sp.). Commonly it is called Douglas fir but it is not a fir-tree. Nor is it a hemlock (Tsuga sp.) hence the Pseudotsuga. Confused? Me too.

So … how do you tell the difference between coniferous trees that are not firs or hemlocks but have similarities to them ?

how do you tell the difference between coniferous treesMy little Collins book states there are 5 species of Pseudotsuga. It is evergreen like the hemlocks and firs. Native to North America.

However, whereas the Tsuga species have a prominent peg, neither Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga sp.) or indeed, actual firs (Abies sp.) do. So, no peg!

Leaves are soft, flexible and slender, unlike fir-tree leaves (or needles). They have narrow white-green bands on the underside. Hence, Pseudotsuga. The French description above also describes them soft in addition to light green and shiny.

the cones …

how do you tell the difference between coniferous treesAnd so to my favourite part, the cones. The cones of both the fir (Abies sp.) and the Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga sp.) are both larger than 3cm so larger than those found on a hemlock species.If you have a cone it is fairly easy to recognise it as a Pseudotsuga. First of all, if on the tree, cones are pendent i.e. they are hanging down. On a fir-tree (Abies sp.) they are erect.

If you look at the photo I took of a cone at the Aude Arboretum you will see prongs protruding out. The French description at the top describes the cones as medium-sized with thin scales between which are bracts.

My little Collins book describes this a three-pronged snake’s tongue. Not liking snakes very much myself I prefer to think it is a friendly little critter trying to hide but his tail and two back legs are sticking out. Once you have set your eyes on one of these cones it is hard to forget.

Medicinal Uses

I have used Douglas fir essential oil. It has a pleasing crisp, fresh and uplifting aroma. As you might think it is useful for colds and sniffles. The freshness provides clarity.

I do remember reading that native American Indians utilised the tree medicinally by infusing young leaves. Occasionally resin was utilised. One action in particular springs to mind…. younger shoots worn in footwear apparently stops sweating feet and prevents athletes foot! Perhaps, like the Tsuga species, the Pseudotsuga have an anti-fungal action too.

Finally a Douglas fir was at one time listed as the tallest tree in the UK. The tree was in the Caledonian forest in Scotland. Whether it is still the tallest tree I know not.

I guess the fir and the spruce, the cedar and larch and the rest of the coniferous trees will need to wait another day…

Botanical members of the Fagaceae family

Botanical members of the Fagaceae family

Botanical members of the Fagaceae family
autumnal oak leaf

Often, on herb walks, people are surprised to discover beech and oak trees are related. Both the beech and oak are botanical members of the Fagaceae family. The scientific name Fagaceae means beech family.

Whenever I add a new medicinal plant profile to the blog I include the botanical family and scientific name. That way readers can easily identify other plants within the same family.

The plant scientific name generally includes two names, the Genus and the Species. Medicinally it is important you have the correct Genus and often, species. That being said, for some plants similar Species are used medicinally interchangeably. Others not. For example if we look at the lime flower or linden blossom tree medicinal use of three different Tilia species is interchangeable.

However, today we discuss some of the Fagaceae or beech family.

Fagaceae botanical features

Members of this family

  • Are trees or shrubs and either deciduous or evergreen.
  • They have single nuts attached to scaly or spiny caps.
  • Leaves are simple, alternate and often toothed or lobed.
Fagaceae medicinal properties

Members of this family

  • Contain varying amounts of tannic acid – astringent and diuretic.

Genus and Species

The following are some of the more common examples of botanical members of the Fagaceae family with Genus and species scientific names provided. Common names included within brackets.

  • Fagus sylvatica (European beech)
  • Castanea sativa (sweet chestnut)
  • Quercus robur (pedunculate or common or European oak or English oak)
  • Quercus petraea (sessile oak)

In addition, botanical features and medicinal properties break down further within the Genus and sometimes species too. You can see from the examples below the similarities and the differences between each medicinally.

Genus – Fagus

Medicinally utilised historically. However, beech is now generally out of favour. Branches or bark of 2-3 year old branches were utilised. A decoction was brewed as an astringent and disinfectant mouthwash and gargle. Some older sources suggest use as a quinine substitute.

Beech nuts, or masts, contain high saponins and an alkaloid called fagin. Therefore, in quantity, they can make you feel unwell although pigs seem to thrive on them. Horses are particularly susceptible to beech nuts.

