Abies lasiocarpa, known as “subalpine fir” is endemic to North America with several naturally occurring varieties1 —this Allies post focuses on “Corkbark Fir” (Abies lasiocarpa variety arizonica), also known as “Alamo de la Sierra.” Latin names give distinctive clues to identifying a plant: “Abies” is simply “fir tree” and the epithet “lasiocarpa” means “woolly seed/fruit,” referencing the protruding fibers between cone scales. This noble fir of the Pinaceae family was once grouped (dare I write: considered the “same”…) with Abies lasiocarpa variety lasiocarpa but it has been set apart due to its differences in structure (morphology) and chemistry—notably its soft, thick, spongy bark and soft, pliable branches and glaucous (grayish-green/ blue) foliage2. The lasiocarpa variety grows through the Northern Rocky Mountains up into Canada, whereas Corkbark Fir grows south of the Grand Canyon in very high elevations (9,000 feet, upwards of 11,000 feet); notably in Colorado (i.e., Sangre de Cristo and San Juan Mountains and Wolf Creek Pass), the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona and parts of Northern New Mexico3. This noble tree may grow up to 70’ height and 12’ wide—forest trees generally “behave” and grow up, not out4.
According to research5, essential oils and DNA sequencing were performed on all three varieties of A. lasiocarpa; although there was some variation in the plants’ DNA there were marked differences in essential oil composition. What may cause the variance? Location, location, location! Elevation, exposure to water (e.g., high altitude snow versus Pacific Northwest dampness) and other environmental influences all impact how a plant survives and thrives in its environment. Corkbark Fir is a perfect example of how the environment a plant lives in affects its phenotype—and that knowing a plant, the whole plant and its essences, includes understanding where it calls home. This also brings fourth the argument for epigenetics and how differences in genotype may be due to adaptations based on environmental conditions (and emotions). Clare Licher conveyed how she believes all subalpine fir were relatively the same in the distant past but as the Grand Canyon formed, the trees in the south (e.g., Arizona) experienced different stress (i.e., arid) and adapted their chemistry and morphology accordingly.
Corkbark Fir essential oil is obtained by steam distilling the needles and associated twigs of the majestically demure Abies lasiocarpa variety arizonica. Clare, who is an artisan harvester and distiller of native plants of the Southwest, shared an amazing example of plant intelligence with me: Corkbark Fir produces more essence (and therefore essential oil) after a snow, a direct result of a plant responding to its conditions in order to thrive.
Native Americans of the Rocky Mountain West, from the sacred four corners and north to Canada, worked with many parts of sub-alpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa) (all varieties are implied) to support their overall health. Following are key applications using the needles (realizing the resin and bark were utilized for similar and other applications): smudging needles for headache, ceremonial incense (spirit and emotional work), chest colds (general, coughs, and tuberculosis), fevers, skin (deodorant), hair & oral care (bleeding gums).
Corkbark Fir essential oil is a quintessential example of the paradoxical nature of some essential oils: it is energizing and uplifting yet calming and sedative. It communicates to our mind and nervous system that it’s okay to quiet down. Being with the oil seems to slow time down. Think back to when you were a child and fully engaged with the present moment or experience “flow” as an adult: you are being and noticing without urgency. There is an absolute timelessness to Corkbark Fir; it beckons you to savor the moment and embody the curiousness to explore the new and familiar.
From an aromatherapy perspective Corkbark Fir shines in supporting overall respiratory health and calming the nervous system. It is analgesic, anti-inflammatory, anti-infectious, antispasmodic, mucolytic, nervine-sedative and tonifying/strengthening.
Following are indications & properties to consider regarding Corkbark Fir essential oil:
- Immune: General antibacterial and secondary anti-fungal, anti-infectious, antioxidant
- Musculoskeletal: Cramp/spasm, aches & pains, warming/brings blood & therefore oxygen
- Respiratory: Spastic cough, decongestant/stuck mucus, itchy cough, gentle breathing support
- Skin: Deodorant
- Emotional/Mental: Comforting, soothing, elevating, uplifting but calming, sleep support (anti-anxiety)
Chemistry Highlights: According to Clare, the arid climes and high elevations that Corkbark Fir call home give it a composition different than subalpine fir. Corkbark essential oil may have over 34% bornyl acetate supported by monoterpenes (e.g., camphene, α- and β-pinene, beta-phellandrene). Esters, such as bornyl acetate, often found in conifers, may help soothe a plant living in stressful conditions such as high elevations, being closer to the sun and subject to brutal cold, wind and snow. Clare conveyed that she notices the “brightest aromas often occur after a snow,” these aromas being the esters (i.e., bornyl acetate). She also noted how when the trees breathe (respire), the soothing essences infuse the surrounding air benefiting all plants and creatures in the area; indicative of a nurturing and caring being.
Is Corkbark Fir Essential Oil Safe?
Corkbark Fir essential oil is generally regarded as safe (GRAS) though avoid using oxidized oils as they may be irritating to the skin.
