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SYMBIOSIS: Love Salve for a Broken Heart

Updated: Apr 23

The first jar of fir pitch salve I ever opened mended my broken heart. Jeb sent it to me in Alberta by mail, where I was dreaming hopelessly of life in the woods (with him). I’d blown him off in our twenties, when he entered the military and I became a hippie singer-songwriter. Mistake! After I came across his profile on Facebook, many years later, I saw he’d retired into a second career as a wilderness guide and become a vegetarian and yoga student, living in the North Woods with a team of 40 sled dogs. That’s when I knew how big a mistake it really was.


By then, I was working as a nurse, which is another example of just how much somebody can change over thirty years. The Saturday before I opened his package, we’d reconnected during a seven-hour marathon phone call. Unbeknownst to me, as we chatted, he was making salve - gathering fir pitch out in the forest, blending it with oil and beeswax, pouring it into a jar, and packing it into a box along with his army dog tags (I’d lost the ones he sent all those years ago). When I opened the box and cranked the lid on his little jar of butter-colored goo, I closed my eyes and took a deep whiff – and was instantly transported to a shady, tangy dell 4000 km away, with him by my side. The essence of the woods enveloped me, and I burst into tears.


That first jar of salve – which I slathered liberally all over my dry Alberta skin just for the scent – proved to rival anything in my hospital med room for healing cuts, burns, scrapes, and rashes. Not only that, but it inspired a whole new direction for me – eastward – and into the study of medicinal plants.

Woman squatting in a forest holding a tin can and smiling

Today, I can step outside into a stand of fir trees any time I want. Just like I imagined, Jeb and I are living together in the midst of the Acadian forest. The sled dogs are gone, but we have our little crew of two cats and two dogs, who supervise as we spend long hours wandering, gathering, gardening, hunting, and most importantly, cutting and stacking firewood. We’re all happier, but these activities can take a toll on our skin. The nearest drugstore is a forty-minute drive away, and I still haven’t scored a local family physician. It just makes sense to learn about and use the many plants that surround us for their healing powers, and Jeb’s boo-boo goo is our go-to for any skin ailment, especially when the is infection or threat of infection present. “How does it work?” I asked.


Fir pitch, he explained, protects the tree from infections and parasites, especially where bark has been compromised by abrasion. It seals and heals the site with its antimicrobial qualities, and can do the same thing for skin, while also reducing inflammation and pain. It’s easy to find once you know what you’re looking for – fir trees with what appear to be blisters on the bark, filled with gooey resin. I first collected it in a tricked-out tin can, until Jeb made me a dedicated vessel out of copper tubing, which I press against those fir bubbles to make small punctures that allow the fluid pour in.

fir tree trunk

“Doesn’t it hurt the tree?” I asked.


“They have sap to spare,” he replied. “Those blisters will burst on their own sometimes, and scab up right away. Just make sure you don’t take too much from any one tree.”


When I asked Jeb how to make the salve, though, I found his directions a little vague. “You just collect the pitch, heat it in a pan of water with some oil and beeswax until it looks and smells right, and then pour it into a mason jar to harden.” Well, his method had me and the kitchen covered with fir pitch and olive oil from top to bottom, and my results were always either too gooey or too hard. So I researched recommended amounts for ingredients and did a little practicing. I also did some experimenting, which has given our salve even more healing power and wider applications.

strands of Usnea Longissima lichen hanging from a tree branch

On one of our walks, Jeb pointed out another healing botanical, often found growing on the very trees we collect pitch from. Usnea, otherwise known as Old Man’s Beard, is a powerful antibacterial, anti-fungal, antiviral and anti-inflammatory lichen. You’ve seen it hanging from branches in tendrils of delicate pale green or gold, but you can positively identify it from other beard lichens by the way a strand of it will stretch and snap like an elastic band when pulled.


Usnea is technically a combination of two plants, Jeb explained - fungus and algae growing together in symbiosis. Despite its ghostly appearance, it is not parasitic, deriving no nutrients from the tree itself, and contributes to healthy forest ecology as food source and habitat for insects, birds, rodents and deer. It also protects trees from extreme elements such as rain, wind, and snow, while providing carbon cycling and water retention. Usnea is an indicator species that dies out when the forest is attacked by air pollution, Jeb told me, and each strand takes years to grow. We’re lucky to have plenty where we live, but I still prefer to collect it from blowdowns after storms. It’s precious.

After Jeb suggested using powdered and dried Usnea for an open infection on our sickly rescue cat Teeny, I was knocked out by how well it worked, drying up and closing her wound within a day. My herbalist/author friend Carolyna Lovely suggested Usnea poultices and eyewash for her chronic eye infections, which reduce inflammation and fight flare-ups. I hit the books and found a treasure trove of information about Usnea from Stephen Harrod Buhner; this plant has a starring role to play in fighting antibiotic-resistant infections.


