Pine: A Year Round Medicinal
New England is home to three main species of pine: white pine, red pine, and pitch pine. These species can be easily identified by their bark, needle shape, pine cone shape, and number of needles per fascicle.
Identification Guide for Common Pine Species of New England
- 5 needles per fascicle
- Long, thin, and flexible needles
- Young trees have smooth, greyish bark which darkens and forms cracks as the tree matures
- Mature cones are long and thin with smooth scales
- Immature cones are light green
- Pale yellow to light brown sap (or resin) with a sweet menthol-like flavor and aroma
Red Pine (Pinus resinosa)
- 2 needles per fascicle
- Long, brittle needles
- Immature cones are purple
- Mature cones are egg-shaped cones
- Bark is greyish and flakey in texture, with red and orange hues showing through in layers
- Amber to red-brown sap with a rich, pine flavor and aroma
Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida)
- 3 needles per fascicle
- Thick and slightly twisted needles
- Cones are oval shaped with prickles on the scales when mature
- Immature cones are yellow-green
- Bark is grey-brown, thick, and scaled
- If the trunk has been damaged, such as by fire, it will sprout needles through the bark
- Deep amber to dark brown sap with a robust and somewhat pungent pine aroma and flavor
Harvesting Pine & Making Medicine
Pines can provide us with year round medicine, even in the darkest and coldest Winter months. They also offer seasonal medicines, such as pollen, in the Spring. Pine can be made into teas, salves, vinegars, infused honey, tincture and much more. Keep in mind that pine is highly resinous, so tinctures should be made with a high proof alcohol (at least 151 proof).
Energetics & Actions
Though each part of the tree varies somewhat in strength, pines are generally: high in Vitamin C, deodorizing, rubefacient, expectorant, warming, drying, anti-microbial, anti-bacterial, anti-oxidant, and mildly diuretic.
+ HARVESTING: Pine needles can be harvested year round! In Spring, freshly sprouted tips are tender and bright green. They have a lighter flavor and can even be eaten fresh from the tree. Clip or gently pluck needles and stems from a healthy tree. Look for green needles that a free of insects (a number of insect species call pines home, sometimes building cocoons or nests in the needles and stems).
+ USES: Pine needles are highest in Vitamin C and make an excellent winter tonic or cold remedy.
- Hot Pine Needle Tea: Decoct (boil plant material in water) the needles for 15 to 30 minutes. Use 1 part needles to 3 parts water, boiling until half the liquid remains. For a milder tea, use 1 part needles to 2 parts water and boil for 15 minutes. Drink the hot tea for a daily dose of vitamin C or during colds, flus, or bronchitis to help loosen mucous and encourage productive coughing, while soothing the throat and lungs. The vitamin content and anti-bacterial action also help your body fight colds.
- Pine Needle Hand Cleaner: Need to disinfect your hands in a pinch? Rub fresh pine needles between your hands! It’s better than alcohol hand cleaners, smells nicer, and won’t dry out your hands.
- Pine Vinegar: A mild balsamic-like vinegar that’s perfect for fighting or warding off colds. Add fresh pine needles to apple cider vinegar in a glass jar. Use a plastic lid or place a cloth or towel over the jar before covering with a metallic lid to prevent corrosion. Let the vinegar sit for at least 3 weeks before straining and using. Add honey to create a tasty oxymel or infuse with other cold-fighting herbs such as Elderberry. Pine vinegar can be used as a balsamic substitute or taken as a winter-time tonic.
+ HARVESTING: Pine resin (or sap) is available year round! Be careful when harvesting the resin. Pines use resin to heal wounded areas, seal out diseases, and to prevent further damage to the tree. Never harvest all of the resin from a particular location on a tree. Always leave enough behind for the tree to continue to heal itself. Avoid cutting, tapping, or scoring the bark of a tree. Doing this leaves the tree vulnerable to infection or pests, which could harm or even kill the tree. Always look for naturally occurring resin deposits. Collect resin in a glass jar, as it will adhere to plastics. Use oil to clean your hands or tools after harvesting resin. The oil removes the stickiness quickly!
+ USES: Pine resin is highly anti-microbial and can be used to heal wounds or draw out foreign objects from the skin. It can be used internally as tincture to fight respiratory infections or colds. Pine resin oil or salve is safe for all ages and can be applied as a chest rub for respiratory colds. Pine is preferable for children, as eucalyptus and peppermint can be too intense. The resin can also be applied directly to wounds, cuts, cold sores, blisters, etc. to aid healing.
