Pine Trees: An Overlooked Herbal Remedy

Pine trees take center stage in the winter, but their historical use as a decongestant and pain reliever has fallen by the wayside.

by Dawn Combs
PHOTO: XJ/Flickr

For the past week, my family has been making good on a resolution to take a family walk each day. It’s hard to imagine finding anything useful as an herbal medicine still growing in the winter landscape, but we find surprises when we expand our usual definition of a remedy.

The one thing in the landscape that is still green and soft are our pines. I make it a point to visit them every day just to hear the wind shushing through their needles. It’s one of my favorite spots on our property, and as I searched my mind for what to write about this week, I found myself staring out the back patio doors at those trees.

I think many of us overlook the pine tree (Pinus spp.) when looking for healing—some people overlook trees in general. The pine tree’s leaves aren’t the traditional shape for an “herb.” Nevertheless, it’s a medicinal plant with a long history.

Pine, known for its volatile oil, is most often used as an essential oil for external applications, though Hippocrates and Pliny write of using pine needles for many ailments. You may find them helpful for arthritis and gout, and a handful of the leaves added to a bath might be just the thing to help sooth sore muscles or relieve cold congestion.

Turpentine and Pine

For years, as I’ve stood behind our farmers’ market table, I’ve heard people tell me that their older family members routinely used turpentine as a medicine. I puzzled over this until I decided to track down turpentine’s origin. It turns out it’s a pine-tree product and isn’t as dangerous as it sounds. This is an example of why we should never discount folk medicine. At the base of many of these old medicine ways is a bit of science waiting to be discovered.

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Turpentine is a solvent used in paint and varnish, hence my assumption that it was a chemical product. The truth is that it’s more like an essential oil, extracted through steam distillation of pine resin. The resulting product is slightly different than the essential oil, which is a tad less concentrated. Turpentine has been used topically in folkloric medicine for lice, cuts and congestion. It has even been used internally for worms, though internal use is no longer common. There’s also a long history of using turpentine to treat sore joints and chest congestion in both humans and animals.

Using Our Pine Needles

My husband is suffering with a sore shoulder, so it’s no coincidence that that tree caught my eye this week. I’m going to pour a hot bath for him tonight and fill a muslin bag (an old, clean sock works, as well) with a few healthy handfuls of pine needles. I think I’ll tell him he’s going to take a turpentine bath … that ought to freak him out.

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