The concept of symbiosis led to an intuition: Balsam Fir and Usnea are old friends, so maybe they’d work well together as medicine. Experience has born this idea out; each plant supports the other’s considerable powers, making them both stronger across a wider range of conditions.


Initially, I just sprinkled Usnea powder on top of my salve for an added antibacterial and antifungal boost. Then I tried infusing the Usnea in oil to better extract the active compounds of its inner cortex, which include immune boosters. When the oil is combined with the antiseptic, anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties of fir pitch and beeswax, a powerful ally for the skin results. Some people like it simply for the scent – it’s like breathing in a fir forest. After gifting it for ailments as varied as diaper rash, eczema, infection and winter-weathered, cracking skin, people ask for more – or for my recipe. Voila!

a man, a woman and two dogs lying on the forest floor and smiling

When collecting botanicals, I ponder the concept of symbiosis. Reconnecting with Jeb has enriched both of our lives, each of us bringing something to the other that allows us to expand our gifts further - the better to share with our circle of family, friends and neighbors. It's the same with plants.

In a cynical world, where so much bad news dominates the headlines, it's easy to discard the old biblical maxim that "all things work together for good." Recent research, however, points to the concept of supportive community within the plant world. "A pillar of the plant communication debate takes its name from the Internet with the “wood-wide web,” reports Discover Magazine. " . . . A 1997 paper published in Nature served as the cornerstone of this theory, suggesting that trees in forests don’t compete with each other; they cooperate. In other words, trees use these fungal links to share information, water, nutrients and more."

We are a part of the world of plants, by habitat and the resources we exchange. We may think of ourselves only as takers in this relationship, but it doesn't have to be that way - ask any gardener or environmentalist. One day, after harvesting, I asked a tree how the forest can bear humans at all - we cut them down, we use them for toilet paper, we grind them into sawdust as we see fit. The answer came in a wave of clarity, straight to the heart: "We are here to help," it said.

Maybe that's true for all of us - or should be. Following the direction of my herbal mentors, including Rosemary Gladstar, I’ve taken to asking the forest itself to direct me to trees with pitch and lichen to spare; when I relax and wander, appreciating my environment in all its entirety, I often feel an inner directive that leads me to trees that are overflowing with generosity. I’ve learned to take the time to really look at the tree from the bottom up, gauging its willingness to share and thanking it for its bounty. When I touch the bark, feeling it’s life force, I always get the direction I need. Out of respect, I make sure not to take more than I need.


If you are drawn to plants, maybe it's because they want to share their gifts with you. Entering into that relationship is an experience that is sure to enrich your life and the lives of your loved ones; it will alter the way you view and interact with the world, to the benefit of all. Whether you use Jeb’s method or mine to make your salve, it’s the combination of our experience that has brought this recipe to you; by making and sharing it, you can enter into that symbiosis, and pass it along. Making medicine from plants is an act of love that goes beyond healing the hurts we all encounter. I swear it can even mend a broken heart.






2 16 oz sterilized heat-proof Mason Jars (I like the glass jars that come with Classico spaghetti sauce – they even have measurements on the side.)

Large pot (spaghetti sized) and cookie rack that fits in the bottom of the pot, or use a couple layers of dishcloth. This is to protect your product from getting too hot and/or cracking the jar.



Vitamix or coffee grinder


½ cup dry measuring cup, preferably metal or glass


2 cup glass measuring cup with spout


Sieve that fits your measuring cup


Small basket-style coffee filter to fit your sieve


Cheesecloth or mesh bag


Wide-mouth funnel


Wooden chopstick


Large, thick elastic bands


Canning tongs


Heat-proof thin spatula


Candy thermometer


Sterilized glass or metal containers for finished product




½ cup cleaned, chopped usnea, packed tight


1 ½ cups of oil. I use pure virgin organic olive or coconut oil. Both are great for the skin, but keep in mind that if you’re using solid coconut oil, it will change the consistency of your salve to make it a little harder after it solidifies.


¼ cup pure fir resin


1.25 Oz. beeswax. If using a solid chunk, I prefer to shave and weigh it for accuracy and easy melting. When using pellets, ¼ cup plus a couple of teaspoons is about right.




a can of fir resin propped up on a windowpane draining into a mason jar

Collect your pitch. After foraging, I add the contents of my pitch can into a dedicated mason jar, leaning it on a warm windowsill (the heat helps the pitch to flow). I cover and store it, and keep adding to the jar until I have enough pitch for my next batch of salve. At room temperature, fir pitch has about the same consistency as molasses, and it dries like glue. It can only be removed from utensils using oil, so I have one jar in my little apothecary for pitch and pitch alone.


