Common, yet exceptional. Early spring is the perfect time for gathering its oil-rich buds.
Pinus sylvestris is Scots pine. It is so popular that it has become banal, ubiquitous and therefore invisible, because we – humans – prefer special species, rare specimens and exotic beauties. Let’s look at the pine differently; let’s discover its uniqueness and the variety of its countenances.
This tree can grow in any conditions. In sand, on barren land, on windy shores and in the harsh mountain climate. It is found in great numbers in the north moderate zone, it grows in conifer forests and in woods. I present to you Her Majesty the Pine.
It wants to reach the sky, it sometimes reaches 40 or even 50 metres. It can live up to 600 years. Its trunk can reach four-and-a-half metres in circumference in trees growing in clusters. Pines growing in clusters and those in open space are two different stories. The latter are substantially shorter, may have numerous limbs, embranchments, trunks bent into the most fantastical shapes. Pines growing in clusters are altogether different – the trunk is straight and slender, with no branches and the crown beginning high up, close to the top. These two are nothing like each other. The forest pine is slender and tall, climbing higher and higher to be closer to the sun. Its sister – found in meadows, on river banks, on forest clearings – is short, sometimes stocky, twisted from being whipped by the wind.
A green dress
The open-space sister is said to be the wind turned into a tree. I love seeing such pines on one of the small islands on the Narew river and wondering at the multitude of their different shapes: one is an arch, another a gate, the next one an abstract sculpture; then there’s a group of three forming one shape together, like acrobats. The wind shapes their silhouettes and it doesn’t rustle like in deciduous forests – it makes a completely different sound, which I’m not going to describe here. Go to a pine forest or a mixed (pine and fir) one, and listen to it yourselves.
When you’ve satiated your senses with shapes, move on to colours. The all-year-round greenness of pines is a joy to the eye in the winter when there’s no greenness around, and in early spring when it’s muddy and grey. But that’s not all. The bark, red, fiery orange or brown grey, fissured at the bottom of the trunk, while at the top peeling off or smooth, the colours of copper and bronze. The colours depend on the age of our maiden – if she is middle age, the dominating colours are various shades of red. Deep fissures in the bark are needed in order to save it from burning, in the case of a fire. If we care about medicinal uses, we should gather the thin, orange layer of bark from young parts of the trunk or branches, and let it dry naturally. It has astringent and antidiarrhoeal properties.
The wood burns wonderfully – thanks to resin. It flows everywhere in the tree. It is widely obtained by cutting the trunks of mature trees. You can add it to ointments used to treat injuries and frostbite. While walking in the forest you may come across a fallen tree – check if any of the precious substance has leaked out. If it has, take advantage of this amazing gift. Lift and shear off the dried drops – if we’re patient enough, in 50 million years the drops will become succinite, or amber. But I’m a hothead and use them in my aromatherapy oil burner – I light the resin, then add the dissolved oil to water, which I then heat. When the water evaporates, the thick liquid will produce the desired scent.
Gifts for humanity
Humanity owes a lot to the pine. It’s thanks to the pine that we built the tallest masts and sailed the world around. We’ve used it to make the trusses of our houses, thresholds and window frames. For centuries, we’ve warmed our bodies in its heat, as it is perfect firewood. It is a source of valuable materials, such as turpentine, rosin and pine tar.
Turpentine is obtained by evaporating resin by steam distillation; the side product of this process is rosin. Pine tar is produced in a process of dry distillation. Turpentine was used to mummify the bodies of pharaohs, rosin is indispensable for bowed string instrument players – it is rubbed onto the hair of the bow. In the past, our houses were lighted with pine tar sourced from fatwood (i.e. the stump and tap root dug out several years after the tree has been cut down); pine tar was also needed to preserve ships’ decking and rigging. We used pine wood to build furniture and coffins. Pine bark was employed in tanning skins.
