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Sign of the Pines

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

image: Ilia-Bronskiy

Seasonally speaking, it’s this time of year that the prevalence of coughs, colds and flu appears to increase and the iconic pine tree begins to come into its own. The relationship between the pine tree and this time of year has relevance indeed - but there’s a bit of misunderstanding about the pine tree and its connection to Christmas. In celebration of all things trees and forest, I feel compelled to share a little about the world of pine, its essential oil benefits and folklore…

image: Bastian Pudill

Most people assume that the pine tree is traditionally used as a Christmas tree - but in fact it is not the pine species that is grown commercially for this purpose, instead it is usually either a fir or spruce tree variety. Commonly Christmas trees are either Siberian firs or Norway spruce varieties such as the Douglas fir and the traditional Nordman fir, with its iconic blue needles, that most people will lovingly select for their homes at this time of year.

A native of Scandinavia, the Norway spruce is completely frost hardy, with thick bark to protect it and thin waxy needles and it is the tree that was and still is gifted by the Norwegians since 1947, to Trafalgar Square for the iconic Christmas display each year, as an act of gratitude to the British for support during the Second World War.

image: Diliff

Whereas the UK native Scots pine, with its red scaly bark and brown pinecones found in the Scottish Highlands, is actually the least common tree grown commercially for Christmas. Instead, the Scots pine is more likely busy providing homes for rare species such as red squirrels and pine Martens as well as supplying us with a wealth of beautiful essential oil.

image: Pihla Kuikka

Aside from these roles, the pine tree does have a mysterious a symbolic tradition across global history. Interestingly, its pine cone resembles the shape of the pineal gland or 'conarium', a small endocrine gland that produces the sleep hormone 'melatonin', - providing a clue as to where its name originated. Located in the 'epithalamus' near the centre of the brain, this is also known as the ‘third eye’, said to be the centre of human ‘inner vision’ or ‘second sight’ .

Therefore, in some ancient cultures it has represented symbolically as the ‘eye of God’ and is depicted in Egyptian, Assyrian and Sumerian artworks and hieroglyphics where images of gods and priests either hold a cone or carry a staff with a pinecone on the end. In the Vatican there is a huge sculpture of a pinecone said to be as old as Roman times which has been this become the centrepiece of one of the courtyards and the Pope himself carries a staff with the said pinecone on the end of it, indicating that the pineal gland and cone on the tree are both sacred symbols of power insight and vision.

Aromatically speaking, if you have ever chopped or sawn Pinewood for open fires or wood burners, you may have noticed the thick, sweet, clear resin coming from freshly cut wood, which smells heavenly clean and fresh and helps fires burn so brightly. Pine scent is synonymous with cleansing and many disinfectants for floors contain or are fragranced with pine and there is a good reason for this. The essential oils derived from the twigs and needles of these evergreen, coniferous trees that originate from temperate boreal forests, are full of antibacterial and antimicrobial compound - dominated by mono-terpenes, including the powerful significant compounds 'alpha-pinene' and 'beta-pinene' to name but a few.

image: Dan Otis

Fundamentally, the 'breath of fresh air' provided by pine essential oil is a respiratory restorative and stimulant. It supplies not just respiratory cleansing and protection in the season of bugs coughs, colds and sore throats - but can also serve to support physical tiredness, chronic burnout, exhaustion, low stamina and improve vitality as with the breath comes energy and strength. Pine can tackle chronic coughs, chest congestion and improve shallow breathing - acting as an expectorant, soothing sore throats, swollen glands, aching muscles and nerves in the respiratory tract. It is suggested that it's decongestant action can be used to combat and soothe bronchitis, sinusitis, laryngitis, pharyngitis and all chronic congestive conditions of the upper and lower respiratory tract.

image: Iler Stoe

From a mental health perspective, pine oil is indicated as being useful in depression and disassociation. Working specifically on the pituitary and adrenal axis as a restorative and regulator, it can improve loss of stamina, and symptoms of metabolic and neurodegenerative disorders. But not only this, pine oil can be useful also during heavy menstrual cycles, relieving pelvic congestion. It also acts as a lymphatic decongestant for swollen glands and oedema in general, as well as helping with other conditions such as arthritis, rheumatism, gout, gallstones and urinary infections. It has anti-inflammatory and analgesic, neuromuscular properties and can even combat excessive foot perspiration bringing freshness to smelly feet!

Pines on a Japanese wall panel - image: Shorinzu Byoubu

Overall, the uplifting and comforting pine is synonymous with winter freshness and cleansing and even if it can't be the Christmas tree you thought it would be - this affordable oil is easy to use in the diffuser and will evoke Scandinavian forests and winter cheer. It blends well with other Alpine and forest-type oils such as black spruce, rosemary cypress, juniper berry, sage and lemon eucalyptus. Used in the diffuser or as a few drops on a tissue placed near a radiator or as a few drops in the bath to uplift and strengthen the immune system, pine will uplift and get you in the mood for a sparkling fresh healthy winter season.

Pine trees and their essential oils come in many varieties – referring to one publication by Peter Holmes Lac, MH, “Aromatica’ - A Clinical Guide to Essential Oil Therapeutics, (Vol 2), there are 11 pine species and oils, all with slightly differing aromas! I know there are more - but here are just 12 to get you started with web links for buying the oils below ...

Maritime pine – Pinus pinaster

Black Pine – Pinus nigra

Mugo Pine – Pinus mugo

Swiss Stone Pine – Pinus cembra

Corsican Pine – Pinus nigra subsp.lasricio Poir.

Aleppo Pine – Pinus halpensis Miller

White Pine – Pinus strobus

Norway Pine – Pinus resinosa

Jack Pine – Pinus banksiana

Patagonia Pine – Pinus ponderosa

Scots pine - Pinus sylvestris

Umbrella pine - Sciadopytis vericillata

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Swiss stone pine - Pinus cembra           Corsican pine - Pinus nigra ssp.lasricio        Aleppo pine - Pinus halpensis Miller

            White pine - Pinus strobus                        Norway pine - Pinus resinosa                          Jack pine - Pinus banksiana

     Patagonian pine - Pinus ponderosa                   Scots pine - Pinus sylvestris                   Umbrella pine - Sciadopitys vericillata

  Maritime pine - Pinus pinaster                           Black pine - Pinus nigra                                 Mugo pine - Pinus mugo

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