There are 49 species of pine native to North America, and roughly 115 species world wide. Nearly all of them can be used as medicine in methods described here.
Leaves (needles), inner bark, resin (sap), pollen
Antiseptic, expectorant, alterative, diuretic.
Lungs, Kidneys, Cardiovascular. Topical disinfectant.
Stimulating, warming, astringent
A Multiuse Medicine near you!
Wherever there are forests, there are pine trees. This readily available medicine seems largely underutilized in modern herbal practice. Yet it lends itself to be an equal substitute for many herbs we rely on which come from a far. From respiratory and topical infections to UTIs, Pine renders itself to be one of the most important herbs to know. If you can't find myrrh, you can substitute with pine pitch. If you can't get juniper berries, you can use pine bark. If you are stuck without your favorite adaptogen try pine pollen. When you're out of thyme, use pine needles. When the global supply chain backs up and you find yourself needing an alternative to your favorite remedies there's probably a pine tree close at hand.
Pine increases circulation to the lungs, clears respiratory congestion, and acts as an alterative to clean up mucky infectious conditions. It's an amazing yet seemingly forgotten resource that once held the highest of historical importance. Pine is refreshing to mental states and can shift emotional distress. Pine is warming and relaxing which encourages us to see the big picture when in a state of tunnel vision, negative though patterns, hopelessness, or narrowmindedness. In the Bach flower remedies, pine is useful for feelings of despondency and despair in those who seem overly quick to perceive fault in their efforts, and never seem content in their own achievements. Physical responses to grief and sadness settle in the lungs resulting in shortened breath. We find that pine, as a tea, can ease feeling of grief by once again expanding the breath.
Pines belong to a family with over 200 species worldwide. Humans have used pines throughout history in a multitude of ways, from famine food to ship masts. Pine pitch has been used as glue to seal boats and close open wounds. Pine bark and pine cones also make a fine tea with powerful antioxidant and cardiovascular tonic properties. Pine wood makes excellent building material, and even the early shoots are edible. Wherever there have been pines and people, the people have depended on the pines to survive.
As one of the tallest trees, pine brings us to great heights, rising awareness, and a fresh view of new ideas that help us to see beyond our immediate perspective. Pine is associated with the Winter Solstice, as the first breath of the new light in the days getting longer. It is said the pine was the original Christmas tree, bringing the clean start of the new sun cycle into the home. The evergreen marking eternal youth and new beginnings. Pine’s height makes connection with the heavens and thus the star on top of the Christmas tree signifies the connection to celestial realms.
In the local bioregion of Nevada County, California we have three common pine species; Ponderosa or Yellow Pine (Pinus ponderosa), Sugar Pine or Foothill Pine (Pinus lambertiana) and the Grey, Ghost or Digger Pine (Pinus sabiniana). One of North America’s most beloved pine species is the Piñon Pine (Pinus edulis) both for its medicinal qualities and its large pine nuts. Piñon pine grows across the Southwest region and is the tree from which common store bought pine nuts come from.
Not all pine trees contain nuts big enough to make the harvest worth the effort. Next to the Piñon pine, Grey Pines (Pinus sabiniana) are sizable nut producers worthy of collection. Ponderosa pine nuts are disappointing to say the least. To collect pine nuts you want brown unopened cones with prickles. Put the unopened female cones near a fire to make them open and release the shell covered seeds. Store your pine nuts with the shells on to prevent rancidity (oxidation), and crack shells only as you are ready to consume them. After you’ve done this a few times the price of store bought pine nuts seems small. Pine nuts are loaded with healthy fats, antioxidants, and are protective from heart disease.
Piñon pine nuts
Pine in various forms is antiseptic, expectorant, antioxidant, antimicrobial, and diuretic. Pine primarily influences the lungs and secondarily acts on the kidneys. It is an ideal remedy for lingering coughs and chronic congestion. Also excellent in treating minor urinary tract infections, as pine contains antimicrobial properties. It can be use both internally as well as externally. Pine trees have recently been studied for their antioxidant, antimutagenic and antitumor properties. Almost all of the tree can be used as medicine or food, including the leaves (needles), bark, pine pitch (sap), pine knots, pine nuts and even the pollen. Compounds found within pine needles and pine bark are the main crude compounds in Tamiflu, the drug used to treat both bird flu and swine flu.
