If you are reading this Edible magazine in Southwest Colorado, you’re likely within walking distance of a pine tree. Imagine walking to that tree, standing beneath its boughs, and plucking a few needles from its sappy embrace. Crush those needles with your fingers, snapping a few. Raise your hand to your face, close your eyes, and inhale. How does it smell? Perhaps even the imagined scent of pine uplifts your spirits and conjures warm memories. Are you smiling just a little?
For all their commonness, pines offer a unique sense of well-being, protection, and nourishment. The power of the pine extends beyond our winter holidays and forest walks. It can be savored in food, drink, and medicine all year round.
The term “pine tree” is widely thrown at all evergreen needle-bearing trees, where “conifer” would be more accurate. Pine is technically a common name for those in the genus Pinus, like our piñon, ponderosa, limber, and lodgepole pines. Here, I will use “conifer” to refer to all trees in the Pinaceae family, which includes our Douglas, white, and subalpine firs, and Engelmann and blue spruces. Though each species has its own taste, aroma, and character, the needles of any of these species can be used interchangeably in the following recipes.
In early spring, these conifers produce fresh shoots, light green and supple needles forming at the tip of each branch. The shoots are edible raw, and are a small explosion of astringent, citrusy flavor with a hint of vitamin C. You can use them as a culinary spice, substituting for lemon in your recipes.
Medicinally, conifers bring heat and movement to our bodies. Think of the way their smell animates your senses and invigorates your resolve. They act much the same way on our circulatory and respiratory systems. When taken internally or used topically, the needles are very warming and stimulating. That makes them suitable for chronic, stagnant conditions, like that lingering cough you’ve harbored since winter, or sore muscles.
Ingesting them in the form of a tea or tincture stimulates the immune system and employs their anti-microbial properties, helping to tame a cold or flu. They’re one of the strongest expectorants I can think of, not so gently turning a weak cough into a productive one. In times when mucus has been stubbornly stuck in my head, I’ve gotten things moving by combining conifer needles with sage leaves in an herbal steam.
Pine needles motivate the flow of blood in a similar way. I take advantage of this trait by using conifer oil on chronically sore muscles. Increased circulation and soothing warmth bring relief to the painful site.
The pine tree’s gifts don’t stop at the needles. The resins of the piñon and Ponderosa offer all of the same medicinal qualities mentioned above, and can be made into tinctures, oils, and salves that act even stronger than preparations of the needles.
If you’ve ever buried your face in the bark of the Ponderosa tree and drawn in its butterscotch-like scent, then you can guess why its sweet and juicy inner cambium was harvested and eaten by Native Americans. The particularly long needles of the same tree can be woven into baskets.
Next time your steps tread on pine duff, or you turn your gaze to a sky full of needled limbs, pause and give thanks for a tree which graces us so generously. (See recipes)