Into the Woodland Spas: Where Our Forests Act As Living Medicine Chests


Wintertime forests have a beauty all their own. Icicle-laden firs; stout maples tapped for their sweet sap; the satisfying crunch of pine needles beneath cross-country skis; a ride on the proverbial one-horse open sleigh. In a season of shorter days and bitter winds, nothing warms the spirit like an outing in the woods or a foray into woodland spas.

Snowy woodlands have inspired many of America’s greatest writers. From the ‘sweet and bracing fragrance’ of Henry David Thoreau’s evergreen woods to Walt Whitman’s ‘majestic pines’ to the ‘forest primeval’ of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, wintertime forests have sparked the imagination as perhaps no other environment and season. But the woods do more than provoke the creation of great literature; they are concentrated sources of natural therapeutic ingredients. Oils, leaves, and bark of many varieties of trees are potent healers.

For indigenous populations around the world, forests act as living medicine chests.

The balsam fir of the northeastern U.S. and Canada is prized for its oil, which is used to alleviate respiratory problems and sinus congestion. Cedar wood oil, both antifungal and antiseptic, can be used to treat dandruff, acne, eczema, and arthritis. The oil of black spruce, topically applied, strengthens adrenal glands and regulates metabolism. An analgesic and anti-inflammatory, it may also treat arthritis and rheumatic conditions. The bitter-tasting cones of juniper trees help alleviate digestive upset and other related gastrointestinal troubles. And the comforting, mood-lifting scent of various woods is sometimes the boost one needs to counteract a case of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

Today, science is confirming what indigenous populations have long known. A recent Columbia University study on the topical effects of Norwegian Spruce bark suggests that the bark, taken both internally and applied topically, may help treat a wide range of conditions, including breast cancer (because of positive effects on estrogen metabolism), prostate cancer, and hair loss.

“Tree and other botanical-based ingredients will probably continue to gain roles in spa products and treatments” predicts Karyn Grossman, a dermatologist with offices in Santa Monica and New York who has consulted for Prescriptives and other well-regarded skincare lines. “Ingredients such as japonica tree, pine tree, and flavinoids (found in leaves) can all possess anti-inflammatory properties, which, in theory, would be helpful when applied to the skin. Similarly, the antiseptic properties of tea tree oil and eucalyptus have long been used in acne products, and eucalyptus may have some soothing anti-inflammatory properties as well.”

The famous 19th century naturalist and explorer, John Muir, wrote, “The clearest way to the universe is through a forest wilderness” Many spas today understand that there is something undeniably spiritual about the forest. In order to capture that feeling, they have learned to incorporate elements of the forest in the design of their facilities and in their treatments.

Entering the Coeur D’Alene Golf & Spa Resort in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, is like entering into a soothing cedar copse. The fresh-cut cedar planks that hang on the walks in the entryway are replaced every three weeks for maximum fragrance.

One of the more popular wintertime treatments at the resort is the Fragrant Forest Energy Balancing signature treatment. First the guest steps into a Pure Essence shower, where she is surrounded by nineteen showerheads that simulate the feeling of rain gently falling through cedar and spruce trees. The guest is then invited to soak in a bath containing sea salts with essences of spruce and cedar. Afterwards, she receives a Forest Mineral Scrub that incorporates woodsy essential oils. Finally, she receives a hydrating Swedish massage, performed with a lotion containing essences of spruce and cedar.

Many timber-themed treatments are based on pine, a wintertime favorite because of its yuletide associations. At the Woodlands Spa at the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Nemacolin, Pennsylvania, the theme of the Woodlands Body Polish is pine.

“Wood-themed treatments are a perfect antidote to the wintertime blues” says Spa Director Lisa Meinhofer. “The scent of trees reminds us of holidays and families, and makes us feel warm and comforted”

Other spa treatments draw on more exotic or uncommon varieties of trees, such as baobab, sequoia bark, and bocoa (iron wood). On the West Coast where redwoods provide some of the most dramatic arboreal scenery in the country, these serene giants have been used in the earliest spas, primarily as building material for saunas and spa structures. But extracts derived from old-growth redwoods have also begun to appear in treatments. At the Indigo Spa at the Stevenswood Spa Resort in Mendocino, California, the Pacific Sea Detox, a nourishing body wrap, pays homage to the local tradition of healing through nature.

“Native populations of Mendocino recognized that the most potent healing ingredients could be found around them, in the trees and the sea” says Spa Director Connie Sackman. “Our Pacific Sea Detox combines essential oils from local old growth redwoods with ocean lipids. The redwood part is very stimulating to the senses. The treatment also contains eucalyptus, which is a perfect wintertime ingredient, as it is very effective in relieving nasal congestion, and easing respiratory tract and rheumatic complaints”

Some people who wouldn’t consider getting wrapped, scrubbed, or massaged with wood would think nothing of getting beaten by tree branches! The Russian ritual of Platza, or ‘venik’ massage, has been practiced in the Russian banya, or baths, for centuries. Fully grown leaves of birch, oak, or eucalyptus are bundled together, broom-like, and soaked in warm water, for about twenty minutes. The therapist presses the ‘venik’, or leafy bundle, against the skin, then lightly slaps it against the body. The result is bracing and occasionally abrasive, but is rarely painful or unpleasant.

A Platza massage is said to improve circulation and strengthen the metabolism, while the leaves themselves release essential oils, imparting healing benefits on the body. At the Russian & Turkish Baths, a storied bath house founded over 100 years ago in New York’s City’s East Village, the Platza takes place in semi-private rooms, where guests lie on tables and are beaten by attendants with brooms made of oak leaves. Oak acts as a natural astringent, and the treatment opens pores, removes toxins, and sloughs off layers of dead skin. Afterwards, guests can relax in the relatively mild eucalyptus steam room or the scaldingly hot Russian Room, which is heated by a rock-walled furnace.

During a recent visit, a 91-year-old guest named ‘Honey’ nimbly stepped off the Platza table and entered the Russian Room, where she cooled off periodically by pouring a bucket of ice-cold water over her head. “I am here every week,” she said in a heavy Ukranian accent. “I come for my health. It is better than medicine. You see, I am older than the trees.”

Make it at home:


Courtesy of Lisa Meinhofer, Spa Director, Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, Nemacolin, Pennsylvania

Ingredients for the scrub

1/2 cup Epsom salts

1 oz. unscented massage oil

3 drops each of essential oils of pine,cypress, juniper, and lavender

Ingredients for the body rub

1 oz. unscented massage oil

3 drops each of essential oils of pine, lavender, and geranium)


To make the scrub, mix the essential oils with the massage oil, then blend with the bath salts. Enter the shower and rinse off your body. Then turn off the showerhead and apply the blended aromatherapy massage oil/salt combination all over, scrubbing your body vigorously. You may use a washcloth or loofah to increase the exfoliation. Rinse off, then apply the body moisturizer with long, smooth strokes. Inhale the uplifting scent and relax!


Courtesy of Stevenswood Resort, Mendocino, California

This fragrant and skin-softening bath is a perfect wintertime cure for sore feet.


4 cups water

1/2 cup pine, spruce, or fir tree needles

4 eucalyptus leaves

1/3 cup honey

1/2 cup sweet almond oil


Simmer the needles and eucalyptus leaves in the water for 15 minutes on the stovetop. Strain the herbs, then wait until the water has cooled to a tepid temperature. Pour into a ceramic or metal pan or bucket that is large enough to accommodate your feet. Add the honey and sweet almond oil. Soak and enjoy!

by Katherine Stewart

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