Pine needles have at least double the amount of vitamin C of oranges and lemons, with some species of Pine having 3-4 times more vitamin C. They are also rich in vitamin A and the essential amino acids arginine and proline. Arginine is a source of nitrous oxide, which helps with blood oxygenation, protects the heart and brain and reduces inflammation. Pine needle tea has mild expectorant and diuretic properties. Native Americans knew of the health benefits of pine trees long before these discoveries. Pine needles were made into a tea, especially during the winter months when fresh vegetables were sparse, to keep their people in good health.
The "good health" they maintained was actually preventing a condition called scurvy, which is a deficiency in vitamin C that causes weakness, swollen bleeding gums, poor wound healing and eventually leads to death. Early French and British explorers often died of scurvy due to the lack of fresh vegetables and fruits during their voyages. One of the earliest documented cases of Europeans using the indigenous medicine of North America was in the winter of 1536. The Iroquois people showed French explorer Jacques Cartier how to make a decoction from pine needles and bark. This simple brew cured his crew from scurvy, and he was so impressed by this medicine that he called it the "arbre de vie" or "tree of life." In Sweden, they also make a pine needle tea by steeping young, green pine needles in boiling water called "tallstrunt," which comes from the Swedish word for pine tree ("tall").
Pine needle baths can be used for nervous disorders and rheumatic pain. It is best to harvest the new shoots or young groups of needles found at the tips of branches. Make a decoction of the needles on the stove, and then add it to a warm bath. Pine needles can also be used in cooking, similar to Rosemary.
The inner bark (cambium layer) of Pine is a stronger expectorant than the needles, also very high in vitamins C and A and contains unique antioxidants called oligomeric proanthocyanidins (OPCs). Pine bark has traditionally been used to treat coughs. Native Americans used both pine bark and pine sap in this way. The practice, noted by the ancient Greeks, probably goes back into prehistory in Europe as well. Colonial Americans in the Eastern states often added pine pitch or pine bark to their cough formulas or syrups, a practice most likely learned from the Native Americans.
Folklorist Clarence Meyers had a collection of American remedies, and the recipe for Pine syrup calls for a tea of the inner bark of pine, sweetened with honey and made into a syrup. Pine oils are extremely stimulating, and the bark or sap should never be used on dry, irritable coughs. It should be used in cases of congestion with difficult to expel mucus.
Pine bark poultices for sores appear in the folklore of a number of Native American tribes. Pine sap contains a variety of antimicrobial substances. Strip some bark from the branches of a white pine and boil in water for 20-30 minutes. Scrape the soft inner bark away from the hard outer bark. Make into a poultice, moisten with liquor, and apply to sores 3-4 times a day. Alternately, purchase some White Pine Compound Syrup, a non-prescription item, at a pharmacy. Apply to the sore with a clean cloth 3-4 times a day. Use caution not to irritate the skin with the pine syrup.
The inner bark of the pine is also edible and can be eaten raw, boiled or roasted as a famine food. The dried inner bark can be ground into a powder and used as a substitute for flour in soups, stews and even to make bread with. The core of young roots are edible raw when peeled of the outer bark. The young root bark can be seeped for its sugar content. Adirondack Indians got their name from the Mohawk Indian word atirú:taks, meaning "tree eaters".
Pine bark has recently gained attention of being a powerful antioxidant. In the 1950s, Dr. J. Masquelier read Jacques Cartier's account of the "scurvy cure" from the Iroquois' decoction of pine needles and bark. Profesionally at the time, he was researching a group of substances called flavonols (bioflavonoids) that give fruits and vegetables their colors. Masquelier found that these substances have antioxidant properties. He extracted and isolated OPCs for the first time in peanut skins, and then later from the bark of pine trees from the southern coast of France. Pine bark was a waste product of the timber industry and so he utilized this abundant source of material and extracted concentrated amount of these antioxidant substances. Researchers have termed the group of antioxidants found in pine bark extract oligomeric proanthocyanidins, or OPCs for short. OPCs (also referred to as PCOs) are some of the most powerful antioxidants available. Grape seed extract is also very high in OPCs, as well as Hawthorn berries. Masquelier called his pine bark extract Pycnogenol, and in 1987 he had it trademarked. Pycnogenol® refers to a specific proprietary pine bark extract with proanthrocyanidins from Pinus maritima. In France, pine bark extract and OPCs have been rigorously tested for safety and effectiveness, and pine bark extract is a registered drug. Studies have shown that it is a powerful antioxidant that protect cells from oxidation and free radical damage. It works in synergy with vitamin C to increase its antioxidant activity. Pine bark extract has been shown to be protective of all functions of the heart and also helps repair tissues made of collagen (connective tissue, blood vessels, skin, bone, muscles, tendons, and cartilage).
