Family: Pinaceae, the Pine Family
Description: Native evergreen trees. Needle-like leaves sharp, square in cross-section—they can roll between fingers unlike fir leaves.
Abundance: Various depending on species
Habitat: Various, generally bogs, mountaintops, mixed forests
Plant Parts Used: All
Food: Addition to cereal, tea
Medicine: Flu, vitamin C, colds, sore throats, infections, wounds, breaks, bruises
Other: Gum, lashing, building
There are about four species of spruce common in New England and they can generally be used interchangeably. Ray considers spruce a stronger medicine than fir, so he prefers using these trees for cold and flu medicines. Sue spoke specifically about red spruce (Picea rubens), saying a tea of the needles makes a nice camping tea, but is also rich in vitamin C, good for colds and sore throats or as a wash for wounds and infections. Terry-Anya said she enjoys using the growing tips of spruce as a casual tea. Sue said the pitch makes a good salve or paste for breaks, bruises, and sprains. This pitch is also popularly used in New England as gum. Patti and my mother fondly remember chewing on spruce gum as children. Ray said that in the spring when spruce buds are red and juicy they taste sweet and are a delicious addition to cereal.
Spruce bark has been used for building wigwams and canoes. The wood is popular for making canoe paddles and bows because it is strong but lightweight. Spruce roots are used for building outdoor shelters and for sewing baskets and lashing canoes. The roots can be easily harvested where they grow densely with sphagnum moss because the sphagnum carpet can be lifted to easily expose the roots: taking only a small quantity of the roots and replacing the sphagnum carpet does not harm either the tree or the moss.
Native Americans across North America have used spruces for countless ailments, but it seems the most popular uses are for treating cold and flu symptoms, skin problems, and as a building material, especially for canoes and shelters. The Abnaki have used white spruce cones, Picea glauca, for helping with urinary problems. The Algonquin used the inner bark of this same species to make an infusion for coughs; they also chewed the gum as a laxative. The Iroquois chewed the gum to help with digestion. The Cree have used a poultice of the pitch and lard for treating blood poisoning and as an ointment for infections, scabs, rashes, and boils. The inner bark and needles have been used for coughs and colds by the Eskimo and Gitksan. The Mi’kmaq used white spruce bark as a cough remedy, for stomach trouble, and in a salve for cuts, wounds, and sores. They also used the bark, leaves, and stems for treating scurvy.
Note: This post is part of my Plants and People series. See my Plants and People page for more information about the project and the people referenced in this post.
- Brooks, John. Personal Interview. 28 Nov. 2010.
- Chilton, Patti. Telephone interview. 31 Oct. 2010.
- Hayes, Terry-Anya. Personal interview. 27 Oct. 2010.
- Michener, Martin C. Botany Everywhere: Woods, Field, Home, and Garden Plants of NE USA, Third Edition. Hollis, NH: MIST Software Associates, Inc., 2009. PDF.
- Mittelhauser, Glen H., Linda L. Gregory, Sally C. Rooney, and Jill E. Weber. The Plants of Acadia National Park. Orono, Me.: University of Maine, 2010. Print.
- Moerman, Daniel. “Native American Ethnobotany: A Database of Foods, Drugs, Dyes and Fibers of Native American Peoples, Derived from Plants.” UM-Dearborn College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters. Web. 14 Dec. 2010. <http://herb.umd.umich.edu/>.
- Reitze, Raymond and Nancy. Personal interview. 8, 15 Oct. 2010.
- Szwed, Sue. Personal interview. 12 Nov. 2010.