The Medicine of Pine
Written and Photographed by Juliet Blankespoor
This article was originally written for Mother Earth Living magazine and is published here with permission from the publisher. Mother Earth Living is an American bimonthly magazine about sustainable homes and lifestyle.
My kindergarten school picture is the first evidence of a lifelong love affair with trees, and pine in particular. My dad had planted a little grove of white pines (Pinus strobus, Pinaceae) in our backyard. I spent my afternoons playing in their whorled branches, unwittingly collecting resin in my locks while leaning my head against their sturdy trunks. My mom cut out the sticky parts, resulting in a hairstyle that could only be rivaled by the likes of Pippi Longstocking.
There are over one hundred species of pine worldwide, and most have recorded medicinal uses. Cultures around the globe have used the needles, inner bark, and resin for similar ailments.1,2,3 Internally, pine is a traditional remedy for coughs, colds, allergies, and urinary tract and sinus infections. Topically, pine is used to address skin infections and to lessen joint inflammation in arthritic conditions.4 Native people across the continent—including the Cherokee, Chippewa, Iroquois, Apache, Hopi and countless other groups—have used over twenty species of pine in a similar medicinal fashion.1
Along with its myriad medicinal applications, pine is a source of lumber, food, essential oil production, and incense. There are a few species of pine in North America and a handful of species in Eurasia that yield the familiar edible pine nuts. Pine is essential commercially for its lumber and pulp, which is used to make paper and related products.
Many species of pine are considered cornerstone species, playing a central role in their ecological community. See my article on longleaf pine here. Finally, many species are planted ornamentally for their evergreen foliage and winter beauty.
Medicinal Use of Pines
The fresh needles and buds, picked in the springtime, are called “pine tops.” These are boiled in water, and the tea is consumed for fevers, coughs, and colds. The needles are also diuretic, helping to increase urination. Pine-top tea is one of the most important historical medicines of the rural southeastern United States, especially given pines’ abundance in the region. Renowned Alabama herbalist Tommie Bass used the needles in a steam inhalation to break up tenacious phlegm in the lungs. I combine pine tops with sprigs of fresh thyme (Thymus spp., Lamiaceae) and bee balm (Monarda spp., Lamiaceae) for this purpose. Tommie Bass reported “ the country people used to drink pine top tea every spring and fall to prevent colds.”5
I enjoy the needles—fresh or dry—as a fragrant and warming wintertime tea. It pairs well with cinnamon bark (Cinnamomum verum, Lauraceae) and cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum, Zingiberaceae). Pine offers relief in sinus and lung congestion through its stimulating expectorant, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory qualities. The fresh, younger needles also contain Vitamin C.
Try combining peppermint (Mentha x piperita, Lamiaceae) and catnip (Nepeta cataria, Lamiaceae) with pine needles as a tea, which can be sipped upon throughout the day to assuage cold symptoms. This combination is a safe remedy for the whole family.
Mighty Pine Tea
- 1 quart water
- Small handful of pine needle tops (approximately five to seven branch tips; fresh or dried)
- 1.5 Tablespoons dried peppermint
- 1 Tablespoon dried catnip
Boil the pine needle tops in the water for twenty minutes. Turn off the heat and add the peppermint and catnip. Cover and let steep for an additional twenty minutes. Strain and add honey if desired. Sip on the tea while hot, reheating each cup as needed throughout the day. Adults can drink three cups a day. Children’s dosages should be lessened proportionally.
The inner bark contains more resin and is more astringent than the needles. It has been used historically as an antimicrobial wash or poultice and infused in bathwater for muscle aches and pains. It’s also boiled in water and ingested as a remedy for coughs and colds. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the knotty pine wood from several species of pine is infused in wine and used topically for joint pain.3 I tend to reserve the bark for topical applications since the needles are easy to harvest and more pleasant tasting.
The resin, also called pitch, has many local first-aid uses—it’s used as an antimicrobial dressing on wounds and to pull out splinters. Pine resin, in minute quantities, has been used internally as a powerful expectorant but it does have some toxicity, so I recommend sticking to the needles or bark when it comes to internal use. I use pine pitch, prepared as a salve, to draw out splinters, glass, and the toxins left from poisonous insect bites. Pine resin salve is helpful to lessen muscle aches and joint inflammation.
Pine Pitch Band-Aids: Forest First-Aid
On a trip to the southwest, I learned another way to apply pine pitch medicinally from Arizona herbalist Doug Simmons: Take a piece of pitch that's semi-hard but still pliable and form it into a flat bandage over the afflicted area. This simple forest first-aid has excellent drawing power, as well as being anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial. Cover it with a Band-Aid or clean bandage and leave it on overnight.
On this same trip, I had a chance to see the resin in action. Six months earlier a mysterious insect had bitten or stung my foot, leaving behind a little welt that refused to clear up, no matter what remedy I tried. I decided to try Doug’s method of application with the pine resin. I applied a pliable piece of pitch and left it on overnight. The next morning the welt was gone, and it hasn’t returned.
Pine Pitch Salve
- 1 part clean pine pitch
- 2 parts extra-virgin olive oil
- Grated beeswax or beeswax beads (proportions below)
See our article on preparing herbal salves here. The measurements in this recipe needn’t be exact, but following the general proportions by volume (using a measuring cup) is useful for achieving the desired consistency. Using a double boiler, melt the pitch in the olive oil (1 part pitch to 2 parts olive oil, by volume) until it is mostly dissolved (it’s fine if a little resin remains solid). Add the grated beeswax (1 part beeswax per 4 parts of the combined liquid oil and pitch). Pour into jars and let cool before adding lids.
