Winter Tree Medicine

I love working with the evergreens this time of year...they just seem to beckon. That sole greenery on the landscape that reminds me of the verdant abundance to come, and also of the strong medicine these trees have to offer.  I love that even in the dead of winter I can head outside with my harvesting gear and gather these healing herbs for medicine right outside my door.

The Trees

Some of my favorite evergreens to work with are the Pine Family (Pinaceae) members-

  • Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus) NOTE: All the members of the Pinus genus can be used medicinally, but I tend to use this one since it is so common in our aree

  • Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis)*NOT AT ALL related to Poison Hemlock, which is not even a tree!!!*

  • Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea)

  • Spruce (Picea sp)

White Pine and Hemlock are the dominant evergreens in the forests around here- they are everywhere!  Balsam Fir and Spruce are mountain trees and are found at higher elevations (think the Berkshires...) and can be found growing up to treeline.  BUT they grow at our elevation just fine and are often planted as landscape/ ornamental plants; especially common is Norway Spruce (Picea abies), which makes excellent medicine.

Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis).  Note the short, shiny, dark green needles (3/8-5/8 inch long), known for the 2 white lines found on their underside.  The tree bears very small (5/8-3/4 in) cones.  They prefer north-facing slopes and cool, moist ravines and streamsides. 



Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea) is known for its characteristic cones that grow upright on its branches and are blue-green when immature.  Also it is soft to the touch, not spiny- think "friendly fir."  It grows in high elevations, from 1,000ft to timberline in our area.  It smells amazing and makes an incredible elixer that I usually enjoy as a cordial.

Norway Spruce (Picea abies). A non-native spruce planted extensively as a landscape plant in our area....the native spruces (P.mariana and P.rubens) can be found in the higher elevations with the Balsam Firs.  Note the pointed needles- they are very sharp and painful to touch!

Fairly easy to identify from a distance, Norway Spruce (Picea abies) is often the tallest tree around (grows to over 100 ft), has a distinctive pyramid shape, and is known for its branches that droop strongly downward and are often described as "pendulous."  The cones are often visible as well and are large- 4-6 inches long.

The Medicine

Warming and mildy stimulating/energizing in nature, the Pine Family evergreens make wonderful wintertime medicine.   They are excellent additions to the tea pot, especially when combined with other warming aromatic herbs, such as orange peel and ginger. Also delicious with mints, and all the flavinoid-rich berries too!- Hawthorn, Rose Hips and Elderberry, yum!  Known for their affinity for the lungs and respiratory ailments, they are often used for coughs that are cold, wet and damp in nature.  The needles of Pine Family trees are all very high in vitamin c, which supports proper immune function and helps prevent colds and flus from taking hold.   Use these trees to make teas, steams, infused oils, essential oils, vinegars, honeys, elixers, syrups, salves, smudges and more!  They are extremely versatile and I consider them to be a lovely and very ecologically sustainable winter immune tonic, safe for daily use.  

When we use the local plants growing abundantly around us I believe we begin to attune to and harmonize with our local landscape, ecosystem and its rhythms.  In other words we're more in tune with the Earth and her subtleties, seasonal shifts and more....use the pine family evergreens to help achieve this balance and harmony so many of us crave!


It's so easy to harvest and dry these trees.  If I'm using these fresh (say for an infused oil) I usually use the needles and very young, thin twigs, bark, wood and all.  If I am going to dry them, I am typically going for the needles.  Always cut branches just above points of new growth.  I usually harvest into a brown paper bag and let them dry right in house tends to be dry in the winter and they will be completely dry in about a week if not sooner.  From there simply rub you hands along the branches (use gloves if it's spruce!) and they will fall right off.  Separate from the twigs, put in a glass jar and keep them out of direct sun.  They will be good for years.

Favorite Evergreen Tea Recipe

Equal parts:
Evergreen Needles (Choose from White Pine, Eastern Hemlock, Balsam Fir or Spruce- my favorite is Hemlock)
Hawthorn Berries (Crataegus sp)
Spearmint (Mentha spicata)

Combine in equal parts.  Use 1 tsp: 1 cup water.  Let infuse, covered for 5-10 minutes.. Enjoy! It is soooooo delicious.  Great for colds and flus, nice as an evening digestive tea and comforting in its "woodsy-ness"- tastes like the forest!

Although I love them all, lets go into some detail on White Pine, extremely abundant in our area and an absolute favorite of mine!

Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus)

     Distinctive Features: Our tallest tree in the northeast, it can reach over 150 ft in height.  5 slender needles/ bundle. Bark is gray and smooth when young, becoming rough, thick and deeply furrowed with age. Cones are long (4-8” long) with a long stalk. Open, spreading form.  Entire tree has an upward-growing, almost "plumey" form to it.
      Habitat: Very tolerant of a wide-range of soils. Early successional species- often grows in old fields. Can be found in dry sandy soil and also in wet, moist soil as well. More of a lowland tree and usually not found above 2000 ft. Along with hemlock, the most common evergreen in our local woods. 
       Medicinal Use: The needles, young twigs with needles, and sap/ pitch are used medicinally. It is an excellent respiratory herb and has an affinity for all bronchial/ respiratory troubles.  An expectorant, it helps thin and expel excess mucous from the lungs.  The young twigs and needles are most commonly used for this, taken as a tea.  Its energetics are warm, so it is often used to help break-up cold, wet coughs.  It was used extensively by the Eclectic Physicians of last century and the famous "White Pine Compound Syrup" for deep wet coughs included Wild Cherry Bark (Prunus serotina), Spikenard Rt (Aralia racemosa), Balm of Gilead buds (Populus sp including Aspen and Cottonwood), Bloodroot(Sanguinaria canadensis) and Sassafrass Rt (Sassafrass albidum)   Taken as a tea, it is a mild digestive aid and tastes delicious and distinctively“pine-ey”.  Drink a cup before or after meals to aid nutrient absorption and prevent digestive upset.  The needles are very high in vitamin c, and some sources claim it to have 5 times as much as oranges, by volume! This makes it an excellent addition to a cold and flu tea to help prevent and move along sickness. The pitch is highly anti-septic and a vulnerary (helps heal wounds) and can be put right on a cut or made into a salve for easier application.  The pitch can also be chewed for sore throats and also an immune-boosting tonic. Lastly, the warm pitch has powerful drawing powers, and can be applied to a stubborn splinter to help draw it out!   
      Preparations: Tea, Salve, Smudge, Incense, Honey, Elixer, Infused Oil, Cordial, Ghee, Syrup, Vinegar, Bath Salt/Scrub, Essential Oil, Steam

White Pine (Pinus strobus). Note the 5 needles per bundle!

White Pine (Pinus strobus). Note the 5 needles per bundle!

White Pine  (Pinus strobus)  harvest

White Pine (Pinus strobus) harvest

White Pine cone. Usually 4-8 inches long. They can be a good source of resin if you are willing to chip off the tips of the cones' scales!

White Pine cone. Usually 4-8 inches long. They can be a good source of resin if you are willing to chip off the tips of the cones' scales!

White Pine Salve Recipe

Infused Oil of White Pine (Pinus strobus)
Beeswax , grated (Use ½-3/4  tsp beeswax: 1 oz of oil)

Uses:  Apply to any cleaned cut, scrape, or skin irritation for speedy healing.  Especially excellent for splinters.  Add a few drops of essential oil and use as a chest rub.  Makes a delicious perfume.  Useful as a liniment for sore and aching muscles.  Warming and mildly stimulating to circulation.  Also very softening to the skin and is great for dry, chapped hands and sensitive skin in the winter- I love to use it as a moisturizer!

To Make:

STEP 1: Harvest
First, go out and harvest your pine. I use the tips of the branches- needles, bark, wood and all- and use branches about half the diameter of a pencil and smaller.  Most of the resin is in the cambium (inner layer of the bark) and this is the easiest way to extract it. 

STEP 2: Make your Infused Oil
To make your infused oil put your pine boughs in a pot (you can chop them up if you wish and garden clippers work great for this), or double boiler if you have one, and cover with grapeseed oil.  Heat very gently for 1-2 hours until your plant material seems "spent" and has lost its color. The oil will turn light green and take on the delicious caramel-like smell of the pine.  Be careful not to let your oil come to a boil, you just want little bubbles gently rising to the surface.  If you don't have a double-boiler and are using a pot even your smallest burner might heat it too much. If this is true for you, simply stack up a few of the burners and put your pot on top.  Be sure to criss-cross the burners for maximum stability and safety!

STEP 3: Strain
After your infused oil has cooled sufficiently strain it through cheesecloth or muslin.

STEP 4:  Add your beeswax
Measure out you oil in a glass pyrex cup.  For every ounce of oil you have add about ½ to ¾ tsp of grated beeswax (depending on desired firmness) to the oil.  Put the oil and beeswax together back in your pot and very gently heat and stir until it has completely melted.  Remove from heat.

STEP 5:  Pour it out!
This is it, you’re done!  Simply pour into your desired container (glass or metal as plastic will melt) and let cool. It's that easy! For a softer salve add less oil, for a harder one add more. A good test for consistency is to dip a spoon into the mixture and stick it in the freezer for a few minutes and then check the consistency.

This is a very basic recipe, from here let your imagination run wild and experiment! Some other additions might include Vitamin E Oil, Shea Butter, Cocoa Butter, Mango Butter, Coconut Oil, Honey, Essential Oils and more! The “butters”- shea, cocoa and mango- maybe be added at a ratio of .5 oz per 8 oz oil.  Essential oils may be added at a basic ratio of 5-10 drops essential oil to one cup of infused oil. Salves have about a 1 year shelf life and do not need to be refrigerated.  



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