Wednesday’s Weeds: PINE

Pine (Pinus spp.)

Weed walks and wild herbal foods and medicines are not just activities for the warm months. There are wonderful plants and botanical virtues to be discovered on cold and frosty mornings, too. An easily recognized tree in many areas is the Pine. What is not so readily recognized are its many nutritional benefits and uses.

White Pine (Pinus strobus) is very common in Appalachia where I live. This cone-bearing evergreen has clusters of long, slender needles along the twigs and branches and each bundle contains 5 needles. Pine trees produce both male and female flowers. The latter matures into the familiar dry, woody cones and bears seeds. According to Thomas J. Elpel in his wonderful Botany in a Day, “the female cones briefly become elongated, exposing the ovules to the pollen in the wind. The shape of the cones causes air currents to swirl around them to help catch the pollen. After pollination the scales grow rapidly and again cover the ovules, allowing them to mature into seeds.” Isn’t Nature enchanting?

Tender new (light green) shoots can be stripped of needles, peeled, and boiled in Maple syrup or even a simple sugar syrup to be candied. Save those needles and chop them up to brew into a tea that is rich in vitamins A & C. All parts of the Pine are edible including the seeds if you can manage to collect them before they are fully dry and dispersed. I am going to experiment with this next fall.

 

Just as with human skin, Pine bark shows considerable variation as it ages from smooth and youthful to ridged and aged.

Right now is an excellent time to study the bark of Pine trees, noticing the variations as it ages from young sapling to towering elder. In fact, studying other nearby trees using a good winter time key is a great way to hone identification skills.

My goats love Pine in the winter when there is so little fresh and green for them to eat. I am steeping Pine needles in both extra virgin Olive oil and in apple cider vinegar to compare the results. The inner bark can be dried and ground into a flour although it will have a pine-y flavor. Pine resin has a long history of use for treating sore throats and I can remember my Grandmother using it. As you would expect with a resin, it coats and soothes. However, I have read that it can be stressful to kidneys in excess. This resin has also traditionally been used as a drawing poultice for boils and abscesses.

  

An identifying characteristic of White Pine (Pinus strobus) is that needles are arranged in bundles of five.

According to several of my field guides Pine enriches and improves poor and degraded soils. I think about that when I walk through the Pine-y woods with such thin soil on our rocky mountain top. And I smile gratefully at the variety of young and old Pines gracing the little patch of Earth we call home.

I love the total sensory approach that herbalist Matthew Wood takes to getting know plants. Here, from his book, The Book of Herbal Wisdom: Using Plants as Medicines, he explores the sound facet of Pine:

“Not many plants have distinctive sounds. However, the sound of wind blowing through the tall White Pine has a peculiar relaxing effect, which this plant carries into its medicinal action. Pine is soothing and strengthening to the nerves, at the same time it is an expectorant and antiseptic (it brings up viscid, green, sap-like mucus), and a powerful drawing agent (think of the power it takes to draw that sap up the tall trunk).”

A phenolic extract from pine bark (PEPB) from the species Pinus massoniana has been studied and found to be a stronger antioxidant than either vitamins E or C (90.38% for PEPB compared to 88.61% for vitamin E and 85.68% for vitamin C). In vitro studies have also shown that PEPB inhibits the growth of human breast cancer cells.* Stephen Harrod Buhner in HERBAL ANTIVIRALS: Natural Remedies for Emerging & Resistant Viral Infections, suggests it is also effective for addressing herpes simplex virus 1 and 2, as well.


Pine needle tips with cone forming.

During these closing days of winter, before the blizzard of spring sprouting greens and freshly scented blossoms vie for our attentions, remember to take some time to walk in woods that are dominated by Pine and other evergreens, breathing in the fresh, clean aroma.

In Mother Nature’s Herbal, author Judy Griffin, PhD says that the affirmation of encouragement that Pine offers is the following, which seems perfectly suited to the season:
I bury the past and look forward to the future.

*Yu, Limei, et. al., Antioxidant, immunomodulatory and anti-breast cancer activities of phenolic extract from pine (Pinus massoniana Lamb) bark (abstract).