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Back in the mid-1970s, while hawking a popular breakfast cereal on TV, Euell Gibbons uttered a phrase that secured his place as a consummate wild-food expert and launched an entire generation of would-be foragers and simplers:

“Ever eat a pine tree? Many parts are edible.”

I can’t say I’ve dined on many conifers – although I’ve downed my share of pine-nut stew and absorbed a bottle or two of spruce-tip beer – so I can’t confirm whether it’s possible (or even desirable) to satisfy your appetite with pine parts.  However, I can attest to the medicinal value of the family Pinaceae, which includes pines, cedars, hemlocks, larches, spruces and firs. During my brief stint as a timber faller, I learned that dried, powdered pitch provides excellent hemostasis for lacerations, and I once chewed and swallowed a few Ponderosa pine needles to relieve a nasty case of heartburn. (It’s amazing what you’ll do when you’re grubbing out a fire line and the volcanic remains of an army-surplus C-ration are seething in your gullet.)

As a class, the conifers share many medicinal uses. When applied externally, preparations of bark, pitch or sap alleviate a wide array of dermatologic ills, including abrasions, lacerations, burns, bruises, psoriasis, athlete’s foot and rashes due to prickly heat, chapped skin or allergic dermatitis. Native Americans used infusions of leaf tips and bark to treat coughs, colds, fevers, headaches, earaches, sore throats, heart problems, lung congestion, tuberculosis, ulcers, arthritis, indigestion, sexually transmitted diseases and cancer. Various conifer species have been employed as washes for making infants thrive, as contraceptives following childbirth, and as laxatives, diuretics, eyewashes, blood purifiers and abortifacients. Young aboriginal women used leaf-tip or bud infusions as a beauty wash, and drinking the tea was reputed to keep adolescent girls youthful. Conifers were also believed to confer protection from sorcerers – although they apparently didn’t protect young men from the wiles of their female companions.

While modern research hasn’t yet confirmed Pinaceae’s myriad beneficial properties, several studies hint that a thousand years’ worth of empirical data is probably based in fact. For example, arabinogalactan from larch trees has demonstrated immunostimulatory properties in a handful of clinical trials. A study published in the September 2010 issue of Nutrition Journal showed that larch arabinogalactan, when compared to placebo, increased the antibody response in healthy volunteers who were injected with pneumococcal vaccine. And a January 2011 Current Eye Research study revealed that larch arabinogalactan stimulated proliferation and reorganization of injured corneal cells, suggesting that it might be valuable for treating certain human eye disorders; interestingly, the larch extract exerted this healing effect without the toxic side effects associated with chemicals that are currently used in many eye medications.

Other attributes of the Pinaceae family have garnered some interest in the scientific community, too. For instance, the same proanthocyanidins that protect conifers from fungal infections (cedar’s resistance to rot is legendary) could serve as the basis for potent antifungals in human medicine. In addition, these compounds have demonstrated powerful antioxidant, immunomodulatory and cardioprotective properties in cell culture and animal studies.

All things considered, Mr. Gibbons may have been onto something 40 years ago – although he was simply standing on the shoulders of others who had gone before him. Once again, the admonition to “let food be thy medicine” seems apropos.  

  1. JK Udani, BB Singh, et al. Proprietary arabinogalactan extract increases antibody response to the pneumonia vaccine: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, pilot study in healthy volunteers. Nutr J. 2010;9:32
  2. S Burgalassi, N Nicosia, et al. Arabinogalactan as Active Compound in the Management of Corneal Wounds: In Vitro Toxicity and In Vivo Investigations on Rabbits. Curr Eye Res. 2011;36(1):21-28   



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