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Healing from the Trees: Spruce Resin Salve Recipe

The completed salve!

The completed salve!

Since moving to our new homestead a few years ago, I’ve been working to build a local material medica–that is, learning about all of the medicinal plants, herbs, and trees here on our 5-acre property.  This also, of course, means growing a lot of my own herbs but also learning everything I can about the uses of the plants/trees already present on the land.  This post is a follow-up to my Spruce post from a little while ago to share some primary ways of working with spruce: A Spruce Resin Salve (also known as a Spruce Gum and Spruce Resin salve) with bonus fire-starters from the process!

Many conifers produce a tarry, sticky resin or sap that has a range of uses: as a binding agent or glue, as a medicine, as gum you can chew, as incense, as a fire-starting tool, as a waterproofing agent, and much more!  Gums from many trees, including Norway Spruce, White Pine, and Blue Spruce are highly medicinal and can be turned into a range of herbal preparations.  In today’s post, I’ll share a basic process for making a salve from spruce resin; this same process can be used for any other salve made from white pine resin or other medicinal conifer tree gum.

I think that learning how to make medicine from sacred trees is a really important part of developing a wildcrafted druidry or nature-based spiritual practice.  Trees are incredible friends, guides, and they have much to offer us–if we take the time to learn, to listen, and to work with them.

Medicinal Properties of Spruce Resin/Pitch/Sap

Norway Spruce is not native to North America…but it, along with Blue Spruce, is planted just about everywhere!  It is easy to find in urban and suburban areas, where these tress are also often trimmed, resulting in many opportunities to harvest the dried resin or sticky gum sap.

Norway Spruce Gum  (and other spruces such as Black Spruce, Blue Spruce, and White Spruce) have been used for millennia for medicine. The many uses of Norway Spruce include antibacterial, anti-fungal, anti-microbial properties.  Spruce gum has been used to treat a host of skin conditions including burns, infections that won’t heal, scrapes, scratches, boils, abscesses, and even more serious issues like gunshot wounds.

The primary tree for this purpose in Europe is Norway Spruce, while in North America, black spruce often was used in this way (their medicinal properties are almost identical).  And, as is often the case, science is finally catching up with folk traditional uses as this recent study published in Advanced Wound Care in 2016 demonstrates the powerful antimicrobial and healing properties of Norway Spruce.

Resin – hardened and ready for salve or burning as incense

Many Pine resins are similar in nature and can also be treated in the same way.  White Pine, one of the dominant pines in North America, has similar antifungal, antimicrobial, and antibacterial properties (although there is less scientific research on white pine compared to various spruces).  Either one will produce a wonderful healing salve.

This salve is more involved than a traditional backyard healing salve, but is well worth making.  I recently had a very deep and nasty cut (one that should have gotten stitches, in hindsight) and I was able to stop the bleeding with fresh yarrow and then treated the cut successfully with my spruce gum salve.  It drew debris from the wound, sealed it up, and kept it from getting infected.  Not to mention, it smells amazing, which gave me a bit of aromatherapy while healing the wound!

Thus, your Spruce Resin Salve can be used for any of the following: cuts, scrapes, burns, deep cuts, drawing out debris from wounds, chapped lips (it will work wonders on severely chapped lips) and any number of uses for animal care (such as mild frostbite on combs and wattles of chickens in winter).

Tools and Materials

Whatever you use will forever have spruce resin on it, so I suggest dedicating a few tools to this purpose.  I have found that a large tin can works great (I am using a #10 tin can), an old butter knife, and some cheesecloth / thin natural cloth (cotton, linen) and string.  For the salve itself, you will also need a good quality olive oil and beeswax.

The can is used for three steps in the process–gathering, filtering, and making the salve.  Thus, you will need it to be large enough to boil water and also contain all of your salve.  A #10 can is a great size, but I think a slightly smaller one will work as well.

Step 1: Harvesting Your Spruce Pitch and Resin

Various conifer species of trees produce their sticky, gooey sap when the tree is wounded.  Thus, you can often find large amounts of it in urban or suburban areas where these trees are frequently pruned.  You can also find it naturally occurring in the wild.

As with all wild medicines and foods, you want to practice ethical harvesting practices, which include asking permission from the tree, leaving an offering, and engaging in reciprocation–doing something for the tree or forest where you are harvesting.   I believe that if you treat nature respectfully and with agency, your medicine will be all the more potent for it.

