Most all of us have some association with pine pitch – ranging from the frustration of having the sticky black resin stuck to our car (or hands!), to the joy of inhaling that heavenly, sweet aroma it provides on a warm summer day walking through the woods. But pine pitch has a long history of use across many cultures, and because its one of those very abundant and medicinal plant resources in the foothills, we often include pine pitch in our Wild Food & Medicine CSA.
Pine pitch is a resinous material found in the cells of the outer bark (different than the pine sap, which is a water-based substance that transports sugars and other nutrients within the tree). The pine pitch is released in response to damage to the outer bark – such as a broken branch or an infestation of insects or fungi. The pitch protects the tree by creating a sticky barrier over the vulnerable insides of the tree. In addition to being a physical barrier, the pitch has anti-microbial and anti-fungal properties to kill invaders, as well as an extractive quality that pulls invaders deeper into the pitch. So the pine tree has its own first aid treatment built right into its cells!
Fortunately for us, we can thank the pine and use the pitch for our own first aid needs. You can put a glob of pine pitch over a splinter or other object imbedded into the skin, and it can very effectively pull it out within a day or so. Its quite impressive! Or you can infuse pine pitch in olive oil and then blend it with other skin healing plants to make a anti-microbial first aid salve. Pine pitch is also known as a “counter irritant”, and has been widely used to relieve pain from injuries and arthritis. On top of all that, it has been used traditionally for the treatment of coughs, providing germ-fighting abilities as well as a penetrating and soothing aromatic affect in the throat.
Last year in our Wild Food & Medicine CSA, we made a medicinal oil out of pine pitch, combined it with an oil of plantain (another plant that is good at pulling things out) and blended it with melted beeswax to create a medicinal salve for extracting things embedded in the skin. This winter, I dissolved some pine pitch in brandy, and added some elderberry honey to help fight the start of a cough (and it was delicious!). My partner Matt also made a pine pitch chewing gum with honey and beeswax! It was, well, primitive as far as gum is concerned, but great to enjoy with a sore throat.
As far as harvesting pine pitch, there is no need to wound or tap a tree. To gather the pitch, look for places on any variety of a pine tree where the pitch has dripped off from an existing wound. Remember, the pitch is doing an important job for the tree! Only collect it from below the original site of the wound, where it has dripped down and is no longer protecting the exposed inner bark. You can also gather where trees have already been downed or from parts that have been cut off.
Try to keep it off your hands when you collect – using a glass jar can help with that, as well as prevent it from sticking to a collection bag. If you need to clean your hands, try rubbing with cooking oil (soap and water are not very effective).