Blending with Corkbark Fir Essential Oil
Corkbark Fir quietly fills the olfactory palate with an uplifting whisper of terpenic, balsamic freshness. The initial aroma is sweet, soft, fresh and quiet with hints of citrus. This is followed by hints of cacao, earth and nuts—yet a sweet backbone is always present. It conjures up an atmosphere of respite. Picture warm comfort; a feeling of antiquity like a cabin in the woods with clean, fresh sheets and white down comforters while warm sunbeams illuminate and freshen the space through gleaming windows. Corkbark Fir is like a well-made, well-worn cashmere sweater or a good pair of jeans that are soft and comfortable: not simple or complicated but complex, stylish, inviting and dependable.
Abies lasiocarpa var arizonica essential oil blends well with several Citrus oils (Citrus limon, Citrus bergamia, Citrus reticulata), Black pepper (Piper nigrum), Cypress (Cupressus sempervirens), Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris) and several other conifers, Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis; all chemotypes), Lavandula ssp., Rosalina (Melaleuca ericifolia), Ho wood (Cinnamomum camphora ct linalool), Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum).
Creating Wellness Products with Corkbark Fir Essential Oil
Penetrating Body Oil for Pain
- 2 ounce bottle with flip or pump top
- 1.0 fl oz of Sesame oil
- 1.0 fl oz of Arnica infused oil (click here for more on infusions)
- 10 drops Rosemary CT bornyl acetate (Rosmarinus officinalis CT bornyl acetate) or Rosemary CT verbenone
- 20 drops Cypress (Cupressus sempervirens)
- 25 drops Corkbark Fir (Abies lasiocarpa var arizonica)
**Usage suggestions: Add a small amount to your palms and warm the oil by rubbing your hands together. Massage the oil into sore spots and tissues. Use as needed.
Respiratory Support (Stock Blend)
- 5ml bottle (approx. 130 drops)
- 30 drops Black Pepper (Piper nigrum)
- 40 drops Lemon (Citrus limon)
- 60 drops Corkbark Fir (Abies lasiocarpa var arizonica)
**Usage suggestions: Create a stock bottle and add 1-2 ml of the blend to a nebulizing diffuser; diffuse 5 to 10 minutes a day for 14 days to support immunity during cold and flu season (or, add 10-15 drops to a water diffuser, diffusing on a timer for 14 days). Add 25 drops to an aromatic inhaler and use daily to support respiratory health.
Uplifting and Calming Spritzer
- 2 ounce bottle with fine mist spray top
- 2.0 fl oz of distilled water
- 10 drops Ho wood (Cinnamomum camphora ct linalool)
- 15 drops Bergamot* (Citrus bergamia)
- 15 drops Corkbark Fir (Abies lasiocarpa var arizonica)
**Usage suggestions: Add the blended essential oils to a 2 ounce glass bottle with spritzer top. Fill the bottle with distilled water up to its “shoulders.” Spray the air in front of you or your face (always shake before using and keep your eyes closed!) 2 – 3 times and enjoy the aromas. Use whenever you need a pick-me-up. (*Note: bergamot has photo-toxic properties. Wait at least 12-24 hours before exposing treated skin to UV light. This is more applicable to those with low melanin production.)
I have had the pleasure and privilege of meeting, working with and learning from Clare and Max Licher of Phibee Aromatics a few special times. To be around such amazing people who have such knowledge, love and respect for their environment and the plants in that environment is truly inspiring. They know where the plants grow and don’t, they know the rhythms of the plants: when to harvest and when not to, when to leave a plant alone and look elsewhere. I’m often asked by students about harvesting and distilling—when to do what and how do you know? The answer is simple but frustrating. You know by learning, doing the work, paying attention to both the “big picture” and nuance. Herein’ lays the artistry, the soul, paying attention to nuance and waiting for nature to take its course. There are times when inventory of certain essential oils runs low and guess what—it may be the case that the right time to harvest is not for another 6 months—or longer as the population may be depleted or over-harvested in a certain location. More so, it takes weeks for a distilled essential oil to settle-it is not best used off the still (i.e., the “still notes” must dissipate). My whole point is that there is a lot more to working with plants (including essential oils) than trying to figure out “what’s good for what.” Clare and Max are inspirational for truly knowing where they live, the history and the rhythms of their environment including the plants that live there. They harvest and distill with respect, restraint and knowledge. They practice sustainable harvesting and distilling and have greatly influenced me in my choice of plants for distilling (staying local and getting to know who’s around me). I hope you’re inspired by Clare and Max to take even more time getting to know the photosynthesizing friends around you.
Thank you for taking a moment to spend time with Abies lasiocarpa var arizonica and me.
1 The three recognized varieties are: A. lasiocarpa var. lasiocarpa, A. lasiocarpa var. arizonica and A. lasiocarpa var. bifolia
2 Personal communication with Clare Licher of Phibee Aromatics.
3 https://www.conifers.org/pi/Abies_lasiocarpa.php (Accessed 2/4/2019)
4 Reference: Wohlleben, Peter. “The Hidden Life of Trees.”
5 Adams, Robert & Earle, Chris & Thornburg, David. (2011). Taxonomy of infraspecific taxa of Abies lasiocarpa: Leaf essential oils and DNA of Abies lasiocarpa var. bifolia and var. arizonica. Phytologia. 93. 73-87.