Gooey resin dripping from a norway spruce!  This spruce has been regularly pecked by woodpeckers and is producing a ton of sap….I will wait for these crystals to fully harden and use them for incense

Tar, Pitch, and Resin: Tar, Pitch and resin are all the same substance but they have been outside of the tree for different amounts of time and thus, have different levels of viscosity or dryness. Spruce tar (also known as sap) is a fairly new flow from the tree and is usually clear, very sticky, and drippy–think liquid honey here.  Spruce pitch is usually milky and sticky, having partially dried on the tree (and often collected bugs, debris, etc.) which is part of why we have to do some processing to make it into medicine.  Spruce pitch is often similar in consistency to crystalized honey. Spruce resin is the hardest of all–you can handle this, it is firm and completely dried.  The resin usually represents a few years of drying out on the tree. The difference between them is the age of the substance and how much there is (which affects drying time).

If you are wanting to make a healing salve, it is best to make it with pitch or resin, which is hard enough to collect.  Spruce resins are also awesome for incense.  The incense from a Norway Spruce is called Burgandy Resin, and it smells and burns amazing–a light and delightful pine scent that will offer powerful energetic clearing.

In areas where I harvest, I will usually let sap sit on the tree till it hardens into either pitch (for salve making) or resin (for incense).  It takes 2-4 years for the sap to harden into resin which can be handled.

Harvested resin and pitch

When harvesting, take only what is excess from the tree and what will not expose any sensitive areas of the tree. If you see big globs of resin or pitch, remember that the tree uses this to seal over wounds. If you scrape it all from the tree, you are exposing that tree to pests and disease.  You can take a little from the outside of the wound, but make sure that the tree remains protected. Sometimes there is so much sap that it drips and hardens–all of this is safe to take as it is not at the site of the wound of the tree. This is a good time to work slowly and listen to the spirit of the tree–the tree can guide you about how much to take and where to take it from. Carless harvesting can lead the tree to harm, which is not a good way to start working with this tree.

Harvesting and preparing spruce or pine pitch is a very sticky business.  You will want a dedicated container (I have a dedicated #10 soup can for this purpose) and an old dull knife (a butter knife is fine) to harvest. Scrape the pitch in gobs into the container, using your knife.  Small bits of resin can be harvested by hand.  Once you have 1/2 cup or more, you can move on to the next step.

Step 2: Filter out Debris and Bugs from your Spruce Tar

As the sap of the Spruce dries, it collects an assortment of debris: bugs, dirt, small bits of bark, etc.  In order to make a healing salve, you will need to filter these out before use.

There are several methods for doing this– I’m using a boiling water filtration method that I developed after reading about a number of methods.  This method requires the use of cheesecloth, boiling water, and a stone.  This method works because any conifer resin is not water-soluble.

Begin by adding all of your spruce resin and pitch to a square of cheesecloth or thinly woven fabric (I’m using a scrap piece of fabric here).  Place a small stone in with the resin.

Bundle with stone in middle

Bundle

Firmly tie this bundle with some string (don’t use a rubber band–it will sometimes fail in the boiling water).  I had two on this bundle and one broke in the boil,, but I was lucky to have a second.  I’ve since switched to using simple hemp or cotton cordage, which will not fail!

Bundle

Put your can on your burner on your stove and then add your bundle to the can.  Add enough water to fully cover your bundle by at least 2-3″. The rock will weigh your resin bundle down, making it sink below the water.

Water with bundle

Boil 45 minutes to an hour. As you boil it, the pitch will melt and come out of the cheesecloth, either on the surface or bottom of the can.  Turn off the heat, remove the remaining bundle (which should be mostly a stone and cheesecloth at this point), and allow the water and resin to fully cool.  After it is cool an hour or more later, you can then pour off the water and you will be left with pure resin.

Resin is ready!

The stone can be returned to the land.  The cheesecloth, when cut into smaller pieces, makes an outstanding natural firestarter–so hold onto it for your next camping trip!

Step 3: Make your Salve

The basic recipe is 1/4 cup resin, 1/2 cup olive oil, and 1/2 – 1 oz beeswax.  Since the resin will still be pretty sticky, you can estimate how much resin you have to work with, and adjust your recipe accordingly (e.g. 1/2 cup of resin = 1 cup of olive oil and 1-11/2 oz beeswax).  You can go a bit higher on the olive oil if you want to stretch it, but I would say you want a minimum of 1/4 c resin to 1 cup olive oil.

