by Dr. Richard Vuksinic, ND
As you take down the ornaments and drag the Christmas tree to the curb, ever wonder what to do with that pile of pine needles left behind in your living room? You could sweep them up and toss them in the garbage. Or, you could grab a handful and toss them in a pot to simmer for a few minutes. Combined with a dollop of honey, this tea makes a great stimulating expectorant, helping clear that congested cough that you might have picked up over the holidays. It tastes pretty amazing too; tart, slightly bitter, and if you dump enough honey in there, it kinda tastes like candy.
The Pinus genus, of which there are over 124 species, is a wonderfully beloved tree; so much so, that many of us invite one into our homes every Christmas. However, it looks even more beautiful alive in nature, covered in snow after a big winter storm, for example. It also smells amazing on a hot, dry summer hike in the mountains. Aside from these qualities, and its knotty appeal as lumber, or its sacrifice as a holiday tree, the pine is a beautiful, bountiful medicine. Traditionally, the needles, bark, resin and pollen have all been used to promote health and resilience. Let’s imagine some ways that we can work with this amazing tree…
PINE NEEDLE TEA
Imagine it is the 1800’s and you have travelled to the “New World” on a ship. You haven’t seen fruit and vegetables in months. The scurvy has kicked into high gear. You land ashore, holding your teeth in your hands. A local gives you a gourd full of aromatic, sour tasting tea. Scurvy cured. Pine needles contain more vitamin C, per pound than oranges (2)!
Next, imagine that you have spent the holidays over-socializing, consuming excessive amounts of sugar, cheese and beer, while staying up late watching Netflix until 2am every night. Surprisingly, you are run down and now have a sinus infection and a wet cough. Not to worry, you have a pile of pine needles under your Christmas tree! Make tea!
Pine needles are known for their efficacy in treating this kind of acute condition. In fact, pine needle oil is approved by the *German Commission E for treating coughs, chronic bronchitis, and other irritations or infections of the respiratory tract. You can release some of these pine oils by making a decoction (simmering pines needles for 4-6 minutes). This will also help to extract their resinous and pungent qualities (2). By releasing these qualities, pine needle tea can break down mucus and help to get rid of it. Commission E recognizes pine to have antiseptic properties and can help to break up mucus secretions in the upper and lower respiratory tract. To get the full effect, be sure to inhale the steam as you drink. Keep in mind that the strength (bitterness) of this tea depends on how fresh the needles are, and how long you simmer them for. I generally use about 1 tsp per cup of water, adding raw honey to taste. Dry needles from your tree, simmered for 3-4 minutes make a nice mild tea. I add honey and often a sprig or two of lavender and a 1/4 tsp of camomile flower and steep for 2 minutes. This makes for a nice mild tea that the kids love! This tea is also great for sore throats.
PINE RESIN SALVE
Imagine that you have been snowshoeing in 3 feet of snow all day. By the end of the day you are cold, soaked and sore. Luckily for you, you harvested some pine resin along your path (It is best to harvest resin in the winter, when it is frozen and brittle; less sticky and easier to handle).
Due to its warming and stimulating qualities, German Commission E has approved pine resin products as a soothing and warming rub for muscle soreness and stiffness, arthritis, and neuralgia (3). Resin is oil-soluable and works well in oil based salves (5). It can be blended with beeswax and oils (such as coconut oil, olive oil, or bear fat) and used as a transdermal medicine (absorbed by the skin while imparting local, medicinal action).
Next, imagine it is the tail end of the holiday season. All of that sugar, cheese and beer you have enjoyed has caused your eczema to flare up like a yule tide log. It is so itchy that you have scratched it to the point of bleeding. You suspect it might be infected. No worries, you have plenty of pine resin salve kicking around. Pine resin’s antimicrobial properties are both antibacterial and anti fungal (6). This makes pine resin salve a great topical application to help stave off infection in cuts, scrapes and wounds.
If you have a pine pollen allergy, you may want to avoid using pine products in general.
So, before tossing that Christmas tree to the curb, put aside some of those needles, or that resin that has stuck to your hands. It makes good medicine!
*German Commission E is the equivalent of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)), formed in 1978. The commission gives scientific expertise for the approval of substances and products previously used in traditional, folk and herbal medicine.
1) Gayle Engels, Laura Oeschle. Pine Pinus spp. Family: Pinaceae
HerbalGram , Issue 65, 2005.
2) de la Foret, Rosalee. Pine: Monograph. HerbMentor. Accessed January 6, 2018, https://herbmentor.learningherbs.com/herb/pine/
3) Blumenthal M, Busse WR, Goldberg A, Gruenwald J, Hall T, Riggins CW, Rister RS, editors. Klein S, Rister RS, translators. The Complete German Commission E Monographs-Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines. Austin, TX: American Botanical Council; Boston: Integrative Medicine Communication; 1998.
4) Swift, Katja. “Foraging for Pine Resin.” AromaCulture, December 1, 2017. Accessed Jan 6, 2018. https://www.aromaculture.com/. ?
5) Metzger, Jane. How To Make Pine Resin Salve. Herbal Academy, April 28, 2017
Accessed January 6, 2018.
6) Vilanova, C., Marín, M., Baixeras, J., Latorre, A., Porcar, M. (2014). Selecting microbial strains from pine tree resin: Biotechnological applications from a rerpene world. PLoS ONE 9(6): e100740. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0100740