White Pine (Pinus strobus) is one of my first and dearest plant allies, and extremely abundant here in the Northeast. My hope is that the monograph on it below will encourage you all to get to know this fantastic bioregional herb and incorporate it into your herbal repertoire! Read on for a full description of this plant, harvest methods, medicinal uses and a recipe for White Pine Cough Syrup. Enjoy!
Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus)
Part Used: Needles, Resin/ Sap/ Pitch, Inner Bark. I prefer to work with the needles and thin twigs together, as pictured
Habitat: Very widespread in Massachusetts and New England. Woodlands, forest edges, yards, parks, old meadows. Found all along the Eastern seaboard from New Brunswick to northern Georgia, east to the Great Lakes region and Appalachians.
Cultivation: No need to cultivate this one- it’s very abundant!
Description: An evergreen and the tallest tree in the Northeast, they can reach at least 180ft in height. Their long, slender needles (2-5 inches long) grow in bundles of 5 needles....a good mnemonic device for ID is there are 5 letters in the word "white" and 5 needles per bundle. They grow pine cones that can be quite large-4-7 inches long- and are often covered in resin. Bark is light brown and heavily grooved in older specimens and smooth and brownish-grey in younger trees. They commonly reach 200 years in age and can grow to be over 450 years old.
Herbal Ecology: White pines are the characteristic “old field” species in New England and are known to form even-aged stands in open areas that are left to return to forest. If you see an even-aged stand of white pine there is a good chance that in the distant past that area used to be pasture- a neat plant for “reading the landscape”. It is tolerant of virtually every soil type in New England from wet and boggy to dry and sandy, and frequently establishes itself after all manner of disturbance. The older trees are moderately fire resistant due to their thick bark.
Collection: The needles can be collected anytime they are green, which is pretty much all year, including winter. In the fall they do lose some needles- some turn yellow and fall, while others stay green and intact- it is best to wait until after this fall shedding to collect. The needles, as well as thin twigs may be harvested together (see pic above). Harvest the tips of the branches. Even better, collect dropped branches from the forest floor after a storm for the most sustainable harvest.
Taste: slightly Sweet, slightly Bitter, Sour (needles)
Energetics: Warm, Dry
Constituents: Vit C (needles), many different acids in needles, essential oils (including terpenes, monoterpenes, sesqueterpenes), resin, starch (and more....)
Herbal Actions: Expectorant, circulatory stimulant, mild diuretic, pectoral, immune stimulant
Medicinal Uses: Specific for respiratory and bronchial complaints, especially when wet and cold in nature. A tea of the needles, or the needles with thin twigs included, is helpful to promote expectoration and removal and thinning of mucous from the lungs. Use for coughs, colds, bronchitis, laryngitis, croup. Warning- White Pine can be quite stimulating to coughs, so if the cough is dry and spasming in nature it can exacerbate these symptoms. It's best in this case to combine with more moistening and/or anti-spasmodic herbs in this case (see White Pine Cough Syrup recipe below for a balanced recipe). The needles are widely known to be extremely high in Vitamin C and are a great addition to a tea for the common cold or as a winter immunity tea. Once used to treat scurvy! They are actually reported to be 5x as high as oranges, per volume, in Vitamin C! A deficiency of Vitamin C can also negatively impact the adrenals, as well as the integrity of tissues in the body, and one way I've worked with White Pine in my practice is as a bioregionally abundant and inexpensive source of Vitamin C, especially when combined with Rose Hips. Our locally bioregional species of Rose in Rosa multiflora. Of course Vitamin C is heat sensitive, but it is so abundant in both these plants that steeping in hot water as a tea still provides a great source of this vitamin. The needles and twigs also make for a fabulous steam for congestion in the lungs. The inner bark is the part that was offical to the Electics (the Herbal doctors of the late 1800's and early 1900's). and is very useful as an expectorant