The first step in identification is to make sure you have pine and then narrow it down to the exact species. To accurately identify pine, look for the characteristic two to five needles growing together in a little bundle (called a fascicle), coupled with the familiar pinecones. Each bundle has a little papery sheath at the base. (Note: a few species of pine only have one needle; however, this is an anomaly, and most species bear two to five needles in a bundle.)
Identify the species local to your area and research their traditional uses. That said, it’s important to know that no pine is harmful and the medicinal uses overlap between species, so if you can’t find any information about your local pines, they are still medicinal. Just make sure it is indeed a true pine (in the Pinus genus) by checking for the identification traits listed above, and you’ll be good to go!
The flavor of pine varies depending on the species and the time of year the needles are picked. The needles have an astringent, “puckering” effect (similar to strong black tea) and a slightly resinous flavor; some pines possess a mineral tang, reminiscent of seawater. Some have needles that are quite sour, especially in the spring. After proper identification, chew on a bit of the needles to get an idea of how the various pine species in your area measure up.
Other conifers have cones that are sometimes mistaken for pinecones, so be sure you have a real pine and not some other cone-bearing evergreen. Many conifers have similar medicinal properties to pine—spruce (Picea spp., Pinaceae) and fir (Abies spp., Pinaceae), for example. One simple visual indicator that set these two trees apart from Pinus species: both spruce and fir have needles that connect directly to the branch, as opposed to the fascicle in pines.
It’s crucial that you are extremely careful to not harvest yew (Taxus spp., Taxaceae), which is a conifer with poisonous needles.6 Yew produces a red fleshy fruit (technically a cone), unlike the familiar hard brown cones you see growing on other conifers. Other species of conifers, including yew, have precautions, or possible toxicity, so proper identification of pine is crucial.
Be aware that many species of trees with pine in their common name are not true pines and are not used in the same way, and may even be toxic. For example, Australian pine (Casuarina spp., Casuarinaceae) and Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla, Araucariaceae) aren’t even in the same family as the true pines! As with any plant you harvest from the wild, you’ll need to use the identifying characteristics, along with the scientific name, rather than the common name.
You can harvest pine needles anytime they’re looking good and so are you. Seriously though, the needles can be gathered anytime they are needed, but the fresh springtime tips are more pleasant in taste and tend to be a little more sour than older needles. Cut the tips of the branches using garden scissors or shears, and dry in baskets.
Harvest the bark in the spring, preferably from a tree that needs to be thinned or a tree that’s fallen in a storm. You can alternatively collect a three-to-four-inch diameter branch from a tree, which leaves only one wound on the tree. The outer bark is removed and composted, and the inner bark—the medicinal portion—is scraped free from the wood. Dry on a screen or in a loose-weave basket.
Whenever you go on hikes or camp, keep an eye out for freshly dried, amber-hued pine resin on living pine trees. It’s much easier to harvest when the golden pitch is dried but not super brittle or black. Using a small knife, cut the pitch directly into a small jar, leaving a thin layer intact on the tree (the resin serves to protect the tree from pathogens and insects after injury). Sometimes the resin is dried on the outside and squishy on the inside, so proceed carefully. You can still gather resin that is gooey but it’s messy business indeed.
Pine resin can be dirty with adhering bugs and dirt. Avoid soiled resin if possible but if you end up with a grubby batch, gently heat the resin in a small pot and strain through a fine sieve. Clean the pan and strainer with rubbing alcohol. Store the pitch in jars for up to a few years. The medicinal resin has a distinct “piney” and resinous odor; when it’s past its prime, it will have lost its aroma.
Safety & Contraindications: Do not use pine needles in pregnancy and avoid the long-term internal use of the bark. Both pine needles and pine bark can cause kidney irritation with long-term use in strong doses or with sensitive individuals. Do not use pine resin internally except in minute doses under the direction of a skilled herbalist. Be sure you have correctly identified pine and not a look-alike or a sound-alike (see the notes in the identification section).
There haven’t been any recorded instances of human poisoning from ingesting small amounts of medicinal pine (like the dosages a sensible person would ingest or imbibe). You’ll sometimes read warnings about pine toxicity from authors who mistakenly infer human safety precautions from documented cattle poisonings where the animals are consuming pine needles in copious amounts.
- Moerman DE. Native American Ethnobotany. Timber Press; 1998.
- Wood M. The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants. North Atlantic Books; 2008.
- Bensky D, Clavey S, Stöger E. Chinese Herbal Medicine: Materia Medica. Eastland Press; 2004.
- Moore M. Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West. Museum of New Mexico Press; 2003.
- Crellin JK, Philpott J, Bass ALT. A Reference Guide to Medicinal Plants. Duke University Press; 1990.
- Burrows GE, Tyrl RJ. Toxic Plants of North America. Wiley; 2012.
Meet the Green Mastermind Behind Blog Castanea:
JULIET BLANKESPOOR founded the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine in 2007 and serves as the school’s primary instructor and Creative Director. She's been a professional plant-human matchmaker for close to three decades. Juliet caught the plant bug when she was nineteen and went on to earn a degree in Botany. She's owned just about every type of herbal business you can imagine: an herbal nursery, a medicinal products business, a clinical practice, and now, an herbal school.
These days, she channels her botanical obsession with her writing and photography in her online programs and here on her personal blog, Castanea. She's writing her first book: Cultivating Medicinal Herbs: Grow, Harvest, and Prepare Handcrafted Remedies from Your Home Garden. Juliet and her houseplants share a home with her family and herb books in Asheville, North Carolina.
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