Think of mistletoe, pine, holly, ivy – what do these plants mean to you? Kissing, Christmas decorations and poison may come to mind… but probably not herbal medicine.
These festive herbs are in fact all part of historic medicinal traditions that have been mostly forgotten – except, of course, by herbalists!
During the winter months, when other foliage is sparse on the ground, evergreen trees and plants used to be our go-to winter tonics. They are high in vitamin C and contain essential oils, flavonoids, saponins and other properties which make them immune-boosting, anti-inflammatory and anti-infectious in a variety of ways.
Pine as medicine
Pine particularly has been used since the Middle Ages in a number of different ways.
The needles are a powerful, stimulating antiseptic, used chiefly for respiratory infections with thick mucus, to draw phlegm out of the lungs. Pine needle syrup is used in coughs and asthma – volatile oils in the plant account for its aromatic qualities and decongestant effects.
The bark is harder to harvest, but an extract of pine bark called Pycogenol has been recently shown to have anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-histamine and circulatory stimulant properties.
To get the benefits of pine into your home, simply pick one of the following recipes. They also make great Christmas presents!
1. Pine needle tea
Pick the greenest pine needles you can find and chop the woody ends off. Add a handful to a teapot, pour over boiling water, let steep for 10 minutes and enjoy the grounding taste of evergreen forest.
2. Pine needle vinegar
Fill a wide-mouthed jar with pine needles and cover with organic, pasteurised apple cider vinegar. Close with a plastic or glass lid (no metal) and leave to soak for 4-6 weeks. This delicious vinegar tastes just like the balsamic shop-bought stuff, but better! And it’s full of goodness as the vinegar extracts and preserves pine’s wonderful properties.
3. Pine needle syrup
■ 1 cup pine needles
■ 1 cup filtered water
■ 1 cup sugar
Bring the water and pine needles to a gentle boil for 10-15 minutes, then strain the pine needles out and return the water to the heat. Add the sugar and bring the mixture almost to boiling point, then remove immediately from the heat at this point and leave to cool. When cool, pour into a bottle or jar, and refrigerate. Use in hot water, on pancakes or as a tasty cough syrup. It should last 3-6 months.
4. Pine needle cookies
■ 1/4 to 1/2 cup fresh pine needles
■ 1 cup salted butter, softened
■ 1/2 cup sugar/sweetener of choice
■ 2 teaspoons orange zest
■ 2 cups flour of choice
Finely chop the evergreen needles using a food processor, coffee or spice grinder. In a large bowl combine the needles with the butter, sugar and orange zest, and mix with a wooden spoon until creamy. Gradually add the flour, mixing after each addition to form a buttery ball of dough.
Divide the dough between two large sheets of greaseproof paper and roll each piece of dough into a log around 4 cm in diameter. Freeze for 15 minutes, then cut into rounds. You may see little fibres sticking out the edges of the cookies – these are fine to eat. To bake, place the cookies on greaseproof paper and bake until the edges are golden brown – about 10 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.
5. Pine needle salve
■ 3 cups pine needles
■ 3 tbsp freshly ground juniper berries
■ 3 tbsp freshly grated orange peel
■ Carrier oil of choice (olive, sunflower, almond, grapeseed, jojoba)
■ Beeswax (Lagos farmers’ market)
First, to make the pine-infused oil, pack the needles, juniper berries and orange peel into a large glass jar, cover with your oil of choice and leave in a warm, dark place for 2-4 weeks. Alternatively, simmer the contents in a glass bowl over a bain marie for two hours. Strain the oil – you can use this on its own as a fragrant massage oil. To make the salve, simply add 15g beeswax per 85ml oil. Heat the two ingredients over a bain marie, mix well and pour into preheated, sterilised jars. Voilá!
So, if you’re lucky enough to have a real Christmas tree this year, you’re in for a treat! Most pines are safe to use with the exception of Pinus ponderosa, which pregnant women should avoid. Happy holiday harvesting!
Poppy, BSc MCPP, is a qualified medical herbalist practising from Aljezur and Praia da Luz. To book a consultation, visit www.poppytheherbalist.com or call on 969 091 683.