Pine needles live three years on the tree; when they fall, they form an aromatic carpet, which is why it’s such a pleasure to enter a pine forest during a walk. The softness, the resiny scent, the cosiness – it’s a bedroom in the woods. In fact, ‘bedroom’ is the right association, since pine needles and pine straw were used to stuff mattresses, pillows and bedticks. It smelled great and kept you healthy and warm.
No two needles are alike, so here is an overview that can help differentiate between the needles of various pine species. Pinus sylvestris’s needles are dark green, shiny, approximately eight centimetres long, organized in fascicles of two needles, growing on short shoots. Pinus strobus has up to five needles in one fascicle. Pinus nigra has the longest needles – they can reach 14 centimetres, and, like in most pines, they grow in fascicles of two. Pinus mugo, or dwarf mountain pine, is shrub-like, with dark green, stiff, wide needles, also growing in pairs, between three and seven centimetres long. Pinus cembra, or cembran pine, has greyish or bluish green needles, in fascicles of five, between five and 12 centimetres in length, with characteristically serrated edges.
Gifts for animals and humans
The pine is a source of food for numerous species of forest dwellers. A bunch of birds – including woodpeckers, hawfinches, chaffinches and greenfinches – feed on its seeds. For wood grouses and black grouses a real delicacy are pine buds, while the shoots are munched on with delight by moose, elk and roe deer. I saw it with my own two eyes that horses enjoy pine branches a lot, plucking them in winter when the selection of grasses and herbs is very limited. Apparently this is how they get rid of insects from their bodies. The smell of pine oil wafts from the horse’s mouth when it is chewing. Do you remember who else feeds on pine needles? The Moomins!
Now let’s go back to us humans – in early spring we handpick young buds, Gemmae Pini, when they are still covered in brown husks. They are rich in resin, resin acids and vitamin C, but most importantly: pine oil, Oleum Pini. The buds and shoots have 0.4% of the oil, which contains alpha- and beta-pinene, limonene, borneol, as well as flavonoids and mineral salts.
The buds will keep their scent if we store them in a closely-sealed container. They are not suitable for internal use, as they contain substances harmful for the kidneys, but for external use you can go all the way. Mixtures for inhalations and baths, poultices for rheumatism, all kinds of skin outbreaks, even for ulcers.
From fresh needles ground in a mortar we can make a vitamin drink – we pour boiling water over the needles and set it aside for two to three hours. If we use 50 grams of needles for one glass of water, we get a concentrated infusion that we can dilute and sweeten with honey. It’s packed with vitamin C. You can also brew tea from pine shoots. You should gather young shoots in spring, not later than May – you cover the tea and brew for 15 minutes.
Soaring and robust
I should add that in China – later in Japan, too – the pine was a symbol of longevity, restraint and perseverance. It was under pines that tea ceremonies were held. Pines were worshipped to such an extent that the First Emperor (Qin Shi Huang) granted fifth class knighthood to one pine that grew at the foot of Tai Shan.
In Poland, several ecotypes of Scots pine have evolved, adjusting to the local conditions. For instance, the Polish Augustowska Scots Pine, which grows mainly in the Augustów Primaeval Forest (the 200-year-old pine forest in the nature sanctuary Pomorze, in the commune of Giby, is particularly worth seeing).
In the Strzelce Landscape Park we can find an ecotype (sosna matczańska) characterized by slate-like bark. In the Knyszyn Forest there is the Supraska Scots Pine, also called the mast pine, soaring and robust.
Watch and record, in your minds and on your cameras, these pine beauties. They are easy to find in Poland as they make up more than 60% of the entire forest stand.
While working on this article I consulted the following books: O ziołach i zwierzętach [On Herbs and Animals] by Simona Kossak; Mityczne drzewa [Mythic Trees]; Na początku było drzewo [In The Beginning Was the Tree].
The translator would like to thank Urszula Zajączkowska for botanical consultation.
Translated from the Polish by Adam Zdrodowski
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