Red Pine – A last salute to Winter

Red PineIt looks like spring is finally here.  I am looking forward to the smell of lilacs and linden blossoms, sitting in the park with my dogs, and not having to put on six layers to step outside. I can’t wait to pick violets, nettles, and garlic mustard. But as excited as I am the reality is that it will still be a while before things start blooming. In the meantime, and as a final salute to this year’s long, hard winter, I am dedicating this post to a new winter favourite –Pinus resinosa (aka Red Pine).

Finding information about Red Pine was somewhat difficult. Its more romantic cousin, the sweeping White Pine, is much more popular in the herbal medicine literature. I am not sure why this is and if anyone does I would love to know (leave a comment or contact us).

Identifying Red Pine

Red Pine BarkSome basics: Red Pine’s bark has a reddish tint to it. Its long squarish needles are in clusters of two, whereas its cousin White Pine has rounder needles in clusters of five.

Although this is a fairly easy plant to identify, I always recommend using 3-5 identification resources and preferably one of those sources being a person. As always, make sure you know 100% before you harvest.

As its Latin name suggest, Red Pine is highly resinous. In fact it is the most resinous evergreen in Ontario. Not to be confused with sap, the resin itself is liquidy but hardens when exposed to air. You will often see it on the outside of the tree where a branch snapped off. The tree uses resin to heal itself. Sometimes you will see chunks of resin that have fallen to the ground. These are ideal to harvest (more on that below).

This resin protects it from fungus and insects, making it a favourite tree for industry which is why you often see Red Pine plantations in neat little rows along the highway. Resin is fairly impervious to water so traditionally red pine resin mixtures were used by First Nations people to line canoes, seal seams, and repair holes.

Red Pine Cones, Pine Nuts, and Pine Pollen

Catkins - male pine cones
Catkins – male pine cones

But before I go on more about the resin, I just want to mention the pine cones. Red Pine cones are a favourite of squirrels and cross bills. They are experts at getting to those delicious pine nuts before we get a chance! But ancient Red Pine has an interesting adaption – every 3-7 years (yup, it’s a big window), Red Pine will produce an abundance of cones, so much in fact that the squirrels and birds can’t keep up and some of those seeds actually have a chance to make it. If you are able to get to those pine nuts before the squirrels do, you are in for a delicious treat!

Ever wake one fine spring morning to find your car covered in yellow pollen?  That’s the pollen from the catkins (the male cones that fertilizes the female pine cones, the pollen is like sperm). After it gets released the male catkins shrivel up. Now I am not suggesting you go around to your neighbours’ cars and start scooping it off, but this pollen is edible and highly nutritious. Apparently, it contains 20 amino acids making it a complete protein. It increases immunity and is anti-inflammatory. And it can raise testosterone levels (there are few natural sources to do this). Externally it been used for eczema and diaper rash.

Pine Resin
This is what I gather from outside the tree (in various stages of fluidity).

The Resin

Now for the best part – the resin! But before you go out there with you axe and a bucket, it is fundamentally important to know that you can do real harm and even kill a tree when gathering its resin. I personally never cut into a tree. I just don’t have enough experience or feel the need to do it. I gather solid and occasionally liquid resin outside the bark or pieces that have fallen on the ground, and suggest that you do too. I also always make sure I leave enough for the tree to continue to protect its wounds. It’s messy, but that is the fun of it. You can clean it off using oil or alcohol, then soap.

For external use, resin can be infused into oils and used in salves (it is fat soluble so it infuses well, but break into smaller pieces first) to massage on achy muscles and joints that are arthritic or very fatigued. It is also good for dullish, gray, “smokers” skin. Apparently it helps stimulate oxygen exchange.

Did anyone notice a few weeks ago on the Walking Dead when one of the children collected some resin to put on Tyreese’s wound? Carol taught them well.

Lizzie and MikaUsing resin externally is very helpful for wounds, especially wounds containing splinters of wood or other foreign objects. The resin draws out impurities and heals the wound. One source I read mentions how it was used in the old days to “draw out bullets from horses”.  For wounds or the next time I have to “draw bullets out of horses,” I definitely would use the liquid resin, or solid resin dissolved in rubbing alcohol or vodka (a liniment).

Internally resin is best used in a high percentage alcohol tincture. It is highly anti-bacterial and can be used in a mouthwash. You can also take it for those deep, old coughs and/or sinus infections where the phlegm just doesn’t seem to be moving (especially if it is green). The resin sticks to the phlegm helping it coagulate and thus cough and/or blow out. Remember that resin is strong medicine, so start with low doses and adjust according to your experience. There is a small amount of resin in the pine needles and you can make a tea out of it if you prefer. The effect won’t be as strong as resin doesn’t extract well in water, but it is still good for those who don’t consume any alcohol.

If you are confused or want to learn more about making teas, infused oils, salves, liniments and more, join us at our next Herbal Medicine Making 101 workshop.

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