The salve is getting good use!

The salve is getting good use!

Return your can to the heat with the resin still in it, and add an appropriate amount of olive oil.  Heat this up and allow it to simmer for at least 30 minutes, stirring it with a stick.  After 30 minutes, add your beeswax (if you shave it or chop it up small, it will melt faster).  Once the beeswax is melted and incorporated, pour it into small jars or tins.  Let cool completely and you will have an amazing healing salve for use for any deep cuts, surface cuts, and also safe for animals.

If you want, at this stage, use paper towels or cotton rags to clean up any drips and also to wipe out your can.  Save these as wonderful fuel for fire-starting–just add a bit of flame and they will burn brightly and help start a fire.

This salve will be good for 1-2 years if stored in a cool, dark place.  This has become my favorite healing salve for a wide range of uses, and I always take some with me when I travel!

Backyard Healing Salve Recipe with Plantain, Chickweed, and Ground Ivy

One of the great things about fall is that so many of our spring ephemeral plants, those who dominate the springtime, come back to us again before the snows set in. This is the case this year with chickweed, one of my favorite plants for making a healing salve.  I have been seeking her out for medicine making and most of the summer she was a bit elusive. Finally, she is abundant again! So its time to make some green healing salve for gifts for Yule for friends and loved ones–I thought I’d bring you along for the journey.

 

Healing Salve in Tins (tins purchased from Mountain Rose Herbs)

Healing Salve in Tins (tins purchased from Mountain Rose Herbs)

This post will provide the recipe for my healing salve as well as insight into three plants used in the healing salve, all of which can be found abundant in most lawns and mowed areas (see these two posts for information about ethical harvesting, avoiding toxins, etc). For quite a while, I sold these salves at a farmer’s market booth. The salves were a big hit–people reported back that they used them for all kinds of ailments: bee stings, bug bites, small burns, scratches, scraps, rug burns, sore and inflamed skin of all kinds, and so on–everyone who bought one loved them very much! Even after I moved to PA and obviously wasn’t selling the salves any longer, I had people contacting me wanting more salve. The plants in this salve can be 100% locally sourced and you can locally source the beeswax.

 

Salves can be made from any herbal ingredient that can be used topically.  Because salves are oil-based, they are particularly good for cuts, minor burns, bug bites, skin irritations, dry and chapped skin, scrapes, bee stings, brush burns, and so on.  Salves typically should not be used for puncture wounds (they can lock in contaminants), on anything that is wet or pussy (for the same reason, a fresh poultice or honey preparation would work better), nor should any oil-based salve be used for poison ivy (it is an oil-based issue, so an oil-based salve can spread poison ivy, use lineaments or fresh poultice). You can use this same recipe for other kinds of infused oils and salves, like goldenrod, St. Johns Wort, black birch, and so on.

 

The Healing Salve as Plant Ambassador

My choice of using three plants–chickweed, plaintain, and ground ivy–commonly found in the lawn is a careful one.  For one, they make a fantastic healing salve.  But for two, their work as healing agents can help begin to shift people’s minds and practices towards the lawn. If you had a splinter or cuts that could be easily–and more effectively–healed by plants in the lawn, the plant gives you relief and that healing changes your relationship to the plants and to the lawn. If people know that there are healing plants they might gather from the lawn, its easier for them to stop spraying it. Its for this reason that I believe these little salves like these are wonderful ways of being a plant ambassador and doing the work of building awareness about nature’s great gifts. And without further delay, let’s meet the three plant allies that go into this delightful salve!

 

The Plant Allies for Healing Salve

Botanical Illustration of Broad-Leaf Plantain

Botanical Illustration of Broad-Leaf Plantain

Plantain (Plantago Regalia, Plantago Major)

Plantain is the gateway herb!  Its an easy herb to identify and find and can be used for a VERY wide variety of issues and conditions. If you only made this salve with one ingredient, make it with plantain.

            Identification: Two kinds of plantain typically can be found in a lawn: broad leaf (see picture, left) and narrow leaf plantain. They are used interchangeably.  See the botanical illustration for a detailed look at plantain.

