That brings us to this mysterious beverage made from an evergreen. Rich in vitamin C, it purportedly saved Jacques Cartier and his crew from scurvy.
Our country is covered with coniferous trees from coast to coast. Likewise for Europe, Asia, and most regions of the world. Tea is the world’s most popular beverage and just about every grocery store carries dozens of varieties. We make it with everything from simple herbs to exotic spices. Why then aren’t there more people using pine needles for tea?
There’s a two part answer to this question.
Part One: Toxicity Dangers
You need to be warned that many types of pine trees are toxic to humans as well as animals (including livestock, dogs, and cats).
For those species which are poisonous, typically all of their parts are poisonous. The needles, the bark, the cones, the roots, the wood pulp, all of it will be potentially dangerous if ingested in any form, whether eaten or made into a drink.
There are reportedly at least 20 known toxic species of pine trees as per the book Toxic Plants of North America. Unless one is a botanist, this aspect alone is confusing enough for the average person, since many species can be difficult to distinguish from one another.
This is why it’s safest to buy the tea. A good choice is this Douglas Fir Spring Tip tea.
To add another level of complexity and confusion is the fact that some trees we commonly identify as pines actually aren’t, yet they’re still toxic. Those might not show up in a list of toxic pine trees.
For example, the Araucaria heterophylla is better known as the living Christmas tree, Norfolk Island pine, triangle tree, and star pine.
Guess what? It’s not a true pine (1).
It’s poisonous to pets, such as cats and dogs (2). Side effects include gastrointestinal issues like vomiting and lethargy or excessive sleepiness (how would you even diagnose that given how much even healthy pets sleep?!).
Podocarpus macrophyllus, the Yew pine, is another mildly poisonous one that’s not a true pine (3). Some call it the Buddhist pine and plum pine.
The English yew or European yew (Taxus baccata) is of the same order as the P. macrophyllus, but a different family and genus.
Merely identifying it isn’t enough, because there are separate male and female plants, each having their own characteristics.
The OPALS (Ogren Plant Allergy Scale) of the female is a 1 out of 10 (“allergy-fighting”) while the male is a 10 out of 10 (extremely high potentional to cause allergies). The male produces a cytotoxic pollen which in humans, can trigger sides effects just from breathing it in such as asthma, headaches, rashes, lethargy, and aches.
With both male and female, ingestion of all parts are highly toxic except the yew berries. But those berries are not safe to eat or make tea with either, because the seeds inside them do contain the alkaloid taxine (the same toxin in the leaves and other parts of the tree). Fatal poisoning can occur in both humans and livestock (4).
Those are juts a few examples.
So not only does one have to be aware of the true pines which are toxic, but also the toxicity of trees which look like them.
This is just one more reason why it’s a bad idea for someone to make tea with pine needles they collected themselves from the forest. Unless they have an education in the subject matter, doing so could be quite risky.
The real genus Pinus
Among the real deal – the true pines – the likelihood or percentage odds that one may be toxic is high.
As mentioned above there are over 20 toxic species. Considering the fact that there are 126 confirmed species of pine (along with another 35 unresolved species) the odds of choosing safely are not encouraging (5).
It’s not like we’re talking about a plant where only 1 out of a 100 is harmful. Here, if you lump together Pinus along with imitators, it’s more around a 20% chance (or higher) that a random one selected would be poisonous. That’s not some remote calculated risk, it’s Russian roulette odds one would be playing with their health.
All have been classified as being toxic to at least some degree. Many of these also contain high amounts of turpentine substances, which are unhealthy in their own regard.
Upon researching which pine trees (and imitators) are toxic, you will see much discussion about cats, dogs, horses, cattle, sheep, and other livestock, sometimes with differing degrees of toxicity for each.
A horse may be particularly susceptible while sheep are not. For example, reportedly goats can handle cedars quite well, but sheep, cattle, and people not so much with some species (8).
Often times, the topic of human toxicity for a given species will be mum. That does not mean the species is safe for people, rather it’s more likely that it’s simply not discussed, since no one in their right mind is out making pine needle salads for lunch.
Needles are not thought of as a food source for humans, which is why people rarely talk about it. Silence on this issue does not imply a given species is safe to eat or drink!
Even for species which may explicitly be marked as safe for humans yet toxic to certain animals, does that sound re-assuring to you? Granted, the animal may be eating greater quantities, but still… if it’s toxic to any mammal, consumption may still be bad for you, even if the side effects aren’t as obvious or studied.
Part Two: Taste
As if the health hazards weren’t enough, the second reason pine tea isn’t more popular has to do with taste.
Here in the U.S., we associate the evergreen scent with things like Christmas time and Yankee candles. No one has ever thought of it as food. For that reason it’s no surprise that we would be naturally dis-inclined to the idea of consuming something that tastes like it.