Beech nuts are becoming quite popular in wild foraging courses. Remember not to eat in quantity and perhaps avoid if you are prone to an upset stomach.

Genus – Castanaea

Botanical members of the Fagaceae familyLeaves, bark and the nuts of the sweet chestnut can be utilised. Leaves are expectorant and sedative. Historical use of leaves for coughs particularly whopping cough. In addition also for dandruff. The bark is antidiarrhoeal and febrifuge. Therefore, traditionally utilised for dysentery.

As we know chestnuts are nutritious eating. Another popular find on a wild foraging course. Traditionally decocted for mild diarrhoea.

Genus – Quercus
Oaks and alcohol…

Botanical members of the Fagaceae familyFinally the oaks. There are lots of different oaks within Europe. As a result of my living in one of the largest wine regions in Europe a mention of oak in the wine making industry is pertinent.

Wine makers prefer sessile oak (Q. petraea) for casks. While the peduculate (Q. robur) is preferable for cognac. However, the sherry makers choose the Portuguese oak (Q. pyrenaica) for their casks.

Finally, last but not least, one needs a cork for that wine bottle, not a nasty screw top, and that is from the cork oak (Q. suber).

Oaks medicinally…

Pedunculate and sessile are the native oak trees in the UK. The medicinal uses of these two species are interchangeable. The dried inner bark and dried leaves are medicinal. Medicinal use, as with most of the Fagaceae family, is predominately externally.

Traditionally used topically for haemorrhoids in an ointment, or in a lotion for cuts and abrasions. Also used as a douche for leucorrhoea or a gargle for tonsillitis and chronic sore throat. The gargle use similar to the beech above.

Internally both oaks were used, like sweet chestnut, for dysentery. In addition, Maud Grieve recommended as a quinine substitute, again a similarity with beech.

The above gives an indication into the benefits of learning a little about a botanical plant family. Furthermore, in the above example, you can clearly see some similarities within the botanical members of the Fagaceae family. In conclusion, medicinally, this is largely due to the astringency (tannins) generally toning and beneficial for conditions ranging from sore throats to diarrhoea.

Herbs and Gardens of Ancient Egypt – a new discovery

Herbs and Gardens of Ancient Egypt

Herbs and Gardens of Ancient Egypt - a new discoveryLast month archaeologists from the Spanish National Research Council discovered an ancient funerary garden while excavating near Luxor in Egypt.

The garden is thought to be 4,000 years old.

Childhood Desires

As a child I had a fascination for ancient Egypt. I would watch every television documentary and read anything I could about it. I remember my excitement when my aunt Yvonne gave me a gift of a Nefertiti pendant which I still have and often wear today. Another time my mother went on a pre-Christmas shopping trip to Edinburgh. There was some Egyptian display on at the time. As a result, one of my Christmas gifts was three papyrus pictures. These I had framed and still have.

Eventually I was fortunate enough to visit Egypt on a few separate occasions when I was in my twenties. This long held desire of mine since childhood was finally accomplished, for the first time, when I was 21 years of age. Oh what a long time ago. I remember on arrival I was so excited I was actually shaking and was physically sick.

Over my visits I have travelled from Cairo to Abu Simbel and there is so much more I would still love to visit.

Funerary Garden

There are many tomb paintings and papyri depicting the importance of herbs and gardens of ancient Egypt. However, few actual discoveries. This recent find of an actual funerary garden is particularly exciting.

Researchers found evidence of a Tamarisk shrub in the garden. They have also found some seeds from other plants which they plan to have analysed.

Tamarix nilotica

There are some tomb paintings which include the tamarisk (Tamarix nilotica). These trees or shrubs are indigenous to Egypt so it is no surprise to find remains of one in a funerary garden. Commonly known as the Nile Tamarisk.

Tamarisk is mentioned in some medical papyri too. The ancient Egyptians used it in a medicinal remedy for drawing out inflammation. In addition, it was considered aphrodisiac and sudorific. There is some evidence the ancient Egyptians used the wood in carpentry.

More recent traditional medicinal uses include relieving headaches, reducing inflammation and as an antiseptic.

Research conducted by Ahmed Abdelgawad (Tamarix nilotica (Ehrenb) Bunge: A Review of Phytochemistry and Pharmacology) was published early in 2017 in the Journal of Microbial & Biochemical Technology. Abdelgawad found major constituents of flavonoids, tannins and phenolics in T. nilotica. The leaves exhibited significant antioxidant, anti-viral, hepatoprotective and anti-tumour activities.

