Herbs in History: Pine


Pinus spp.


By Alain Touwaide & Emanuela Appetiti | December 2023

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Illustration 1: Christmas tree

More than a Christmas Tree

In these final days of the year, fir (Abies spp.) and spruce (Picea spp.) appear in windows of stores, shops, living rooms, and gardens (Illustration 1) as Christmas trees. And also in our imagination, remembering the excitement of childhood, Santa Claus’ sleigh and reindeers, gifts under the tree, and family. Christmas trees could also bring back to memory the cough of the cold days of winter, and syrups or lozenges with a fresh resinous taste filling the throat, or even bronchitis and chest frictions with a warming oil and a resinous smell.
The medicinal history of pine tree is much more than the Christmas commodity and symbol that pine has become, with a long past and interesting therapeutic indications that go as far back as antiquity.

Understanding Pines

Though mostly the traditional Norway spruce (Picea abies (L.) H.Karst.), the popular Nordmann fir in Europe (Abies nordmanniana (Steven) Spach), or also Lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta Douglas ex Loudon) and Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii (Mirb.) Franco), the Christmas tree can also be now very different species of such genera as Abies (A. balsamea (L.) Mill., A. concolor (Gordon & Glend.) Lindl. ex Hildebr., A. fraseri (Pursch) Poir., A. grandis Hook, A. procera Rehder), Pinus (P. strobus L., P. sylvestris L., P. virginiana Mill.), or Picea (P. glauca (Moench) Voss, P. pungens Engelm.) to name a few.
The reading of the ancient botanical and medico-therapeutic literature reveals that different species of pines were used for medicinal purposes and were confused in the ancient world. In current literature, they are identified as the Aleppo pine, Pinus halepensis Mill. (synonym of the following designations, listed here in chronological order: syn. P. maritima Mill. [1768], P. maritima Lam., [1779], and P. maritima W.T. Aiton [1813]), and pine nuts, also called stone pine and umbrella pine, P. pinea L.
A clearer distinction of different species with their respective characteristics started with the Italian physician Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1501-1577). Interestingly enough, he did so in his translation of, and commentary on, the major encyclopedia of antiquity on medicinal plants that crossed the centuries, De materia medica by Dioscorides (1st cent. CE), originally written in Greek, where we do find a chapter on pine with the Greek terms pitus and peuke (I.69).
Studying Dioscorides’ pine was not an easy task. Mattioli’s intense activity and repeated analysis of the topic greatly contributed to clarifying the problem. His work on Dioscorides was initially published as an Italian (1544) and then a Latin (1554) translation of the text with a commentary, with also a Czech and a German version (1562 and 1563, respectively). Both the Italian and Latin versions went through a great many editions until Mattioli’s death. From one to another, Mattioli deepened and refined his analysis of Dioscorides’ text—including pine—and he also introduced illustrations, small ones in 1554 and larger ones, covering almost the whole width of the page ten years later (1564).
Mattioli’s analysis of Dioscorides’ chapter on pine culminated in the late 1560s, with the distinction of no less than seven species, all represented in a fine, large, almost full-page image. According to contemporary taxonomy and following their sequence in Mattioli’s work, these species are Pinus pinea L. (Illustration 2), Picea excelsa Link. (Illustration 3), Pinus halepensis Mill. (Illustration 4), Pinus pinaster Aiton (Illustration 5), Pinus mugo Turra (Illustration 6), and Pinus cembra L. (Illustration 7). Often extolled for their artistic qualities, Mattioli’s illustrations are also in many cases of great botanical exactness as the comparison between his representation of Pinus halepensis Mill. and photos of its cones in nature shows (Illustration 8 to be compared with Illustration 4).


Illustration 2: Pinus pinea L. in Mattioli on Dioscorides, 1565, page 95: Pinus domestica (Domesticated Pine)

Illustration 3: Picea excelsa Link. in Mattioli on Dioscorides, 1565, page 97: Picea

Illustration 4: Pinus halepensis Mill. in Mattioli on Dioscorides, 1565, page 99: Pinus maritima (Marine Pine)

Illustration 5: Pinus pinaster Aiton in Mattioli on Dioscorides, 1565, page 100: Pinus maritima altera (Other Marine Pine)

Illustration 6: Pinus mugo Turra in Mattioli on Dioscorides, 1565, page 101: Pinus sylvestris mugo (Wild Mugo Pine)

Illustration 7: Pinus cembra L. in Mattioli on Dioscorides, 1565, page 102: Pinus sylvestris Cembra (Wild Cembra Pine)

Illustration 8: Pinus halepensis Mill.


