This week’s plant for #WildEdibleWednesday is one of our all-time favorites: Pinus strobus, or the Eastern White Pine. Also known as the five-needle pine, blue pine, or Weymouth pine, the White Pine has the distinction of being the tallest tree in eastern North America, with some old-growth examples approaching 220', rivaling the redwoods of the West. It was one of the catalysts that sparked the American Revolution – a tree that built America, literally and figuratively. We’ve done white pine before for #WildEdibleWednesday, but it deserves a re-visit.
White Pine is an evergreen conifer. As a young tree, the bark is a smooth silvery-gray, becoming a very dark (almost black) and deeply fissured as the tree ages. Like a spruce or fir, it will also "bleed" and release beads of resin when attacked by bugs. It’s a dominant forest tree – as has already been stated, they grow extremely tall, and 6-8’ across at the base. Further north, they’re a first-generation colonizer of cleared areas, much like Loblolly or Virginia pines are here. The most positive way of identifying the White Pine is by its needles. They are a dark, almost blue green, and grow in bundles of five, rather than other eastern pines such as the Loblolly (three needles) and Virginia/Shortleaf (two needles). Just remember: W-H-I-T-E = 5. Another way to identify white pine is by its distinctive cones. Unlike the squat round or oval cones from Loblolly or Virginia pines, white pine cones are long and slender, and usually sticky with resin. White pines are native to the Northeastern U.S., much of the upper Midwest, and Eastern Canada. They range from the Arctic circle down to the Southern Appalachians. In the South, White Pines are found almost exclusively in the mountains, as they prefer cool climates. In fact, the SARCRAFT campus is at the far southern tip of its range. Look for them on cool, north-facing slopes growing among hemlocks, rhododendrons, and mountain laurels. White pine is one of the kings of the forest, for so many reasons. It’s a fine timber tree, great for bushcraft, its bark is edible, and it’s one of our favorite medicinal trees.
The wood is some of the finest softwood timber around, being straight-grained and easy to work while still tough and durable. It’s a bright white color, which is where the tree gets its name. Due to the tree’s growth habit, it’s usually blemish-free, stable, and very consistent in quality. From colonial days until the age of steel, white pine was the tree of choice for anything to do with shipbuilding, be it masts, spars, yard arms, decks, and what was known as “naval stores” – turpentine and pitch. It was also prized for timber for homes, barns, churches, and more. Much lighter and easier to work than oak while still being strong, it was the wood of choice for structural lumber across the Northeast and down into the Appalachians. For us bushcrafters, it’s useful the same way any other pine is – for lightweight spars for shelters, and for starting fires due to its high resin content. Pine pitch glue is also highly useful for our purposes, but we’ll cover how to make that another time.
White pine shoots are edible and spring – break them off when they’re fresh and green and eat them raw or boiled. The inner bark is also edible. It’s not the greatest, but it is nutritious when eaten boiled or ground into flour. The primary edible/medicinal use of the White Pine is brewing tea - one of our favorite beverages at SARCRAFT. If you’ve ever attended any of our wilderness survival or wild edibles courses, you’ve shared in the glory with us. It’s medicinal, but it’s also just plain delicious. Although pine needle tea may not sound appealing, it has similar flavor notes to a mild green or white tea, especially when sweetened with honey, and is excellent hot or chilled. White Pine needles contain five times the amount of vitamin C, by weight, of lemons. It’s high in vitamin A as well. In pioneer days, it was used to stave off scurvy in the cold days of winter when it was the only green edible available. It’s one of the best treatments around for any kind of respiratory ailment – if you’re suffering from a cold, the flu, TB, pneumonia, sore throat, or a dry cough, white pine will help you out. It’s a great expectorant and cough suppressant, and one of the chemical compounds from it has been synthesized and is still used in commercial cough medicines. The tea is also a natural stimulant, which is a great reason to drink it every day. It gives you a nice, clean boost without the jitters or crash associated with caffeine. That being said, be cautious giving it to kids. They’ll be climbing trees like a bunch of monkeys and won’t calm down for hours. Trust us, we speak from experience. Since it’s a stimulant, it’s also a natural laxative, which some people discover by accident, much to their detriment. As we always say, before you jump in with both feet on an infusion, try drinking 6-8 ounces of it first and see how it affects you. If you’ve been to any of our wild edibles seminars, you’ve already got this recipe, but if not… here’s how to make white pine tea:
You will need:
- 1 handful of pine needles (this is an inexact science)
- 8oz water
- 2 tbsp local honey
- Paper coffee filters
1. Heat water in small pot to 180-200 degrees – a steady simmer. If you’re seeing tiny bubbles form on the edge of the pot, you’re in the sweet spot. Do not boil.
2. Cut pine needles into ½ inch long pieces or shorter
3. Place needles in the middle of paper coffee filter (quantity is equivalent to a large tea bag)
4. Tie up the coffee filter into a sachet
5. Steep 3-5 mins – do not boil
6. Remove from heat, remove “tea bags” and sweeten with local honey to taste – approximately 2tbsp per cup.
Can you make pine needle tea out of other pines besides white pine? Yes, it just won’t be as good. Loblolly and Virginia pine needles have a turpentine-ish flavor to them.
Some trees have a historical significance far beyond their practical uses in early America. Connecticut’s Charter Oak, the image of Andrew Jackson as Old Hickory, and others come to mind. The white pine is probably more significant than most, as it’s the basis of what was arguably the first American flag. One of the most onerous regulations that the British government imposed on the colonies was annexing any White Pine over 12" in diameter as property of the Crown. It was illegal for colonists to cut these trees down for their own use or to clear land for farming, even on their own property. The reason being was that the tall, straight trunks were perfect for ship's masts, booms, and spars used in the Royal Naval Yards. This regulation eventually led to the Pine Tree Riots of 1772, one of the earliest Colonial revolts. When the new nation was formed, one of the earliest flags flown was a red banner with a White Pine in the upper left corner - essentially a giant, defiant middle finger to the Crown.
This independence day, we invite you to make yourself a cup of white pine tea (or maybe tomorrow – it’s great for a hangover cure), sit back, and reflect on the rebellious colonials who helped spark a revolution and throw off the chains of a global empire. May we keep that spirit alive and well, especially in this age of comfort and complacency. The true American answer to overbearing authority is defiance, not obedience. After all, they were willing to pick a fight with the British Crown over a tree.
Have a safe and happy 4th!