One can’t help but wonder how much medicinal knowledge the Ancient Egyptians understood about the Tamarisk.

Elderflower Cordial, Wine or Liqueur ?

Eldeelderflower cordial, wine or liqueurrflower Cordial, Wine or Liqueur ?

Elderflowers are in full beautiful bloom. My mind is currently a spinning wondering what delicacies I can make. Do I opt for more tincture or elderflower cordial, wine or liqueur?

Incidentally I cannot abide the smell of elderflowers. In saying that, they are still one of my favourite trees to see in bloom at this time of year. The medicinal virtues far outweigh my dislike for the smell.

Earlier in the month I posted a basic tincture recipe. An easily adapted recipe for other medicinal plants. However, I suggested collecting and drying elderflowers. Ideal to keep as a winter tonic to boost immunity or a hay fever tonic for next spring.

Now I am wondering should I make elderflower cordial, wine or liqueur?

Non alcoholic versus alcoholic I hear you ask?

The Drunken Botanist

And so on to my dilemma.

Anyone knowing me, or even following my blogs, know I LOVE books. So pondering what to do with all the beautiful elderflowers I turned to one of my books – The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart.

Anyone for Sambuca?

My best friend Sharon has always enjoyed a Sambuca after a meal. She believes it helps her digestion. Sambucus nigra is the scientific name for the elderflower tree. Although this thought had crossed my mind I did not realise any part of the plant was an ingredient. Anyone having tried Sambuca will probably agree it is a more aniseed based flavour.

However, in The Drunken Botanist, Amy explains that although artificial flavours and colours are occasionally used some black sambucas actually owe that deep purple-black colour to the crushed skins of the elderberries. So there we have it.

… and back to my dilemma…

Everyone loves a bit of elderflower wine or liqueur. But you don’t always want the alcohol. Sometimes you have to work, write blogs or prepare herbal events!

Amy’s elderflower cordial sounds absolutely delicious. One obvious difficulty for me is she recommends gathering those fresh flowers on a warm afternoon when THAT fragrance is strongest. Oh dear!


Linden Blossom or Lime Flower Tree though not a citrus…

Tilia sp.


Tilioideae (formally Tiliaceae) Tilioideae is a sub-family of Malvaceae.

French common name: Tilleul

Linden Blossom or Lime Flower Tree

linden blossom or lime flowerSo is it a linden blossom or lime flower tree? Both names appear to be used interchangeably. One thing for certain it is not a citrus tree and bears no edible lime-like fruit. It is however a very beautiful tree and definitely one of my favourites.

Scientifically there are several species. The small-leaved lime, Tilia cordata, grows up to a height of 30m. Tilia platyphyllos, or large-leaved lime, grows up to a height of 40m. Tilia x vulgaris and Tilia x europaea are both applied as scientific names for common lime. The common lime is a naturally occurring hybrid between the small and large-leaved lime. All the above are used interchangeably medicinally.

In English you may find the common name written as large or small-leaved or common linden blossom or lime flower.

Mills (1993) advises there is a difference in leaf size between the species but no known differences in therapeutic activity.

The leaves often described as heart-shaped are occasionally slightly asymmetrical at the base.

Linden blossom or lime flower – how to use and dosage

linden blossom or lime flowerThe dried flowers are used in an infusion with one teaspoon of the herb per cup of boiling water. Two to three spoonfuls are recommended in cases of fever (Hoffmann).

Mills (1993) recommends 1 to 4g of flowers three times a day.

Mills (1993) advises the tree is found throughout the temperate world growing in large parks, gardens and in the wild. He recommends drying the flowers quickly after picking as they spoil quite easily.

Barker notes bark is sometimes used though adds externally as an anti-inflammatory poultice. Fresh leaves can be eaten. He advises harvesting early in flowering for medicinal use.

A popular infusion in France and often found dried for sale at French markets. Trees frequently found in France in school playgrounds or village squares. Believed to be popular in these areas to promote relaxation.

This tea almost immediately makes me feel calm and very relaxed with a most pleasant, warm and comfortable feeling. I like the taste which I would describe as a combination of light, sweet, floral and with a subtle fruity, slightly astringent flavour.