- Chewing Gum: Clean your teeth and freshen your breath with pine resin. You can chew on fresh resin straight from the tree or warm it and combine with honey and a bit of beeswax to make a natural chewing gum substitute. It’s safe if swallowed and much better for you and your mouth.
- Resin Oil: Gently warm resin and oil together in a double boiler until the resin is completely liquefied. Strain out any bits of bark or debris. As little as ¼ part resin to 1 part oil may be used. Pine resin oil is warming and can be applied to sore muscles, cold extremities, painful joints, or as a soothing chest rub. It can also be used to make healing or drawing salves and deodorants.
- Cough Drops: Gently melt pine resin with honey in a double boiler, taking care not to boil or over heat the honey. Once the resin is liquefied, strain any bark or debris. Other herbs, such as Elderberry, Echinacea, Licorice, or Rosemary may be infused into the honey as well or added to the mixture in tincture or powder form. Use a spoon to make lozenge sized drops on a piece of wax paper. Allow the lozenges to cool.
+ HARVESTING: Pollen can be harvested in Spring from March to June, depending on location. Only Male pine trees have pollen. Females bear fruit (cones). Pollen cones are yellow to orange in color and grow in bunches at the tips of branches. They give off a fine and brightly colored pollen. Collect pollen by placing a paper bag over the pollen cones and shaking them inside the bag. The whole pollen cones can also be carefully clipped into a paper bag.
+ USES: Pine pollen is high in testosterone, vitamins, and minerals. It can be used by both men and women alike as a hormone balancer, libido booster, and nutritive tonic. The most effective way to take pine pollen is tincture, by adding the pollen to alcohol and allowing it to infuse for at least 4 weeks. The pollen may also be taken as a dietary supplement.
+ HARVESTING: Bark is available year round! The easiest way to harvest pine bark is by collecting fresh stems or branches. Never belt (remove the bark around the circumference of the trunk) a tree, as this will kill it.
+ USES: The white inner bark can be used as food and the stems of small branches may be added to teas, tinctures, or other preparations. The white inner bark is the part that can be eaten, but it must be cooked. Raw bark is too fibrous to be palatable. It can be roasted, pan fried, or boiled and pounded into a starch.
+ HARVESTING: Both mature and immature cones can be harvested. Cones mature at varying times, though primarily in mid to late Summer or early Fall. All pine cones contain seeds (or pine nuts) which are edible. Northern pine species generally have small pine nuts that aren’t often used by humans. The pine nuts sold in stores may be from Asian, European, or Southern North American pine species, which have larger seeds, such as Stone Pine (P. pinea) or Pinon Pine (P. edulis, P. monophylla).
+ USES: Pine cones are high in resin and may be added to other pine preparations such as teas or tinctures. The pine nuts can be eaten, but Northern species have seeds that are too small to be worth the work.
Other Conifers & Cautions
Most pine and other conifer species can be used interchangeably, with slight variances in energetic qualities or actions. Some examples of other medicinal conifers include Hemlock (Tsuga spp.), Fir (Abies spp.), and Spruce (Picea spp.). All are considered safe to use and, as with pine, all parts can be used medicinally, including the resin.
Porcupine & Hemlock Plantable Herb Seed Card
While most conifers are not considered toxic to humans, there are poisonous evergreens that should be avoided. Yew (Taxus spp.) is the most commonly encountered toxic conifer. It has bright red berries and short, wide needles growing along a central stem. Other toxic conifers are native to the southern hemisphere, sold as potted indoor plants in the US, such as Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla). In general it is best to avoid using indoor conifers as medicine, including Christmas trees and wreaths. Christmas trees and wreaths are often heavily sprayed with pesticides, so avoid the temptation to repurpose your Holiday conifers.
About the author:
Vincent Frano is an avid student of nature. He is trained as an herbalist with over 10 years of experience in European traditions with knowledge of Ayurvedic and North American herbs. He holds a BS in Sustainable Horticulture from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst where he focused on herbal medicines, native plants, invasive species, and ecosystem restoration. Vincent is the co-founder of The Bower Studio and is the lead illustrator for The Bower Studio’s products.
This article is copyright 2023 The Bower Studio.
All images, with the exception of the three pine illustrations at the beginning (all from The North American Sylva by François André Michaux via the New York Public Library) are under copyright and may not be used without written permission from The Bower Studio.