The Forest Pharmacy
(Article from The Laker)
The powdered gum was sprinkled on old infected open sores and ulcers to heal them. It was also made into a stimulating ointment and salve. Spruce gum plasters were applied for catarrh, asthma, rheumatism, weak backs, swellings of joints, chest pains and whooping cough in children. The gum was melted and spread on soft then leather stuck onto the affected part for days at a time.
When the northern Dene (have?) problems with snow blindness, they've been known to take the upper shoots of black spruce saplings, split them open by a fire, and collect the resinous liquid that oozes out. This is then applied to the eyeball with a bird quill. It must work or they wouldn't do it.
The small cones of black spruce have been eaten as a sore throat remedy.
In 1973 Russian scientists identified a god quantity of carotene ( vitamin A) and chlorophyll in spruce needles. They also found ( as did Canadian scientists in the 1940s ) that the greatest concentration of ascorbic acid and carotene was in third year needles, less in older and younger needles. Less exposure to light also decreased ascorbic acid levels.
I have greatly enjoyed the young buds of white spruce in the spring. Pale green and tender, they never fail to delight children who have been introduced to them. (They are?) a great source of vitamins and some starch. I assume black spruce buds would be as good if not better.
One of the most favourite drinks of forest and native peoples has been spruce beer. Powerfully ascorbic spruce beer is made by boiling young twigs and cones of black or red spruce in water, with either maple syrup honey or molasses added then allowing it to ferment. I've heard it's very good and intend to try some soon.
Spruce seeds are eaten by squirrels and at least 15 kinds of birds most notably the white-winged crossbill. Spruce tea can be made from the needles of all of the spruces. Many say the tea of white spruce is unpleasant though I haven't found that to be true. A few teaspoons of needles brew into a tea that is as full of preventatives and curative ascorbic acid ( vitamin c) as a fresh orange juice, when a cupful of boiling water is poured over them and allowed to steep for five minutes/
This tea is highly valuable to people without access to many fruits and greens. Medicinally it is similar to pine in that it is useful for all respiratory and throat troubles, such as coughs, bronchitis , mucous congestion, flu, sore throat, pneumonia, and tuberculosis. Herbally classified as expectorant, diaphoretic, tonic, calmative, And as a system cleanser, it is also very nutritive. A strong brew poured into a bath has good calming qualities.
Inhaling the fumes of heated needles is good as a reviver and letting the fumes or smoke fill a room acts as a fumigator. A vapour bath of the young shoots would be a good help for bronchitis.
Externally a needle tea has been used in a poultice for limb injuries or ailments and in a liniment for stiff joints and bruises or aching limbs.
The inner bark of spruces is edible raw and can be dried or ground to a flour. It too contains vitamin C. As a decoction the inner bark has been taken for bowel and stomach complaints, rheumatism, kidney stones and lung and throat troubles. Externally it has been applied as a poultice for wounds, cuts, swellings, burns, skin ulcers, boils and abscesses.
I've been told there is a knack to chewing spruce gum. Tens of thousands and more have mastered it. when it's the soft it sticks to all the teeth and when it's too dry it crumbles to powder. It was the commonest chewing gum before chicle and was imported from south America so I know it can be learned and enjoyed.
Made into a tea, the gum is a mild stimulant, a diuretic a mild laxative a digestive aid, and helpful to kidney inflammations. chewing it would give similar results.
Harvested for both pulp and lumber the native white spruce ranges from the Yukon to New England.
The smaller black spruce with nearly the same range, is mainly used for pulp. It's lower branches are able to layer, that is to develop roots when overgrown with mosses or forest litter and thus grow a new tree. In bog environments this is often the only way that black spruce can reproduce itself.
The red or most southerly spruce rarely grows west of Lake Huron. Similar to the white spruce its resonant wood is found in the sound boards of pianos, violins and mountain dulcimers.
Being common to Northern Europe, the neat pagoda-like appearance of the Norway spruce has inspired the phrase " all spruced up" and to be widely transplanted in northern North America as an ornamental. the environment being akin to its homeland, Norway Spruce has escaped into the wild in the northeast and it's even been planted in reforestation and Christmas tree plantations. Medicinally and botanically, it is very similar to White Spruce.
White Spruce in the northeast is commonly 80 feet tall and 2 feet in diameter, occasionally growing to 120 feet by 4 feet. In the Western Rockies it can grow to 150 feet. Meanwhile, in the ground, are shallow roots that Native Peoples used for lacing together the birch bark on canoes and for weaving baskets. They're gathered, coiled, steamed for an hour in hot wood ashes, removed, split, and then soaked in hot water until used.
A water tight gum for caulking canoes and Birch bark pails was made by boiling the gum in a wide mesh bag which retained the bits of wood and bark but allowed the gum to pass into the water. I was then skimmed from the surface and stored until a convenient time when it was mixed with cedar charcoal before applying.