Traditional Uses:

This wonderful tree has countless examples of traditional use.

The wood was used for detailed carvings. Easier to work with than other woods particularly for minute detail. Traditionally popular for detailed carvings. Reputedly there are many lime wood carvings in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and in Windsor Castle. Apparently the lightest wood produced by any European tree and said to never get woodworm. Used for clogs and cuckoo clocks as well as musical instruments. Also used in sounding boards for organs and pianos.

Honey is produced from the flowers (Grieve).

Bartram advises once utilised to reduce severity of epileptic seizures. While Ward (1936) noted it a popular remedy for chronic catarrhal conditions following colds. Given for nervous headaches and hysterical tendencies. Recommended as an infusion of 1 drachm in 1 pint of boiling water or in bed-time baths, in equivalent strength, for those suffering from insomnia. Even today many herbalists utilise lime flower for insomnia.

Modern Uses:

Mills (2001) indicates lime flowers for any acute infections particularly if accompanied by fever. Thus indicating common colds, bronchitis and influenza. Further described as being antispasmodic and relaxant and indicated for anxiety, intestinal colic, irritability, restlessness and sleeplessness and tension headaches and migraines.

Barker suggests combining with Elder for the common cold with fever. In addition, he recommends with Hawthorn and Yarrow for poor peripheral circulation. Furthermore, like Mills, he recommends for headaches and insomnia from nervous tension. Finally he combines with hawthorn for hypertension (high blood pressure). I have often combined hawthorn and lime flower in herbal prescriptions.

Hoffmann advises use as a prophylactic particularly for arteriosclerosis and recommends it specifically in the use of high blood pressure with arteriosclerosis. He recommends combining it with hops for nervous tension.

Mills (2001) describes lime flowers as a herbal aquaretic meaning the herb is a diuretic that excretes water from the body. He recommends its use as a decoction for hypertension. Herbal aquaretics benefit in replacing potassium lost through the use of modern diuretic prescriptions.

Recommended for phlebitis and varicose veins. Believed to have a restorative effect following auto-immune attacks such as arteritis, a condition involving inflammation of artery walls. One of the first herbs of choice, along with chamomile, for illness in babies and children (Mills, 1993).

Some science stuff…

Listed active ingredients, for medicinal purposes in phytotherapy, are flavonoids, volatile oil and mucilage components (Toker et al, 2001).

Mills (1993) advises lime flowers contain flavonoids, mucilage, saponins and tannins. The volatile oil includes farnesol. Flavonoids predominately work on the vascular system. However, they are usually diuretic and some may well be anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and anti-spasmodic. Saponins will also work on the vascular system. He describes these two constituents as having a synergistic effect on the blood vessels.

Mucilage protects against infections and neutralises toxins while tannins astringe membranes making them less sensitive to bacteria. Some saponins also have an effect on the female hormone system and can regulate steroidal activity.

Farnesol in volatile oil is anti-inflammatory, bacteriostatic and deodorant (Clarke, 2002).

… and a bit of research…

Weiss (2001) describes a study conducted by two paediatricians on children with influenza type symptoms. The children on lime blossom tea and bed-rest recovered much more quickly and with fewer complications than those given orthodox medications. I particularly like lime flower for children. It is quite possibly one of my favourite herbs for them.

I did read a review of scientific evidence sourced into linden blossom absolute on an aromatherapy site some years back. Inhalation experiments tested essential oil of Tilia cordata and two of its components, benzaldehyde and benzyl alcohol.

T. cordata produced a significant decrease for traditional indications such as headaches, migraine and anxiety. In conclusion use is justified in aroma-therapeutical applications. The quoted study was from 1992, Arch. Pharm. Apr. 325(4):247-8.

Herbal Energetics

Energetically, linden blossom or lime flower has a warm temperament (Mills, 1993).

While Holmes describes linden energetically as a bit pungent, sweet and astringent. In Ayurvedic energetics he describes it as decreasing Pitta and Kapha.

Furthermore, he finds it beneficial for several conditions. External wind heat includes fever and unrest. Other indications include lung wind heat which covers thirst, dry cough, red sore throat. Both lung wind heat and external wind heat cause irritability. Headache and nervous tension are kidney Qi stagnation.

Finally further reading including linden blossom or lime flower:


Are conifer trees important medicinals?

Are conifer trees important medicinals?

