Delighting in conifers – the wonders of pine
Pine trees are well known for their aroma, and provide a wonderful medicinal resource all year round. The buds and leaves or needles are rich in essential oils (particularly pineol). The medicinal effects are primarily antiseptic, astringent, expectorant and anti-inflammatory. The pine family (Pinus species) is a source for preparations frequently used in respiratory complaints such as catarrh, sinusitis and bronchitis.
A worldwide resource
Evergreen pines grow worldwide – in the USA there are many species of conifer that you can use including white pine (Pinus strobus). In Europe you may see smaller species of mountain or stone pine (P. mugo or P. pinea), while in UK and Northern Europe you will find Scots pine (P. sylvestris). Typically pines have leaves that grow in a bundle of 2-5 needles. However, most mature pines that we encounter will be tall trees, so look out for younger ones to harvest side shoots from, or for branches that have fallen due to storm damage. Do not take the main stem of a conifer as it will usually stop the plant from growing, although a few coniferous plants tolerate pruning well.
Harvesting and use
Pines are generally safe to use, though best avoided in pregnancy. All parts of pine species, from the bark to the cones and leaves, will have some essential oil content and activity. Fresh growth is best to use. However, dried material may not keep longer than 12 months or so. Take care to avoid confusing pines with some other conifers such as yew (Taxus baccata) which contains toxic alkaloids. The yew can be recognised by its single separate flat green leaves and red fruits.
Ways to use
Here are a few suggestions for using pine needles:
- Steep a few sprigs of pine in hot water for 10 minutes to make a tea taken in colds and flu, add spices like cinnamon.
- Infuse a handful of the needles in boiling hot water for an inhalation for sinusitis and coughs, taking care with the steam.
- Add a bag of the needles to a bath for aches and pains (if using essential oil of pine you can put 2-4 drops in a bath).
Other coniferous trees and shrubs such as Juniperus or Thuja species are highly resinous but are not ideal for internal use without professional advice. You can find out more about these other conifer species in The Medicinal Forest Garden Handbook.
There are many guides to conifers available online.
One of the best illustrated older booklets about conifers is by Herbert Edlin and is available online free from Forest Research in the UK. The full reference is: