My kindergarten school picture is the first documented evidence of my lifelong love affair with trees, and with pine in particular. My dad once planted a little grove of white pine trees (Pinus strobus) 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 more than 100 pine species worldwide, and most have recorded medicinal uses. Cultures around the globe have used the needles, inner bark, and resin to treat various ailments. Internally, pine is a traditional remedy for coughs, colds, allergies, and even urinary tract infections. Topically, pine is used to address skin infections and to lessen joint inflammation in arthritic conditions.
Along with its myriad medicinal applications, pine is a source of lumber, food, essential oil, and incense. A few species of pine in North America and a handful in Eurasia yield the familiar edible pine nuts. Pine is indispensable commercially for its lumber and its 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. Finally, many species are planted ornamentally for their evergreen foliage and winter beauty.
Medicinal Use of Pines
Pine needles: Fresh pine needles and buds, picked in springtime, are sometimes referred to as “pine tops.” These needles are diuretic and contain both vitamins A and C. When boiled in water, the resulting tea can be consumed to treat fevers, coughs, and colds. Pine needle tea is one of the most important historical medicines of the southeastern United States, especially given pines’ abundance in the region. Renowned Alabama herbalist Tommie Bass reported that “the country people used to drink pine top tea every spring and fall to prevent colds.” Bass also used the needles in a steam inhalation to break up tenacious phlegm in the lungs. I combine pine needles with sprigs of fresh thyme (Thymus spp.) and bee balm (Monarda spp.) for this purpose.
I enjoy the needles — fresh or dry — as a fragrant and warming wintertime tea. They pair well with cinnamon bark (Cinnamomum verum) and cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum). Pine offers relief in sinus and lung congestion through its stimulating expectorant, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory qualities.
Pine bark: The inner bark of the pine tree contains more resin and is more astringent than the needles. Historically, it has been used as an antimicrobial poultice and infused in bathwater for muscle aches and pains. It’s also commonly boiled in water and ingested as a remedy for coughs and colds. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the knotty wood from several species of pine is infused in wine and used for joint pain. I try to reserve the bark for topical applications, since the needles are easy to harvest and more pleasant in taste.
Pine resin: Pine resin, or “pitch,” has many local first-aid uses; it’s used as an antimicrobial dressing on wounds and to pull out splinters. I use it, prepared as a salve, to draw out splinters, glass, and the toxins left from poisonous insect bites (see “Pine Pitch Bandage,” below). Pine resin salve is also helpful for lessening muscle aches and joint inflammation.
Precautions: Despite the many lauded benefits of pine, you should take a couple of precautions when using the tree medicinally. Don’t use pine needles during pregnancy, as one species, Pinus ponderosa, has shown abortive effects in cattle. Avoid long-term internal use of the bark, which may cause kidney irritation in strong doses, especially in sensitive individuals. And don’t use pine resin internally except in minute doses under the direction of a skilled herbalist.
The first step in identification is to make sure you have true pine (in the Pinus genus), and then narrow it down to the exact species. 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. For example, Australian pine (Casuarina spp.) and Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla) aren’t even in the pine family! To accurately identify pine, look for the characteristic 2 to 5 needles growing together in a bundle (called a “fascicle”), coupled with familiar pine cones. Each fascicle is bound by a sheath at the base. (Note: A few species of pine have only one needle; however, this is an anomaly.) Identify the species local to your area and research their traditional uses before adding pine to your health care routine.
Other conifers have cones that are sometimes mistaken for pine cones, so be sure you have a real pine and not some other evergreen. And while many conifers have similar medicinal properties to pine — spruce (Picea spp.) and fir (Abies spp.), for example — it’s crucial that you identify Pinus correctly. Some conifers, such as yew (Taxus spp.), have precautions or toxicity. Yew produces poisonous needles and a red, fleshy fruit completely unlike the familiar hard, brown cones you see growing on other conifers.
The flavor of pine varies depending on the species and the time of year the needles are harvested. 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 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.
You can harvest pine needles anytime they’re needed, but the fresh springtime tips are more pleasant in taste than older needles. Cut the tips off the branches using garden scissors or shears, and dry in baskets.
Harvest the bark in spring, preferably from a tree that needs to be thinned or has fallen in a storm. Or collect a 3- to 4-inch-diameter branch from a tree, which will leave only one wound. Remove and compost the outer bark, and scrape the medicinal inner bark free from the wood. Dry on a screen or in a loose-weave basket.
When you go on hikes or camp, look for freshly dried, amber-hued pine resin on living pine trees. It’s easiest to harvest when the golden pitch is dry but not super brittle or black. Using a sharp knife, cut the pitch directly into a small jar, leaving a thin layer intact on the tree, as 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; you can still gather resin that’s gooey, but it’s a messy business.
Avoid soiled resin if possible, but if you have a batch that’s grubby with bugs or dirt, gently heat the resin in a pot and strain through a fine sieve. Clean the pot and strainer with rubbing alcohol. Store the pitch in jars for up to a few years. It will have a distinct “piney” and resinous odor; when it’s past its prime, it’ll lose its aroma.
Pine Pitch Bandage
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 semihard 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 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 attempt 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.
For healing recipes using Pinus, see:
Juliet Blankespoor is the director and founder of the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine, where she offers online courses on foraging, medicine making, and herb cultivation.