Strangely, Mattioli did not delve much into the therapeutic uses of pines, which was contrary to his usual way and general objective. He spent much of his energy, instead, in critically assessing the identifications of pine and related considerations proposed in the literature by earlier and contemporary physicians, scientists, and analysts of Dioscorides’ treatise in a harsh way, mixing great acuity, sarcasms, and sometimes—if not often—also undeserved personalized criticism.
In spite of this, Mattioli laid the foundations for a better understanding of the pine species and genera, which was further improved by the French Jacques Dalechamps (1513-1588), the Bauhin brothers, Johann (1541-1613) and Caspar (15600-1624), author of the table of systematic botany PINAX theatri botanici (1623), and later Carl von Linnaeus (1707-1778), with contributions also from Mattioli’s contemporaries, the Belgian Rembert Dodoens (1517/7-1585) in the several versions of his Cruijdeboeck first published in 1554, the Spaniard Andres Laguna (1499-1599) in his Spanish translation of, and commentary on, Dioscorides similar to that of Mattioli and published in several editions from 1555 onward, and the slightly posterior Englishman John Gerard (1545-1612), compiler of the famous Herbal first published in 1597.

Returning to Antiquity

Though native to the Mediterranean, pine started its medicinal career late and in a modest way. In the collection of medical treatises attributed to Hippocrates (460-between 375 and 350 BCE), we find only 6 attestations, all significant, however. The part that is used is the bark, clearly as an astringent and anti-inflammatory. In On wounds, indeed, it is used in an emollient preparation applied externally to close a wound; in Diseases of women, it is injected to treat ulcerations in the wound and to stop excessive menstruation; and in Fistulae, it is administered in case of hemorrhages.
The case of resin is no less indicative, with an equal number of indications (6 in total). Apart from one case for the treatment of fistulae, it is used in vaginal tampons. If its use is functional as it allows for amalgamating all ingredients of the medicine and for a fixation of the tampon on the cervix, it is also therapeutic as it acts as an antiseptic and anti-inflammatory, just as for a bandage applied in the treatment of anal fistulae. As the subsequent history will show, these properties of resin were already known in the time of the Hippocratics, even though it might not have been in an explicit way, but certainly empirically thanks to centuries of practice by healers.
Much later, in the 1st century CE, Dioscorides provides more information in De materia medica, with both pine (1.69) and resin (1.72). He does not describe pine, however, limiting himself to stressing that it is well known—which relieves him from providing any data—and just saying that what seems to be two different species (pitus and peuke) differ only by their shape. He then lists their indications proceeding in a significant way by parts of the tree, major grouping of medical conditions, and modes of administration.
Starting with the bark, Dioscorides makes the straight statement that it is astringent, thus confirming the Hippocratic uses. He lists three types of medical conditions for which it was used, each with a characteristic form of administration. For skin conditions, it is applied externally as a cataplasm for abrasions, light and more serious sores—the latter of which it cicatrizes—, burns, and gangrenous ulcers. In gynecology and in fumigation, Dioscorides credits Pine bark with the post-partum property of eliminating the placenta and, during pregnancy, of provoking abortion.  For the gastro-intestinal system in internal use, pine treats diarrhea and is diuretic.
For the needles, Dioscorides proceeds in the same way, by major categories of application, with skin affection, that the needles applied as a cataplasm preserve from inflammation. For the digestive system, an infusion with water, or honey diluted with water, relieves liver affections not otherwise identified. And in dentistry, their infusion in vinegar makes an efficacious mouthwash against toothaches, while splinters, also boiled in vinegar, calm toothaches and stops tooth infection.
To this he adds a curious, yet interesting recommendation: using spatulas made of pine wood to mix and prepare medicines adds an analgesic property to the medicines, including to tampons.

Illustration 9: Egyptian eyes

Toward the end of the chapter, Dioscorides also mentions some cosmetic, cosmetico-therapeutics and economic uses. Regarding the latter, soot of burned pine enters in the composition of ink. In cosmetics, it was used for nice eyelids, probably as eyeliner and also mascara. And, from cosmetics to cosmetic-therapeutics, he stresses that the same substance was also efficacious against canthus wounds, loss of eyelashes, and tearing eyes. A visual representation of these last uses can be found in the many representations of eyes in Egyptian art, where eyes are heavily underlined, not just for seduction purposes, but also—if not above all—for preservation and therapy purposes (Illustration 9).
Dioscorides comments also on the pine cones and their edible seeds, the pine nuts. According to him they are astringent and slightly warming. As such they help against cough and chest conditions “eaten by themselves or with honey” in a way that recalls their current pastry uses in the Mediterranean countries.
Pine resin also is interesting, even though, according to Dioscorides, it is not as valued as terebinth resin (Pistacia terebinthus L.) considered to be the best. Dioscorides’ chapter on all resins (thus including pine resin, though second in ranking in terms of quality) is worth to be literally quoted (1.72):

Any resin is warming, emollient, dissolutive, and cathartic, being suitable against coughs and phthisis in lozenges either by itself or with honey as it eliminates by expectoration also pathological matter in the chest. It is also diuretic and digestive, in addition to relaxing the intestines; it also glues eyelashes [extensions] and is efficacious against white skin spots with verdigris, copper sulfate and soda, for purulent ears with honey and oil, also for itching genitalia. It is also mixed in plasters and cataplasms, and in analgesics, and they help for pains in the thorax when rubbed on by itself or simply applied on.

Through the Centuries

The ancient body of knowledge represented by Dioscorides, i, was uninterruptedly transmitted through the centuries, and can be found almost literally in the Qanūn of ibn Sina (980-1037 CE), known in the West as Avicenna, with some new practical recommendations, however, and also some disorder. There we read, indeed, that pine bark:

is very astringent … it is efficacious for burns … it heals abrasions when applied as a bandage. Sprinkling the bark powder is beneficial for hot water burns. The leaf powder is applied to wounds. The bark is suitable for contusions, which it heals. However, the leaves are better because they contain moisture.
Gargling with the bark decoction brings out abundant phlegm. Bark decoction with vinegar is good as a mouthwash for toothaches and eliminates abundant phlegm.
Its soot is good against eyelashes loss and canthus wounds.
Pine seeds are beneficial for chronic cough.
Drinking bark and leaves is beneficial for liver pain.

Moving to the West, pine went through a process of specialization, which also resulted in losing other usages. It is found, indeed, in the so-called Old English Herbal possibly dating back to the 11th century, where it is prescribed in a compound medicine made of burdock mixed with ground pine nuts (134.1), and also in the Old-English Peri didaxeon about the learning of medicine in a literal translation of its title, of approximately the same period. In the first prescription (16.2), pine nut is mixed with aromatic plants boiled together and used in inhalation and also as a cataplasm on the head to treat cephalea. In another prescription, pine sap enters in the formula of a medicine for chest pain (51.4), and in a third and last one, pine nuts are recommended as an astringent against pathological vomiting not otherwise defined (63.4).
Running through the centuries, pine lost its therapeutic importance, as the absence of discussion of its indications in Mattioli’s commentary on Dioscorides stressed above already indicated. Until recently, it was mostly used for the treatment of cough, thanks to its fresh and resinous smell.

Gemmotherapy is currently giving pine a renewed life and also distinguishes very different ranges of uses to its species, with Pinus pinaster Aiton, for the upper respiratory and biliary system, in addition to the vascular and cardiac systems, and the genito-urinary tract. Pinus montana Mill., as for it, is more indicated for the bones, the spine and, more generally, the skeleton, together with the joints and tendons. Pinus sylvestris L. is more oriented toward vital energy, including psycho-physic tonus, among others by acting on the central nervous system. And, interestingly, it acts on depression, worn-out, stress, and in cases of low or even loss of self-esteem.

Illustration 10: Collecting resin. Illustration from manuscript London, British Library, MS Sloane 4016, folio 98 verso, about turpentine.

Whatever its species and properties, the Christmas tree fills in these very days of the year the rooms with its fresh resinous smell and warms the hearts.

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