In 1535, Jaques Cartier became stranded on the St. Lawrence River in the middle of winter and many of his men soon began to die from scurvy. It wasn’t until a group of Iroquoian people brought them a tea made of pine needles that the men began to regain their health. When Cartier wrote home about the experience, he was accused of taking part in witchcraft. Today, we have come to understand what the Iroquoian people knew long ago—that it was the potent health benefits of the pine needles that saved the men from scurvy.
Pine is a term used to describe coniferous trees and shrubs in the genus, pinus, which is part of the pine family, pinaceae. In Canada, the most common pines are the Western White Pine, or pinus monticola, found in British Columbia, and the Eastern White Pine, or pinus strobus, found east of Manitoba. It was the Eastern White Pine that was used to make tea for the settlers and is one of the species most often used to make pine needle tea today. Though pine needles are a deep green in colour, pine needle tea has a red hue, and instead of a sharp pine flavour, it has a subtle, sweet taste with a hint of citrus.
The reason that pine needle tea was so effective in treating the settlers that were suffering from scurvy, which is known to be caused by a deficiency of vitamin C, is because pine needles contain an unusually high amount of the vitamin—about 4 to 5 times more than citrus fruits, such as oranges, lemons and limes. Even if you’re not suffering from scurvy, pine needle tea is perfect for coughs, colds and flus, since vitamin C stimulates the production of white blood cells, which are needed for our immune systems to protect against bacteria, viruses and other pathogens.
Pine needle tea is also perfect for cold and flu season because it is a decongestant and expectorant, which means that it thins mucus secretions and helps to expel and eliminate excess mucus and phlegm from the respiratory and sinus tracts. (In other words, it helps you cough up all the phlegm in your chest and blow the stubborn snot from your sinuses!) Pine needle tea even reduces inflammation, which can help relieve a sore throat, coughing and other respiratory issues, such as bronchitis.
Pine needles are also high in vitamin A, which acts as an antioxidant to eliminate free radicals and reduce oxidative stress in the body. This means that pine needle tea can help to support skin and hair regeneration, increase vision strength, prevent eye disease, slow muscle degeneration and protects against nervous system disorders.
Another reason that pine needle tea is said to be so beneficial is its ability to protect against cancer. In 2006, the Institute on Aging at Seoul National University published a study that found that pine needles were able to suppress tumour growth in animal models, which has inspired further scientific interest in the antioxidant, antimutagenic and antitumor effects of pine needles.
If you’re interested in making a cup of pine needle tea, whether to prevent a cold or reduce your risk of cancer, it is best to purchase your pine needles from a certified herbalist. If you’re interested in foraging for your own pine needle tea, you will need to make sure that the tree you are gathering the needles from is safe. Most of the conifers indigenous to Canada are edible, but some species, such as Ponderosa Pine, Lodgepole or Shore Pine, Common Juniper, Monterey Cypress, Common Yew, Norfolk Pine or Australian Pine, can be dangerous. You should also ensure that the tree has not come in contact with pesticides, herbicides, pollution or other contaminates. For this reason, pine trees found near roads should not be used to make tea.
If you are comfortable foraging for your own pine needles and would like to brew a cup of pine needle tea, here is a simple recipe.
- Gather a small handful of pine needles. Break the needles off from the brown husks at the end. Cut the needles into small pieces.
- Place about one teaspoon of pine needles in a mug. Pour about one cup of boiling water over the pine needles. Let them steep for 15 to 20 minutes.
- Strain the needles from the tea.
Last modified: September 5, 2017