Today, modern medicine and nutrition have drastically improved our health compared to that of previous generations. For example, consider scurvy. This degenerative disease was a major problem for sailors and pioneers whose occupations restricted their diets. We now know scurvy is caused by a vitamin C deficiency, and can be cured by consuming citrus fruits such as lemons, limes, and oranges. But back in the 1500s, the disease was a mysterious and terrifying killer.

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In the frigid winter of 1536, the crew of French explorer Jacques Cartier began to suffer from an unknown sickness. An account of the voyage tells the grisly tale: “some did lose all their strength, and could not stand on their feet, then did their legs swell, their sinews shrink as black as any coal. Others also had all their skins spotted with spots of blood of a purple colour: then did it ascend up to their ankles, knees, thighs, shoulders, arms and neck: their mouth became stinking, their gums so rotten that all the flesh did fall off, even to the roots of teeth, which did also almost fall out.”

Scurvy causes weakness, gum disease, and bleeding from the skin.

Scurvy causes weakness, gum disease, and bleeding from the skin. Photo: Wikipedia

Luckily for Cartier and his crew, their ship reached the Iriquois village of Stadacona — a region we know today as Quebec City, Canada. One native man, Domagaia, introduced them to a medicinal beverage made from a tree they would come to call arborvitae, or the Tree of Life.

The men drank the decoction, and were almost immediately cured. The account states, “as soon as they had drunk it they felt better, which must clearly be ascribed to miraculous causes; for after drinking it two or three times they recovered health and strength and were cured of all the diseases they had ever had … When this became known, there was such a press for the medicine that they almost killed each other to have it first.”

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The white cedar or eastern arborvitae is rich in vitamin C and known for its medicinal properties.

Today, the exact species of tree Cartier's crew called the arborvitae is not known, but it was almost certainly some form of evergreen conifer — likely either the white pine or the eastern white cedar. However, we now understand why this beverage cured the men of scurvy. Conifer tea, made by mixing needles and bark into hot water, is extremely rich in vitamin C and other dietary nutrients. A study from the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine concluded:

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Researchers suspect the white pine may have been the conifer known as arborvitae.

“When food was short and the winter most severe, the candidate trees of life in eastern Canada provided a source of vitamins, arginine, proline, other conditionally and essential amino acids, antioxidants, and other biofactors, which aided in the recovery from of scurvy.”

Vitamin C is also a necessary part of your immune system, and consuming it may reduce the duration of illnesses like the common cold. So, next time you're out in the woods this winter, keep conifer tea in mind so you don't end up like Cartier's weak and toothless crew. (Note: Study the health effects of any wild plant before consuming it. Some types of evergreen conifers can be toxic, and others can harm pregnant women.)

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