Are conifer trees important medicinalsThere are a number of conifer species throughout the world. Conifers are trees or shrubs with needle or scalelike leaves as opposed to broadleaves such as oak, ash or beech.

In the UK there are only three native conifer species. These are Pinus sylvestris (Scot’s Pine), Juniperus communis (common juniper) and Taxus baccata (yew). There are a wide range of introduced and naturalised species. These naturalised conifers seem to have a somewhat tarnished reputation in the UK. Many think they are permanently altering the traditional woodland landscape. In France, as with most of Europe, there are more native conifer species than in the UK.

Whatever your personal feelings about conifers many are majestic beauties.

So are conifer trees important medicinals?

Yes, many are. In the UK the three native conifers have a long history of medicinal usage. Many introduced conifers have documented medicinal uses too. Even better you don’t need to have knowledge of the individual tree species. Simply spending some time in a forest, with many trees, has its own health benefits.

Interestingly the Japanese practice what they term “forest bathing“. Forest bathing is basically relaxing wherever there are trees.

are conifer trees important medicinalsIt may sound like another crazy Japanese fad. However, after $4 million on research, science has proven forest bathing lowers heart rate and blood pressure, reduces stress and boosts the immune system. These benefits were found to be due to the therapeutic benefits of the volatile oils of the trees i.e. essential oils.

Tree bathing includes various trees, not simply conifers. However, many conifers produce essential oils. Essential oils make it possible to bring a little bit of the forest into your workplace or home even if you live and work in a city. It may not be quite as good as relaxing in a forest but there are still health benefits.

Some popular conifer essential oils…

The following are more popular and well known essential oils from conifer trees. I have written about some of these either individually or within the content of an article or post.

  • Abies alba (silver fir)
  • Abies balsamea (Canadian balsam)
  • Cedrus atlantica (cedarwood)
  • Cupressus sempiverens (cypress)
  • Juniperus communis (juniper)
  • Juniperus oxycedrus (cade)
  • Pinus sylvestris (Scot’s pine)
  • Picea mariana (black spruce)
  • Pseudotsuga menziesii (Douglas fir)

There are of course, many other essential oils from trees. All of the above trees, although not all native European species, can be found in Europe.

Cedarwood of the Atlas mountains

Cedrus atlantica



French: cèdre de l’atlas

The Pinaceae family are resin producing trees (Barker).

This magnificent tree is not native to Europe. I did not study this as part of my herbal degree. However, I did cover the essential oil in my aromatherapy diploma training. I love the smell of this oil and find it very grounding.

The first two photographs were taken at the Aude Arboretum, where there is a very large cedarwood tree. The other photographs were taken in the Forêt Domaniale de Callong-Mirailles, where there are a group of planted, smaller cedarwood trees.

As mentioned, it is not a native European tree. The common name ‘atlas cedarwood’ gives a clue to the origin, the Atlas Mountains in Morocco.

Traditional Uses:

cedarwood essential oilCedarwood oil was utilised by the Egyptians in mummification and the wood from the tree, as well as cypress wood, was used for building sarcophagi.

Frankincense, myrrh and cedarwood were used as temple incense aromatics and as offerings to the Gods.

It is probable, in Egypt, this was the Lebanon cedar rather than the Atlas Cedar.

Therapeutic Uses:

Cedarwood oil is, described by Price et al, as a lymph tonic and a particularly good choice for lymphatic circulatory problems. West (2003) notes cedarwood beneficial for skin degeneration which can be a problem in oedema cases. Cedarwood is high in terpenes. Terpenes are hydrophobic, meaning they aid removal of excess fluid from tissues (Price, 2004).

I wrote the following summary of cedarwood oil some years ago when I was regularly working with the oil particularly in aromatherapy therapeutic massage.

Physical Uses: More useful for long standing chronic conditions rather than acute ones. Tonic for the glandular and nervous systems regulating homeostasis. Expectorant properties make it effective for the respiratory tract in easing bronchitis, coughs and catarrh. It is also of benefit for genito-urinary tract problems such as cystitis. Good for the skin particularly oily skins and pus conditions and eczema and psoriasis. Excellent hair tonic particularly useful for dandruff and alopecia. The regenerative properties make this oil useful for conditions such as arthritis.