Collect, clean and chop your Usnea. You’ll need to gather enough that will squeeze into a ball about the size of a large orange. Let it dry in a mesh bag for a couple of days – you don’t want to introduce any moisture into your oil infusion, because water may cause it to develop mold. Your Usnea should feel kind of crunchy before it’s ready to infuse.

a mason jar with chopped usnea in it and a woodstove in the background

Clean out whatever little bits of wood and dirt remain in your stash and chop it into small pieces. The more plant matter that is exposed to the oil, the stronger your oil will be. I run mine through a Vitamix or coffee grinder after chopping. This leaves me with a bunch of greenish powder and a handful of stringy whitish material, and a little more weight by volume when I pack it tight into a 1/2 cup measure. Transfer it into a Mason jar, using a wide-mouth funnel to catch stray bits.

 Infuse and strain the oil. This can take anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of days depending on how strong you want your oil to be. Cover your Usnea with about a cup and a half of oil (the Usnea will absorb some of the oil, and you’re aiming to collect a cup, so go little overboard).

a mason jar of oil infusing on a stovetop with a chopstick in it

Due to its tough inner cortex, Usnea compounds are best extracted with heat, but low and slow is best. Put a canning rack or a folded dishtowel in a pot and place your jar of oil on top of it. Fill the pot with water to reach the level of the oil. Let your mixture steep on your lowest setting for as long as you can stand to wait – a minimum of 4-8 hours.


You don’t want to cook it – just keep it warm, between 110-130 degrees F. I use a candy thermometer to check the temperature. Don’t put a lid on your pot as it will get hotter than you want, but you’ll have to keep replenishing the water as it evaporates, so keep an eye on the water level. Give it a good stir with your chopstick every time you think of it.


a woman using a spoon to push olive oil through a strainer lined with a coffee filter into a glass measuring cup

I’ve heard of people cooking their oil on a heat register or warm windowsill to get the right temperature, or putting it in the oven with just the pilot light on. Some people use a crock pot with a dishtowel in the bottom (mine gets too hot, even on the lowest setting). You’ll find what works for you.


Let it cool and strain it through a coffee filter over your sieve into a glass measuring cup to a volume of 1 cup, then pour into a clean mason jar. I save whatever oil might be left for next time, or to use where oil is preferable to salve. As for the infused plant matter, compost it or return it to the forest with thanks.


m mason jar of fir resin propped up on a windowsill draining into a mason jar of olive oil

Strain your fir pitch. When I’m ready to make salve, I strain my pitch jar directly into my jar of oil, using a layer of cheesecloth or mesh secured with an elastic band. I just eyeball the volume to add about a quarter of a cup - Classico spaghetti sauce jars have measurements on the side, and that’s one of the reasons I like to use them. (Plus, they’re free). It helps to do this on a warm day, as the pitch will drip more slowly when cold. The day I made this batch, it was chilly - so I used a hair dryer to warm up the jar. Whatever works!


If you prefer to be more exact, strain your pitch through a fine-mesh metal strainer into a measuring cup, and then add the contents to your jar of oil. Have a bottle of vegetable oil near the sink to keep your hands clean, and good luck getting the pitch out of your strainer.

a woman pouring beeswax pellets into a mason jar of olive oil in a pot of water on a stove through a metal wide-mouth funnel

Warm your fir pitch and oil. Put your rack or dishtowel in a large pot, with your jar of oil and pitch on top. Fill the water level in the pot to match the level of the jar, and begin heating it on medium. Use your wooden chopstick to give it a few stirs, and when you see some steam coming off the top, it’s time to add beeswax. You don’t want it to boil!


Add beeswax. Pour it in a little at a time and stir often until it has been completely absorbed into your mixture. When everything is warm and well-mixed, you can test the consistency by dipping a spoon into it and putting it in the fridge. Check it after 20 minutes or so. If it seems too runny you can add more beeswax – a teaspoon at a time until you’re satisfied. I find that the recipe as given, when prepared with olive oil, results in an ointment that’s solid at room temperature but spreads like honey and absorbs well. When using coconut oil, it will spread more like room-temperature butter.

a woman pouring usnea and fir pitch and beeswax infused oil oil into metal containers

Pour and cool. Place your salve containers on a clean dishcloth allowing plenty of space between them. Lift your jar out of the water bath with your canning tongs, put some on heat-proof gloves or wrap your jar in a dishcloth and pour. You can leave your containers to solidify at room temperature, or if you want to speed things up, place in the refrigerator. Don’t put lids on your jars until your salve is fully cooled, or condensation will develop, which will introduce bacteria-forming moisture.


That said, this salve has so many antibacterial compounds that it hardly ever goes rancid as long as you store it with the lid on tight; because of them, there’s no need to add preserving agents such as Vitamin E, as recommended with some herbal salves. All the same, keep your fingers out of the container, and apply salve with a Q-tip or clean spatula to keep bugs out of your precious concoction. It will keep well for up to a year or more, but I bet you’ll use it up long before then - especially if you share.


mateal jar of old man's beard and fir healing skin salve on a wooden surface with old man's beard in the background

SYMBIOSIS: Love Salve for a Broken Heart by Leslie Noel Butler, April 2024

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