as well and can be decocted and sweetened with honey- best used after the infectious, feverish stage of a sickness has passed. An old Eclectic recipe from Squibbs Materia Medica c. 1906 for a cough syrup combines the inner bark of White Pine with wild cherry bark (Prunus serotina), Spikenard Rt (Aralia racemosa), Balm of Gilead buds (Populus sp including Aspen and Cottonwood), Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) , Sassafrass Rt (Sassafrass albidum) and chloroform and morphine sulfate! The pea-sized piece of the pitch can also be chewed to promote expectoration. It is also a gently warming circulatory stimulant and I love making bath salts with white pine for a warming winter bath, and also for general aches and pains. It is invigorating and enlivening in nature, and the ample essential oils are quite immune-activating too. You can add oil to the bath salts to make it into a salt scrub, which can be very immune-boosting, as it stimulates lymph flow. To support you lymph, take a palm-sized amount of the scrub and always massage towards the heart. Salt is of course quite detoxifying too. And the oil moistens our skin- our biggest organ of elimination and the biggest protector of our body- so giving it some medicinal, non-toxic love is always a good thing too! The sap has a whole host of topical applications including splinters, sores, boils, sore muscles and rheumatism, cuts and swellings and is sometimes mixed with butter or fat for this. To remove woody debris and bark from collected pitch, gently heat on low and strain. Sap dissolves readily into warmed oils to be added to salves. It contains “abietic resins” which stimulate topical circulation, inflammatory response and the “foreign body response”- meaning pus and fluids will build up much more quickly on a wound that is dressed with pine pitch. BUT the other side of the coin is that one moves through the healing process much faster and avoids infection. It's quite important to note that the Eclectics learned of the medicinal properties of this North American plant from indigenous peoples, including the Algonquin, Chippewa, Ojibwe, and likely many more.
Preparation: Infusion, Infused Oil, Perfume, Steam, Bath Salt/Scrub, Honey, Salve, Chest Rub, Poultice (pitch), Decoction, Syrup, as flavoring for foods
Dosage: Infusion- 1 tsp: 1 cup water, drink freely. Apply salve and oil topically freely as needed. Steam- daily as needed. Syrup- 3-4 tbsp/day when acute. Honey-added to teas, drink freely. Enjoy freely in foods
Contraindications: Avoid tea in HIGH doses if pregnant (due to high Vit C content)
White Pine Cough Syrup
White Pine needles and twigs (Pinus strobus)- 1 part
Mullein lf (Verbascum thapsus)- 1/2 part
Wild Cherry (Prunus serotina)- 1/2 part
Anise Seed (Pimpinella anisum)- 1/4 part
Rose Hips (Rosa multifora, Rosa spp)- 1/4 part
A few other herbs I sometimes add: Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), Lemon Verbena (Aloysia citrodora), Fir boughs (Abies spp), Eastern Hemlock needles and twigs (Tsuga canadensis)
Add your herbs to a pot. 1 part can be whatever you want- 1 tbsp, 1 cup, etc. Cover the herbs with about 2 inches of water and simmer on low to make a decoction. I keep a lid on it, but use a lid with a small hole in it for some steam to escape. Simmer for about an hour, until the water reduces to just covering the herbs. Then remove from heat and let the herbs continue to steep until the decoction cools. Next, strain it and for every cup of the decoction add 1/2 cup raw honey, and that's it! It's important not to heat the raw honey to a boil, but it is ok to warm it all gently to get the honey to mix. Putting it in a mason jar and then capping it and shaking vigorously is another great way to mix the honey in. An adult dose of this could be 1 tbsp every hour until cough improves- in order for herbs to work in acute conditions you often have to use lots! For kids a tsp (mixed in elderberry syrup if they don't like the flavor) 3x/day will suffice. This will likely last 1-2 weeks but we always use it up before it goes bad. You could also freeze the decoction and thaw and add the honey as needed!
If you're interested in learning more about locally abundant plants, the 2018 From the Roots Up Apprenticeship & Class Series in bioregional herbalism is OPEN for registration! Classes start in April with options for a full 8 month apprenticeship and seasonal 3-class series.