Actions: Demulcent, Astringent

            Medicinal Uses:  Plantain has a host of uses, both internally and externally.  The best way to think about plantain is that it works on the mucus membranes. Plantain is very mild yet effective as a mild demulcent (it wets tissues) and mild astringent (it also helps tone tissues). It functions as a fantastic drawing agent, where it works to draw things out (like splinters, drawing out infections, drawing out debris from a dirty wound, puncture wounds). For these uses, fresh plantain poultice is the best, but the healing salve is a close second! Plantain (poultice, fresh) works very well on poisonous snake bits and spider bites. Plantain can be safely used with animals (so for cuts and scrapes from a cat fight). A plantain infusion can be used as an eye wash for goopy eyes (conjunctivitis) if you add a little salt to it (1 teaspoon of salt to 1 cup plantain tea). Plantain is very effective for inflamed tonsils, bleeding gums (just keep it in the mouth and chew it).  We are using plantain in this salve for for its drawing action, astringent action, and demulcent action.

Preparation:  Oil infusion/salve; dried for tea; tinctured; fresh poultice or chew.


Chickweed (Stellaria Media, spp.)

Chickweed Botanical Illustration

Chickweed Botanical Illustration

Identification: Chickweed is a small, succulent plant that has a smooth stem with a line of hair running along it like a horse’s mane. It has a tiny white flower with 10 petals (in five directions). It is a spring ephemeral plant; it can be harvested in abundance in the spring and again in the fall. You could also make this salve just with chickweed.

Actions:  Demulcent, Tonic

Features:  Chickweed is used in several ways, and in all, it is a very mild yet effective plant. Chickweed is particularly good for any dry and inflamed skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, or the may minor bites, cuts, scrapes, brush burns, bee stings and so on.  It should not be used for pussy/mucus laden/wet/damp skin conditions. A fresh poultice of chickweed is good for poison ivy (use similar to Jewelweed).  Another way that Chickweed is used is that it is an alterative, metabolic tonic (it is thought to work on underactive thyroids, drying and causing the release of fluids). Chickweed can be eaten as a nutritive, healing food.  It is very rich in nutrients and nourishing.

Preparation:  Fresh plant in food, poultice, healing salve, tincture, dried for tea.

 

Ground Ivy Botanical Illustration

Ground Ivy Botanical Illustration

Ground Ivy (Glechoma Hederacea)

Identification: This plant will uptake any heavy metals in the soil—so make sure you are harvesting it from a safe area.

Actions:  Aromatic, Astringent

            Medicinal uses:  Ground ivy is an aromatic herb in the mint family with a very wide range of uses—it is generally a very safe plant to use for many different issues.  It has an astringent property, specifically for the kidneys and urethra (can be made as a tea for urinary tract infections).  It can be used for a sore throat, especially if the inflammation is making its way up your throat and into your ears or if you have a dry, scratchy throat. Its good for ear issues in general, like fluid congestion or vertigo or ear pressure from a head cold. Its also used for digestive issues where there is laxity or mucus in the stool and gassiness (again, it is used as a tea in this fashion). One of the traditional uses of this plant is to treat lead poisoning – a ground ivy tea increase the removal of lead from the body (and some herbalists are currently experimenting with its ability to remove other toxins from the body).  The whole plant (above ground) can be used.  Finally, ground ivy can be used as a drawing agent and used to help treat, according to Culpepper, “old green wounds.”

Preparation:  Oil infusion/salve; dried for tea (note-it loses its aromatic quality fairly quickly); tinctured.  Please note that ground ivy does not have a long shelf life–I’d say 4-5 months at most.

Healing Salve Ingredient List

  • Good quality olive oil (2-3 cups, depending on the amount of salve you want to make)
  • Good quality beeswax (get it from a local beekeeper if possible); it should smell amazing if its a high quality wax
  • Good amounts of your three plant allies (I like to use 40% plantain; 40% chickweed, and 20% ground ivy); you can use 100% plantain or 100% chickweed; or you can use 50/50 plantain and chickweed.
  • Skin-safe essential oils of your choice (optional, consider: lavender, tea tree, sweet orange, and lemongrass)
  • Jars or tins
  • Labels for your salves

You’ll also need some equipment: a double-boiler; a grater for the wax; a spoon or ladle for pouring salve into tin and mixing salve; and wax paper for protecting work surface.

Making the Healing Salve: Part 1 – Infused Oil

The first thing to do to make a healing salve is to make an infused oil, that is, an oil infused with plant matter.

Pouring salve on herbs (these are a little too fresh, but I was in a hurry!)

Pouring olive oil on herbs (these are a little too fresh, but I was in a hurry!)

