Pacific Northwest Christmas greenery

The sense of smell is the strongest stimulator of memories. There is no stronger memories than those stimulated by the scent of fresh evergreens during the winter holiday seasons.

The evergreen trees of the Pacific Northwest are known for their majestic crowns and heights. They are known for their abilities to produce strong clear woods. But the Pacific Northwest forest product that is used by more homes in the North America and around the world is the fresh Christmas greenery from the evergreens of the evergreen forest.

Traditional native uses

Traditionally, native peoples had many everyday uses for the limbs and foliage of the evergreens of the Pacific Northwest, including:

Western redcedar
The foliage of the western redcedar was used as garlands to provide fresh scents to their homes. Small bunches of the fresh cut tips were placed near the openings and in the overheads of the living spaces. The foliage of the western red cedar not only improved the smell of the living spaces but also was used as the base for sleeping mats. Besides providing a much more comfortable sleeping surface it had the secondary benefit of repelling fleas. That same insect repelling qualities was taken advantage of by wrapping clothes for storage in cedar boughs. The purifying smokes of cedar smudging were a valuable cultural practice to native peoples. Western redcedar foliage was placed on hot embers to produce a thick smoke that would purify a new home or refresh the home after sickness or death.

Western juniper
The other evergreen tree whose foliage and fruits were valued by all native peoples was the western juniper. In the drier part of the Pacific Northwest where the juniper grows abundantly it is used for the same purposes, as the western red cedar is use on the coastal plains. The additional value of the western juniper is it blue berries. They were used to flavor foods. The crushed berries were mixed with fats and juices to marinate wild game. This not only flavored the meats but tenderized them also. The berries were also used in medicines. To this day juniper berries are used in traditional medicines that help with stomach ailments and with diabetes. The berries were used to control the monthly cycles of the native woman.

Western white pine
The foliage of Western white pine was important in traditional medicines. The foliage when crushed produces a resin that was used to treat cuts and burns. It stopped the flow of the blood and acted as an antiseptic. The fresh foliage was used within sleeping mats. The long needles provide much support and protection from the hard ground. The use of fresh bunches and garland to provide a refreshing scent to living areas was employed by many bands of native peoples.

Use by European settlers

The first permanent settlers other than natives to the Pacific Northwest were from northern Europe. The peoples from Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Germany made great loggers. They came as whole towns and brought their traditions with them. The Pacific Northwest had many new evergreen that were harvested for timber. Though these trees were providing jobs as timber they fulfilled many other important functions similar to the evergreens in their homelands.

Utilitarian uses

The strong scented needles were placed in cloth pouches and used to scent the drawers and closets for freshening and protecting clothing. The softer boughs of the western white pine, Port Orford cedar, western redcedar were all used for mattress stuffers. Smudging with smoke was used like incense sticks to cover the smells of everyday living within sleeping and living quarters.

Christmas trees and greens

As valuable as these utilitarian functions of evergreens were to improving everyday life, their ceremonial value in celebrating the Christmas holidays was also important. It is the use of fresh greenery from the evergreens trees that brought back all the memories of Christmas past and created new ones for future Christmas seasons. Garlands of western redcedar decorated rafters and door arches. Wreaths from noble fir, Port Orford cedar, incense cedar, western juniper, grand fir, Douglas fir or white pine were on the doors and over the hearths. Sprigs of these plants were added to holiday drinks and placed around the holiday table. Carriages, buggies, sleighs and the animals that pulled them were decorated with springs of evergreens. Not only were the boughs and needles valued for their ability to create the proper holiday atmosphere but the young trees and tops of trees were cut to provide trees to become the Christmas trees that provided the center piece for all Christmas celebrations.

By Jim Freed, WSU Extension Forest Products Specialist
360-902-1314, freedj@wsu.edu