By Jacqueline A. Soule, Ph.D.
As December approaches, let’s look at an herb that many bring into their homes for the holiday season – the pine. Why not opt for a living Christmas tree (or Chanukah bush, as some of my friends call them)? They are evergreen …. plus green.
Humans around the world have used pine as herbs for eons. They used whichever species of pine lived near them to treat just about every sort of affliction. Pine has especially used for the ailments that have truly plagued humankind, like internal and external parasites and the aches and pains of being human and getting older.
In almost every case pine needles or bark are used as a tea (infusion) to either drink or bathe tissues. For intestinal parasites, the tea was drunk, for external ones such as ringworm (a fungal infection) or lice, the tissues were bathed with pine tea. Pine oils and resins have also been extracted, purified, and used medicinally.
At this time, Commission E, a German-based group which scientifically studies herbal medicines, recommends using pine oils externally for rheumatic and neuralgic complaints, as well as for upper and lower respiratory tract inflammation.
Ideally, harvest and dry pine needles before use. This allows some of the more acrid compounds to evaporate. The active ingredients are predominately in the oils and are not lost by drying.
Modern housekeepers around the world use pine based cleaners to keep the house smelling clean and fresh, little realizing that this harkens back to a yesteryear tradition of using pine products, including turpentine, to kill off pests, treat colds, and dress wounds.
Pines can be grown here in Tucson. Once established, they will need extra water in the hot dry months, especially May and June. Indeed, pines are a very green landscape plant. They provide housing for wildlife, especially hawks and owls, plus shade your home helping reduce energy consumption for cooling. The needles can be used as a wonderful mulch for plants around your yard or garden.
For a living holiday tree that you can plant in your yard, chose from the eldarica (Pinus eldarica) from Afghanistan or Aleppo (Pinus halepensis) from the Middle East.
What about a Southwestern pinyon pine? If you can find some – go for it! I do have to warn you, they grow in higher altitudes than Tucson and will be stressed by our comparatively hotter summers. Extra water should help them survive.
What about the pine beetle now attacking Tucson trees? The beetle is the six-spined engraver beetle, one of 11 species of insects living in the inner bark of pine trees. It typically infests the thicker-barked and deeply fissured main tree trunks of older trees. An obnoxious pest to be sure. It appears to only be an issue with larger mature trees. A young tree should be able to grow in your yard for many years. Be sure to keep it healthy with extra water in the dry months.
Dr. Soule is trained as a botanist. She teaches workshops on plants and writes science and garden articles. Jacqueline has been using, growing, researching and writing about herbs for over three decades.
If you live in Southeastern Arizona, please come to one of my lectures. Look for me at your local Pima County Library branch, Steam Pump Ranch, Tubac Presidio, Tucson Festival of Books and other venues. After each event I will be signing copies of my books, including the latest, “Southwest Fruit and Vegetable Gardening,” written for Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico (Cool Springs Press, $23).
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