I typically use olive oil for this recipe because it is both very shelf stable and readily available in organic oil. You can also use other oils (like coconut oil) but most herbalists use olive oil.  Coconut oil has a very low melt temperature, which can be a problem with a healing salve meant to travel with you (say, in your pocket, or in your car on a hot day, etc).

 

Wilt Your Herbs (if using fresh): All herbs, but chickweed in particular, should be wilted 1-2 days prior because of their high water content. Wilting just means to pick the plant matter and let them sit out somewhere for a few days while they slowly dry out. You can also use dried ingredients. Failure to account for the water content means that the oil you infuse may have a bit of water on the bottom–you need to avoid this or you’ll end up with a salve that goes rancid quickly.  But you can just pour off your salve and leave the water in the bottom (see photo below).

Double Boiler for Salve Making with Herbs

Double Boiler for Salve Making with Herbs

Use Heat or Time to Infuse: You can infuse oil in a lot of different ways, but the way I like to infuse oils is by using a double boiler over low heat for 12 hours (don’t boil the herbs), and then letting the herbs sit in the oil with the heat off for another 12 hours.  After this time, the herbs can be strained and the oil ready to use.  If you are using fresh plants, beware of any water content in the oil—it will be sitting on the bottom of your pot and look like little dark bubbles.  You do not want ANY water in your oil or it will spoil quickly.  You can store your infused oil in a cool, dark place for 1-2 years.

 

Herbs just starting to infuse

Herbs just starting to infuse

The Healing Salve, Part II: Making the Salve

My Backyard Green Healing Salve Recipe:

My favorite backyard healing salve is made with 40% plantain, 40% chickweed, and 20% ground ivy; handfuls of each infused in olive oil (enough olive oil to cover the herbs).  Another plant that can be used in this salve is Jewelweed (but it is a wet forest plant, not a yard plant!) or comfrey (a cultivated plant in most areas).

 

1. Once your oil is done infusing, strain it. I prefer to strain it through a cheesecloth or fine strainer overnight. The gravity will do nearly all of the work for you if you wait.  Also, if you try squeezing the plant material and you are using fresh plants, you could end up with more water in the bottom.  Again, an overnight straining prevents the need to squeeze.

 

2. Put your oil back in your (clean) double boiler. To make the salve, start with your filtered infused oil and return it tot your double boiler.  Make sure the oil is 100% free of plant mater or water (which will look like little bubbles on the bottom) – either of these will make it go rancid.  See photo below for example of water at the bottom:

Example of water at bottom to avoid

Example of water at bottom to avoid

3. Heat your infused oil up till its hot enough to melt beeswax (but no hotter).

 

4. Add shaved or chunked beeswax (about 2 tbsp per cup of oil) stir it to melt the beeswax fully. Your oil needs to be thickened into a salve that will hold its shape and have some body–and for that, we add beeswax. After adding your beeswax and melting it in, test the consistency by dropping a tiny bit of oil onto an ice cube and see how hard it gets. If its too hard, add a bit more oil. If its too soft, add a bit more beeswax.  You can get it as hard as you’d like, but I recommend keeping this salve fairly soft since it will need to be spread upon a lot of sore, tender spots.

5. Remove the oil from the heat.

 

6. Add any essential oils you like to the salve for smell.  The salve has a pretty “green” smell without the oils; its not unpleasant but isn’t really pleasant either, so I like to add the oils. My favorites for this blend are a few drops of tea tree oil, lemongrass oil, lavender oil, or orange oil.  (Lavender-lemongrass is a great combination, as is tea-tree orange).  For 1 cup of salve, I add 20 drops of essential oil.

 

7. Prepare your workspace for pouring the salves. At this point, I will set wax paper down and set out my tins or jars.  The wax paper prevents salve from getting all over my counter when I’m pouring.

 

8. Pour off your salve into the small jars or tins and let cool. You can use mason jars, little Altoids tins, whatever you have around that will hold a solid salve.  I also like to make a harder version of this salve (with a higher beeswax content) and then fill lip balm containers with it for hiking, backpacking, etc! Make sure you fill them slightly fuller than you want them to be, as the salve sinks and contracts a bit as it cools.

Filling jars and tins with salve

Filling jars and tins with salve

 

8.  Label your salves with a fun label!  Here’s an example of my salves at the farmer’s market with their cute labels (I was nearly sold out that day!)

Healing Salve at Farmer's market booth

Healing Salve at Farmer’s market booth

I hope you enjoy this wonderful backyard healing salve!