There are few things in this world as centering and calming to me as walking through a grove of conifers in winter. The soft crunch of snow, the quiet chirping of little birds, winds sighing through needles, and of course, the scent of the evergreen, resinous trees themselves. It's always warmer there, sheltered under those big protective boughs. You might come across a few deer resting near the base of a tree, or a rabbit scavenging for a bit of green under the snow. Even in the deepest heart of winter, there's a lot going on, a lot of little lives unfolding beneath the evergreens.
If you live close to a forested area, odds are there are pines, junipers, cedars or firs nearby. The kind of evergreen I use the most and will mainly focus on here is Eastern White Pine, Pinus strobus, which has a gentle and safe but effective medicine. This tree is easy to identify; it has long needles in bunches of five.
Although most species of pine (and conifers in general) are safe for consumption, always make sure to verify what exactly you are working with before using it to make sure it's safe (and I'd encourage you to make sure you know how to identify and avoid Yew, which is common in some areas and is poisonous).
When people think of pine trees, they probably don't generally think of them as food or medicine. But, especially to the forlorn forager wandering the barren winter landscape, they hold a treasure trove of useful remedies. Virtually all parts of the tree are beneficial if you know how to use them.
If you want to impress your friends and draw the worried gaze of strangers, try chewing on a few pine needles the next time you're out on a walk. The first thing you'll notice is that your mouth puckers up and dries out - this is the strong astringency and high vitamin C content in the needles. Admittedly, they may be an acquired taste...
But, that astringency and vitamin C is what makes pine needle tea an excellent remedy for drippy noses and wet, persistent coughs - it will help to dry you up, and the antibacterial constituents will fight the infection or virus that's making you ill.
Even when you aren't sick, pine needle tea is a lovely, warming thing to drink in the winter. Just breathing in the delicious steam brings your mind back to the forest and can snap you out of a bad mood. Side note: if you have a Fir or Spruce nearby, those needles make an equally delicious brew with similar medicinal qualities. To make the pine needle tea, simply steep a handful of needles for 5-10 minutes, then strain and enjoy.
Another way to use pine needles, which I learned at the feet of the great herbalist and wise woman Susan Weed (in fact much of what I learned about pines, and trees in general, I learned from her), is to make a vinegar from them. To do this, simply fill a jar with fresh needles and cover with apple cider vinegar. Let them infuse for six weeks, then strain. The result is a delicious vinegar that tastes very similar to balsamic, or really like balsamic's wild, enigmatic cousin from the mountains. Try it and you'll see what I mean.
I also like to infuse the needles, usually along with the resin, in oil. I then add it to my Ancient Pines Healing Winter Salve, or use it straight from the bottle as a warming, soothing massage oil that's excellent for relieving back and joint pain.
The first thing to know about resin (aka sap or pitch) is that it's tricky to collect. When I was hiking in Maine earlier this year, I came across a big fall of resinous, super sticky cones from a Pinus rigida, or Pitch Pine (which has a similar but much harsher flavor and scent than White Pine). Blinded by joy and without a thought for my future self, I collected them with bare hands and put them in all the pockets of my pack like a greedy squirrel. For the rest of the day, I paid the price with sticky hands. And trekking poles. And basically everything else I touched. (Pro-tip: olive oil and/or peanut butter is awesome for removing pine sap. Learn from my errors, friends.)
But, the pine cones were worth the trouble. I brought them home and covered them in sweet almond oil to draw out the resin, which I then used to make my Northwoods Pine lip balm and also added to this year's pine salve. Resin is antibacterial and therefore wonderful for healing wounds when applied topically. Internally, it helps to bring up mucous from the lungs and clear infection. (To take it internally, you can make a tincture by covering the resin in a high-proof alcohol, such as Everclear, and allowing it to sit for a few weeks time until the resin has dissolved.)
If you don't run into any resinous cones, you can usually collect some directly from the bole of the tree by scraping a little bit of it up. Just be careful not to take too much, and try to take the drippings that run down the bark rather than from the source of the resin, as that resin is the tree's way of healing its own wound and sealing itself off from infection.
The inner bark of the pine tree has similar qualities to the pitch and needles; for this reason, I have to admit that I have not personally used pine bark as medicine. Collecting it can be difficult, as taking too much can injure the tree, and stripping the bark from the ends of twigs can be very intensive. But, that said, the decoction of the inner bark is antimicrobial and astringent, and makes a very strong remedy for deep coughs and lung infections.
So, why not take a little time to get to know the pines in your area? Get outside and walk under snowy branches. Chew some needles, make a tea or salve, and enjoy the winter magic of the evergreens.
- Susan Weed, Pine Keeps You Fine
- Personal conversations with Susan Weed