The Miracle Tree
Besides serving mostly as garden decorations, most dwarf conifers can be prepared and eaten for medicinal benefits. Conifers have a long history of medicinal use and played an important role in the Canadian colonial exchange. Canada is home to approximately thirty native species of coniferous trees, and for the Indigenous peoples of eastern Canada, coniferous forests offered sources of food, building materials, and medicines for human survival (Turner). The ability of conifers to withstand harsh climates and their general availability and distribution made them a pharmacological staple for all indigenous groups of Eastern Canada (Buchanan). The general medicinal usage varied from astringents and antiseptics to stimulants. But most importantly, many conifers contain high levels of vitamin C, which made them a cure for scurvy – a disease that is common in northern climates.
In 1535, French explorer Jacques Cartier found himself stranded while exploring the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Suffering from scurvy that threatened his life and the lives of his crew, Cartier turned to the local St. Lawrence Iroquois for help after he noticed that some of them suffered from the same affliction as his men, but unlike his men, they made full recoveries. From Iroquois first nations, Carter learned that the cure for the disease could be prepared from the juice and sap of the leaves of a tree that the first nations peoples called the “Ameda” tree. Within six days of continuous drinking of the prepared concoction, Cartier and his crew made full recovery and collected the tree specimen to be presented in front of the French king, branding it as “The Tree of Life”. The tree saplings were planted in the Royal Gardens, but the story of the miraculous cure was forgotten for nearly a century.
The doctor typically credited for solving the mystery of scurvy was Scottish surgeon James Lind, who was practicing in the 18th century. However, his 1772 treatise of scurvy demonstrates that he was aware of the therapeutic properties of the “spruce beer” consumed by the Indigenous peoples of Newfoundland. Likewise, Lind was aware of Cartier’s story of the Ameda tree but mainly saw coniferous concoctions as preventative medicine rather than the cure itself. Eventually, Lind served as a surgeon on board HMS Salisbury and after witnessing and recording the scurvy outbreak aboard the ship, he performed one of the first controlled group experiments where he added orange and lemon juice to the sailor’s meals. This experiment forever linked vitamin C (and lemons in particular) with a cure for scurvy. It is interesting to note, however, that coniferous juice extract contains higher levels of vitamin C than lemons (Buchanan).