It’s Better to Bend Than to Break

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The versatile spruce tree is a lesson in flexibility and the bearer of some amazing gifts

By LAURA REEVES

The Aquarian‘s wild edibles guru Laura Reeves published the new and expanded, full-colour illustrated edition of Laura’s Guide to Useful Plants: From Acorns to Zoom Sticks. Years in the making, the prairie-focussed field guide “will be spiral bound for ease of use in the kitchen … informal, non-technical and friendly to both newbies and experienced wild edible fanatics,” says Laura. We can vouch that it’s chock-full of detailed, expert (Laura is a first-class forager and botanist) entries on dozens of wild plants native to Manitoba and how anyone can use them without abusing them or their ecosystems, whether for food (recipes included), fibre, medicine and more. Here’s an excerpt.  

I think everyone can appreciate spruce trees. They make great wind breaks that provide food and shelter for wildlife and people, not to mention a welcome splash of colour in Manitoba’s otherwise desolate winter landscape. They are also fun trees to climb, despite their sticky sap and dry, scratchy branches that seem to find their way into every layer of clothing. (Peanut butter works wonders for removing sap from skin and hair.)

spruce cone - female, receptive 1 (768x1024)On very windy days, I like to climb to the top of a large spruce tree, being careful not to break the smaller branches way up there. I make myself comfortable and then settle in for an exhilarating ride – and view! (If you’re the type that enjoys being stuck at the top of a ferris wheel, this is for you.)

It was during one of these tree sits that the spruce taught me an important lesson. The branches, with all their short, four-sided needles, were catching the full force of the wind, and I clung tight to the trunk, half expecting the top of this 80-year-old timber to snap off, with me still attached. That’s when it dawned on me that the strength of this magnificent tree had a lot to do with its flexibility. I loosened my grip and, with my arm still around the trunk, my legs and body swayed to different rhythms. Today, whenever I’m faced with life’s challenges, I look to the spruce and remember: it’s better to bend a little than to break.

You can identify spruce trees by their short needles, which grow singly all around the branches. The cones are soft and they dangle, upside down, from the branches. Black spruce is easy to recognize from a distance by the tuft of dense branches that forms at the crown.

Spruce needles are high in vitamin C and make a pleasant tea that I find especially refreshing when I’ve been trapped indoors for too long. Its astringent property makes it effective for treating cold symptoms such as excessive mucous and sore throat.

In the spring, I like to snack on the red male flower buds before they open up. They are surprisingly sweet, somewhat juicy and less astringent than other parts of the tree.

Spruce boughs are well known for their use as ground cover or shelter material. Though I would not hesitate to use them in an emergency or survival situation, I try to minimize my use of live materials in practice or “for fun” shelters.
Spruce pitch, or sap, has a wide variety of uses. Unlike sap from most deciduous trees, spruce sap contains sticky resins and often forms balls where it oozes from wounds like cut branches or holes made by sapsuckers. This highly astringent sap has a long history of medicinal use due to its antiseptic properties and its ability to draw out infection and promote healing. It does this by drying out wounds and drawing the damaged tissue back together.

Sap 'n' Salvy (cropped) (1024x767)Several years ago, while looking for a way to heal a deep gash on my leg, a friend suggested I use spruce sap. After gathering the incredibly sticky sap, I had a hard time getting it off my hands. I was loath to put this stuff on my leg and wondered how, exactly, I was supposed to apply it. I read books and asked several people about it, patiently waiting for the answer. Finally, years later, I decided to figure it out, myself. I put the sap in a pot with some olive oil, melted it down and strained out the bark and bug bits through some sheep wool. I added more oil to reduce the stickiness and, feeling creative, some balsam poplar oil I had on hand. The smell was intoxicating! To give the mixture a salve-like consistency, I mixed in some shaved beeswax and poured it into small jars. For the life of me, I can’t remember what I tried this salve on first, but what I do remember is feeling like I’d just been given the most amazing gift.

Just like people, all plants have a purpose greater than themselves but, being immobile, plants can’t always fulfill their purpose on their own – they need our help. I vowed to help these trees realize their healing capacity by making this salve available to more people. My intent was two-fold – to help heal people with this incredible tree medicine and to encourage a deeper respect for the trees that grow all around us. I call the salve “Sap ‘n’ Salvy.”

Some people chew spruce pitch as a form of gum, but I have found that it is better used for making glue. Heated and strained, the pitch can be combined with ground or powdered substances, such as wood ash, eggshells or clam shells, to make glues with different qualities, like flexibility and waterproofing. Pitch glue is used for attaching arrow or spear heads onto shafts, waterproofing watercraft and sealing containers. I don’t recommend using it to seal food containers, though, because hot foods may end up tasting like pitch.

One year, in my determination to find a way to add natural tread to my mukluks, I mixed spruce sap with fine sand and applied it in strips to the base of my mukluks. I was convinced it would work and couldn’t wait to try it out. After it dried, I put my mukluks on and walked down my slick, snowy driveway. After walking about 15 metres, I checked my mukluks to find that most of my experiment had already worn off. Years later, I finally learned how to add tread to my mukluks using strips of leather.

Spruce trees have shallow, spreading root systems that allow them to thrive in thin soils – notably those found in the Canadian Shield. Unfortunately, these shallow roots also make spruce trees vulnerable to blowing over. The upside to this is that the roots make excellent baskets. So the next time you find a fresh blow-down, gather some of the roots. The small ones are flexible enough to be used as is; larger ones can be peeled and split. You can dry and save the roots for another time – just soak them to make them flexible again.

Laura with dandelionsThe founder of Prairie Shore Botanicals, botanist Laura Reeves regularly shares her enthusiasm for wild edibles, wilderness skills, urban survival and disaster preparedness in courses, workshops and private consultations. Laura also sells sustainably wild-harvested herbs and is helping to restore 100 acres of tall grass prairie within the Manitoba Tall Grass Prairie Preserve. For more info, visit psbotanicals.com and like Prairie Shore Botanicals on Facebook.

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