Emotional Uses: Calming and soothing action makes this of benefit for nervous tension and anxious states. Uplifting. Regenerating. Gives strength in times of emotional crisis. Steadies the conscious mind. Can ‘buck-up’ the ego when in a strange or unfamiliar situation.

and a bit about the chemical constituents …

Cedarwood contains many constituents. Among these are the sesquiterpenes, cedrene and terpene. Sesquiterpenes are antiseptic, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, calming and slightly hypotensive and some may be analgesic, antispasmodic, anti-allergic and anti-oxidant.

The essential oil also contains atlantone, a ketone. Ketones are calming and sedative, mucolytic (some ketones are expectorant), analgesic, digestive and encourage wound healing.

Finally a mighty tree producing the wonderful therapeutic essential oil of cedarwood.

European Ash – an ancient tree

Fraxinus excelsior



European AshAt this time of year there is less variety of plant life. However, whatever the season thankfully we always have the trees.

The European ash, or common ash, is one of the easiest trees to identify in winter with those black velvet buds and ‘keys’ (see images).

The Oleaceae contains mostly trees and shrubs such as the European ash, olive and privet. Jasmine is also in this botanical family.

Traditional Uses:

For the bitings of venomous beasts, Culpeper advised using the young tender tops and leaves taken inwardly and applied outwardly. Dropsy and “to abate the greatness of those that are too gross or too fat” were treated with a small quantity of distilled water every morning. Decoctions of leaves in white wine he recommended to break and expel stones and cure jaundice. It is not clear where the stones are though I would presume, based on the jaundice reference, the gallbladder?

Fraxinus-common-european-ash-keysThe bark he used instead of leaves in winter time. Interestingly ash keys, usually also found in winter, he used for stitches and pains in the sides from wind and for removing stones by provoking urine. One assumes he refers to kidney stones here. He noted keys easily kept all year.

Culpeper added he could justify all, one assumes from personal experience, except for the bitings of venomous beasts. Whether these venomous beasts were mythical creatures such as werewolves or more likely snakes who knows? However, I guess they were few venomous snakes (or beasts) in Culpepers 1650’s London as he had never had cause to try it!

Barker notes its use as a litholytic in Renaissance times, pre-Culpeper. An indispensable timber. Everything from furniture, spears and walking sticks, carts and oars were made from the ash. A tree of magic and mythology.

David Winston, an American herbalist, lists the American or white ash (Fraxinus americana) in the American Extra Pharmacopoeia. Both Cherokee and eclectics uses included for pelvic congestion and uterine fibroids.

Modern Uses:

This well known tree was not included in my own herbal training. Leaves and winged fruits are utilised in modern herbal medicine. As is bark, from two to three year old twigs, and the sap too (Barker).

Leaflets are harvested without the petiole while young, ideally before the end of June. Harvest bark, from young twigs, in April. Leaves are prepared as infusion and the bark a cold maceration followed by infusion. A syrup of fruits is advised.

Barker describes the European ash as a diuretic and anti-rheumatic. Beneficial for rheumatism, gout and oedema. As a febrifuge, for fevers, fruit or bark are used. He describes it a mild laxative although adds not the bark. It is also astringent, here, he notes mainly the bark. Leaves are chewed for bad breath. Barker suggests combining with some peppermint or lemon balm leaves.

Menzies-Trull lists many of the same indications as Barker; halitosis, fevers, oedema, gout and rheumatism particularly highlighting it a uric acid eliminator. In addition, he describes ash a slow and persistent remedy.

Similar to the American ash, Menzies-Trull, describes the European ash as toning the uterus and indicates ash for uterine prolapse, endometriosis with oedema and enlarged cervix.

some pharmacology…

Coumarins, flavone glycosides, resins, tannins and vitamins are included constituents listed by Barker. The resins and tannins are probably highest in the bark and relate to the astringent action.

and a bit of research…

A German study from 1995 investigated the pharmacological properties of a compound used as an anti-rheumatic. It contains a combination of Populus tremula, Solidago virgaurea and Fraxinus excelsior (European ash). The team conducted various studies. They noted little previous research into Fraxinus excelsior itself however, they found its coumarin components to have a variety of pharmacological properties. The combination of the three herbs was comparable to non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAID’s) without the side effects (von Kruedener, 1995).

and finally some energetics…

Governed by the sun (Culpeper). Both Cherokee and eclectics described the bark energetically as bitter and acrid (Winston).