Pine Pitch (sap)
For a simple and even more powerful expectorant, slowly chew and swallow a soft, currant-sized piece of pine pitch. This will produce a softening of the bronchial mucus and a strong productive cough to help expel it. In the 1400s, people of Iceland took pine sap mixed with honey to ease lung troubles. Pine pitch can also make excellent chewing gum and breath freshener. I have found it useful for tooth and gum infections in this way.
A universal burn remedy among Native Americans of the Eastern forests is pine pitch or pine bark (Pinus spp.). Pine sap contains about 20% alpha-pinene, which has both anti-inflammatory and bactericidal properties. Directions: first place some carrier oil on the burn, such as olive or almond oil. Then spread pine pitch on a cloth then cover the burn with the cloth. Alternately, boil pine bark until it becomes soft enough to mold into a poultice. Cover the burn and hold in place with a cloth.
Greeks have been making retsina for a few thousand years. It was an acquired taste by accident. They stored their white wine in clay containers lined with pine pitch (to keep them from weeping.) The wine took on the subtle flavor of the pitch. To make your own retsina the short way, put a pea-size piece of pine pitch in a bottle of cheap chablis and let set in the refrigerator for a long time.
The pollen of pine trees is traditional superfood. It is rich in androgens that produce testosterone. Androstenedione is an adrenal hormone produced in humans. Reduce androstenedione by one molecule and you have testosterone, which both men and women have in different amounts. Androstenedione can raise testosterone levels. The effect lasts about a day. Native peoples ate pollen right off the tree and also mixed into other foods, flours or pemmican, using it for extra energy when needed.
Pine pollen also seems to have a beneficial effect on the cardiovascular system and helps with enhancing male libido. To collect pine pollen put a sack over the small male cones (the microsporangiate strobili) and shake, if it is the right time of the year, lick the hood of your car. Pine pollen is a large particle, and since it depends on the wind, it can’t travel too far. Bees also collect the pine pollen, and both the pollen directly from the pine tree or in local honey can be used to treat pine pollen allergies.
Harvesting & Collecting
Pines differ from other conifers such as spruce and fir by their needles and cones. Pine needles are in bundles of two or more with a papery sheath surrounding the base of the bundle. Pine cones are woody and stiffer than spruce and fir cones, which tend to be more flexible.
Needles: look for bright green fresh sprigs on the tips of branches. These can be eaten right off the tree. Older needles can be used as well, but will need to be decocted.
Bark: look for lower branches that are fresh and not dried up, or a freshly fallen pine tree. Never collect bark off the main trunk to ensure the tree continues to live.
Pine pitch (sap): look for clumps of amber-colored sap protruding from the main trunk of the tree. Some will be very hard, other will be fresh and gooey. You can harvest both. Just collect what you can break off of the surface, do not dig into the tree bark with any tools. Make sure to have a small glass jar for the fresh pine pitch, as it is very sticky.
Pine needle teas should be drunk in moderation, not large amounts. Not for pregnant or nursing mothers.
Make sure you correctly identify Pine trees, because Yew trees (Taxus spp.) are very poisonous and are also evergreen. You can tell a yew apart from the other cone-bearing trees, in that Yews have flat needles with pointed tips and fleshy red fruits with a single seed in the middle instead of dry cones.
Click the image below for our recipes on how to make Pine Medicines.
Click here to watch my instructional video on how to make White Pine Syrup
Bergner, Paul. Folk Remedies Database. Boulder: Bergner Communications. 2001.
Chevallier, Andrew. Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine. New York: DK Publishing, 2016.
Moore, Michael. Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West. Santa Fe: The Museum of New Mexico Press, 1979.
Weiss MD., Rudolf Fritz. Herbal Medicine. Beaconsfield, England. Beaconsfield Publishers Ltd., 1998.