In addition to its prized uses as a building material, and its beauty in the landscape, Eastern White Pine (pinus strobus) is a valuable medicinal plant and even a source of food. This majestic tree has a long history of applications for all manner of physical ills, and modern herbalists still consider it to be an excellent remedy for coughs and colds. The inner bark, resin, needles and roots all have specific health purposes.
Eastern white pine tree needles contain many beneficial constituents useful for the prevention of colds and flu such as Alpha-Pinene, Beta-Pinene, Beta-Phellandrene, D-Limonene, Germacrene D, 3-Carene, Caryophyllene, vitamin A, and vitamin C. Eastern white pine needles also contain shikimic acid or suramin, the same molecule found in star anise herb used historically in Traditional Chinese Medicine to treat plagues and respiratory illness.
The Iroquois and Micmac tribes used it as a panacea, finding its inner bark and resins to be a healing wonder for coughs, bronchitis, laryngitis and chest congestion. When Europeans first arrived in America, they reportedly followed the wisdom of the natives and drank tea made with Eastern White Pine needles to ward off disease. The blue-green needles are extremely rich in vitamin C.
The soft inner bark of Eastern White Pine, which is said to have a taste that is both bitter and sweet, was separated from the outer bark and hung in strips to dry. In times of great hunger, this bark was pounded into a flour that is still considered to be an excellent survival food to this day.
I refer to Eastern White Pine as a hidden wild edible because it is so large and common, but its edible components are not. It has no berries, or tubers, or large leaves, so why is it such and important edible plant? Because it gives foragers something to harvest in the winter. The needles are edible and most commonly used to make a hot tea. The nutritional and medicinal properties of the needles are best preserved by steeping the needles in hot water instead of boiling them, you can steep for as little as 15 mins or a long as a few days. The tea has a surprisingly good flavor, it is bitter, resinous, and slightly sweet but most people end up adding additional sweetener. In fact all parts of the tree are non-toxic. Native Americans were creative in their use of white pine, eating any parts of the tree that they could prepare to be palatable including young green pine cones. I enjoy chewing on the new growth in the spring, it is not too resinous, and it is soft enough to chew. Some species of pine have nuts inside the mature cones that are large enough to eat. Eastern White pine has very small nuts, they can be eaten, but usually are too much effort to collect.
Health Support Benefits
The really surprising thing about Eastern White Pine is its vitamin C content. It has 5 times the vitamin C content of lemons (by weight). That’s one of the primary reasons it’s so important in the Native American diet. It also contains vitamin A and resveratrol which may have some anti-aging properties. White pine can be an effective medicinal plant acting especially well on the respiratory system to sooth and clear phlegm. It’s no coincidence that this is an abundantly available wild medicinal plant during cold and flu season, and an effective Native American remedy for coughs and congestion. The reason you don’t boil the needle tea is because the vitamin C is sensitive to heat and may break down into other components. It is a good idea to boil the water and pour it on top of the needles.
The Eastern white pine may be a natural source of suramin. Suramin, developed by Bayer in 1922, was used as an anti-infective agent to treat African sleeping sickness. Today, it is being studied for its antiviral and antiparasitic properties, which could have the potential of inhibiting the covid infection. Although there is not enough research to claim it can treat or cure Covid, early research suggests that it may inhibit Covid because it interferes with the replication cycle.
There is one caution when consuming Eastern White Pine. The resin could cause dermatitis in some people. The resin is in every part of the plant so use in small quantities at first.
Eastern White Pine is a plant that I thought I was familiar with for most of my life. When I found out about its edible and medicinal properties I started viewing the plant as a much more versatile wild edible. I often wondered how Native Americans got their vitamin C. Many people believe vitamin C primarily comes from citrus fruits, and most Native Americans did not have citrus fruit. I was also amazed by the fact that this is such a good remedy for cold and flu symptoms and it happens to be abundant in cold and flu season when many other wild edible are not. So if you’re looking for something to forage this winter an Eastern White Pine tree is probably not far away.