Eastern white pine
Family: Pinaceae, the Pine Family
Description: Native evergreen tree up to 40m tall. Leaves needle-like in groups of 5 (try spelling “W-H-I-T-E” on each needle in several clusters to ensure that there are in fact 5—or try “M-A-I-N-E,” as white pine is our state tree!) Seed cones are longer than they are wide, up to 20cm long.
Habitat: Forests, fields, dry or wet sandy soils
Plant Parts Used: All
Food: Tea, pollen rich in protein
Medicine: Vitamin C, pain-killing, splinters, wounds, lung infections, stimulating, antiseptic, colds, congestion, flu, fevers, coughs, expectorant
White pine is an easy to identify tree so common and famous in Maine, it is our state tree. This tall tree’s lighter green, long, soft needles make it easy to identify from a distance. White pine has played a significant role in the history of the northeast due to its building potential, but it also has a variety of other important uses. Patti, Sue, Deb, and John all remarked on white pine’s healing properties—especially used as a salve or vitamin-C rich tea. Sue told me that white pine needles contain shikimic acid which is the active ingredient in Tamiflu, a current flu medication. This acid is released by simmering the needles.
Ray uses pine tar, which he makes by cooking the bark with olive oil slowly for many hours, for patching canoes and sealing baskets. John also mentioned the importance of white pine for building canoes.Ray makes a white pine salve using beeswax and olive oil, which he uses for drawing out deep splinters. He told me that white pine makes a stronger salve than the other evergreens in this area. He treated one woman with a deep splinter with his pine salve which she applied before going to bed, and when she woke up, the splinter was out. Pine salves were traditionally made using bear fat, “the pine did the work, but the bear knew where to take it,” but now Ray uses olive oil and beeswax because he believes black bears are overhunted in Maine. An acquaintance of his had a broken shoulder that was extremely painful and the medication she was on was not working, so he had her massage her shoulder daily with a thick layer of pine salve and within two weeks the pain disappeared. Ray has even used the pine salve for herniated disks. John generously shared with me a Native American recipe from 1870, which was handed down to him by his grandmother: “Melt together beeswax, white pine pitch, and sweet oil. Let cool and use on sores, burns, and cuts.” Practiced salve-makers rarely measure the ingredients because they simply develop a feel for the necessary quantities.
Sue told me that a tea made of the needles or the inner bark treats lung infections taken either as a steam inhalation or drunk as a beverage. Deb said the needle tea is helpful if taken at the onset of a cold, flu, or fever. A steam of white pine and balsam fir can be relieving for congestion. This is a practice the Iroquois have employed as well—especially for relieving head colds. Deb strips the bark from branches in May and uses it as a cough syrup by cooking the bark down and adding a sweetener. She says the bark is a good expectorant for relieving deep lung congestion and pulling mucus from deep within—especially if taken as a syrup, tea, or tincture. She said even chewing the pitch like gum can help relieve respiratory infection. Ray also said that pine, spruce, and fir pollen contains “a huge dose of protein.” He adds it to oatmeal or cereal.
White pine is another popularly used plant by Native Americans across North America, primarily for cold and flu symptoms and healing skin problems. The Algonquin applied a plaster of the inner bark to the chest to help relieve strong colds. The Abnaki and Iroquois would take a decoction of the bark for coughs. Mi’kmaqs used the inner and outer bark and leaves for treating scurvy.
Note: This post is part of my Plants and People series. See my Plants and People page for more information about the project and the people referenced in this post.
- Brooks, John. Personal Interview. 28 Nov. 2010.
- Chilton, Patti. Telephone interview. 31 Oct. 2010.
- Michener, Martin C. Botany Everywhere: Woods, Field, Home, and Garden Plants of NE USA, Third Edition. Hollis, NH: MIST Software Associates, Inc., 2009. PDF.
- Mittelhauser, Glen H., Linda L. Gregory, Sally C. Rooney, and Jill E. Weber. The Plants of Acadia National Park. Orono, Me.: University of Maine, 2010. Print.
- Moerman, Daniel. “Native American Ethnobotany: A Database of Foods, Drugs, Dyes and Fibers of Native American Peoples, Derived from Plants.” UM-Dearborn College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters. Web. 14 Dec. 2010. <http://herb.umd.umich.edu/>.
- Reitze, Raymond and Nancy. Personal interview. 8, 15 Oct. 2010.
- Soule, Deb. Personal interview. 4 Feb. 2011.
- Szwed, Sue. Personal interview. 12 Nov. 2010.