The last place I lived, a few houses up the street, there was a towering white pine right next to my bedroom. At least once a year during my four year residency there, heavy snow or a violent wind snapped off branches major and minor, sprinkling that swath of yard with needles. I frequently made medicine with the windfalls, mostly tea and infused vinegar.
Once the news of COVID spreading in the U.S. bloomed a worry that it could indeed touch the lives of my loved ones and myself, I quickly made up a few batches of white pine cough syrup---really an oxymel: white pine vinegar made viscous and palatable with raw honey. White pine vinegar has pulled me out from some bad stretches of respiratory illness, the medicine that marked a turning point, so my trust for this tree’s medicine is, well, evergreen.
Fortunately, no one I’ve distributed the cough syrup to has found a need for it yet, but I feel so much better knowing white pine has my back (or my really lungs) and is standing by for the people I love.
One of the most common trees in Massachusetts, Pinus strobus has a long history of helping people who make homes or pass through these woods in winter. Pine bark and needles, aside from offering potent medicine for easier breathing, are generously endowed with vitamin C, a scarce nutrient right now in these snow fleeced lands (32 mg in the needles, bark 200 mg).
There are tales that the Iroquois in Stadaconna (what is now also called Quebec city) helped a French sea captain and his desperate crew on the brink of death from scurvy with a tea made from bark and leaves of a conifer tree, “Annedda.” The sailors made a dramatic recovery, evidenced by this effusive account,
When this became known, there was such a press for the medicine that they almost killed each other to have it first; so that in less than eight days a whole tree as large and as tall as any I ever saw was used up, and produced such a result that had all the doctors of Louvain and Montpellier been there, with all the drugs of Alexandria, they could not have done so much in a year as did this tree in eight days; for it benefitted us so much that all who were willing to use it recovered health and strength. source
Though the exact identity of the plant brew is debatable from the colonist’s record, there’s strong reason to believe it could have been a decoction of white pine--though other candidates such as eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) or balsam fir (Abies balsamea (L.) or black spruce (Picea mariana)--with similar medicinal uses and descriptions are on the table. The crew members that lived to tell the story reverently referred to this game changing flora as the “tree of life.” Interestingly, just as the exact tree is a mystery, how this tree heals is an expanding, unsettled file.
Some postulate that the vitamin C content alone cured the sailors. Yet more recent insights reveal that the magic of white pine shan’t be minimized or reduced. Flavonoids like proanthocyanidins (also found in cranberries and blueberries) are present in the needles and bark not only offering their own powerful antioxidant effects (outpacing vitamin E) but bolstering the ability of vitamin C to do its job for longer in the body. An interesting paper, the source material for much of the above, hypothesizes that it’s also the arginine content (an amino acid) in these various conifer species, that might help mitigate the corrosive effects of scurvy, rebuilding collagen tissues.
I enjoy collecting fallen branches, tossing both twigs and needles into a jar and covering with water, leaving the brew to infuse overnight. This no heat method yields a light flavored tea with a hearty dose of the piney goods. You can also do hot water extracts (this may dampen some of the vitamin C content) for a different flavor profile and medicine---gently simmer the material or steep in hot water. I learned to make white pine vinegar from Susun Weed, who pronounces it tastes like balsamic vinegar.
Yesterday I spied a bunny munching on our former Christmas tree. The tiny tree, a white pine, took a nose dive in a snow pile, stand attached as if suspended in joy-making duty, but clearly onto other tricks. The pine was now an edible habitat, the perfect oasis for a bunny in winter.
I grappled with opening the door to grab a snapshot of this xmas "upcycling" moment but feared I’d disturb the peace. I left the bunny blissed on the lemony snap of pine needles, safely disguised. Instead I paparazzied the bunny through the screen door and you’re seeing it now here, first.
Want to be like this bunny and find out how you too can lean on tree medicine in winter? Jade Alicandro Mace has a great article on working with conifer medicine, and another specifically on white pine check it out!
Carly lives and eats from a hilltop in Cummington, Massachsuetts and part time in Schenectady, NY.