Elsewhere in the world – and in history – is a different perspective.
Pine sprout tea, which makes use of the small sprouts on seedling trees, is consumed in Korea and China. It can also be made with needles from adult trees. The English translation from the Korean word (솔잎차) is Solnip cha tea.
A study published in 2011 suggested it had potent antioxidant activity, thanks to its polyphenols known as proanthocyanidins and catechins (9).
But it’s not just Asian culture. In fact the original Americans – as in, Native Americans – have been making pine needle tea for many centuries.
You are probably at least somewhat familiar about the history of scurvy. Throughout the middle of the last millennium, the Portuguese, French, and English explorers began realizing that regular consumption of citrus fruits like oranges and lemons while at sea would prevent the sailors from getting scurvy.
It wasn’t until centuries later – once technology allowed it – that we realized the reason for this is because of vitamin C, which is a substance humans require for the synthesis of collagen. Unlike many animals (especially carnivores) which internally produce it, humans need to get vitamin C from their dietary sources.
The Indians helped save one of those explorers, Jacques Cartier, and his men who were dying off from scurvy as they sailed along the St. Lawrence river. That’s the waterway which runs along the border of Canada and the Northeastern United States, connecting to the Atlantic.
How did they help? By teaching Jacques Cartier how to make pine needle tea using the Eastern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis). This was recorded in entries of his journal dating 1536.
Modern science has suggested that just 3.4 ounces of that tea (100 grams) likely contained 50 mg of vitamin C (10). That’s the same amount found in an identical serving size of raw unpasteurized orange juice. It’s over 80% of the adult daily value, which is 60 mg.
It’s not just the Eastern white cedar that Native Americans have been using for making beverages.The white pine (Pinus strobus) is a popular choice. Fortunately it’s easier to identify than most, since its needles grow in bundles of 5. It’s native as far east as Newfoundland, as west as the Great Lakes area, and as south as Georgia.
Both Indian and non-Indian sources publish very similar white pine needle tea recipes. Like any recipe, the directions differ slightly but in general, all follow this pattern:
Step 2: Bring 3 cups of water to a boil in a saucepan or pot.
Step 3: After the needles are added, reduce heat to a simmer and partially cover to minimize evaporation.
Step 4: Continue simmering for 20 minutes. Heating longer is not recommended since vitamin C is degraded by heat.
Step 5: Remove from heat and filter the needles by straining. The tea may be consumed warm or cold.
Optional: Add lemon juice and sweetener of choice, such as maple syrup or stevia.
So it’s not that the flavor is unpalatable, but rather that we just aren’t accustomed to it.
As an herbal remedy, many claim the tea can be good for colds, coughs, chest congestion, and upper respiratory illnesses. However none of those claims have been validated.
It is true that the influenza medicine Tamiflu (oseltamivir phosphate) is made from shikimic acid, which can be found in white pine, red pine, and other conifer trees. However the pharma manufacturing partners who license the Tamiflu patent from Roche reportedly harvest their shikimic acid from the star anise plant (Illicium verum) grown in China (11).
According to a 2011 newsletter published by the University of Maine, star anise is 6% shikimic acid by weight and some coniferous tree needles are 3% by weight. Nilmini Gedivinne, who was a Ph.D. candidate in their chemistry department, proposed sourcing this ingredient from pine because it is “much more accessible, and much cheaper.” She also stated it is “easily extractable through a process similar to brewing tea” (12).
Pharmaceuticals involve not just highly purified (and therefore safer) sources of an ingredient, but also unique methods of delivery and dosing which have been tested and validated in clinical trials. That is in stark contrast to a homemade beverage recipes, which involve many unknown variables and some of those can even be dangerous. For that reason, tea made from pine needles should definitely NOT be considered a treatment or cure for the flu, nor any other disease for that matter.
Perhaps someday though that will change if and when further research validates some of the suggested health benefits.
The preliminary research regarding needle extracts (not teas) have included:
The Institute on Aging at Seoul National University (South Korea) published a study in 2006 about pine needles from a species which grows in Korea; Pinus densiflora Siebold et Zuccarini. In the study, freeze dried pine needle powder was fed to both mice and rats with cancer. Tumor growth was reportedly suppressed in both animal models. They suggested that the pine extract might have antimutagenic and antitumor effects and therefore, further cancer prevention research on the substance would be useful (13).
In the March 2011 issue of Journal of Food Science, a study was published about the antibrowning and antimicrobial properties of an extract harvested from Cedrus deodara, which is a species of pine native to the western Himalayas, including Tibet and western Nepal. Conducted by a team of Chinese researchers, the study suggested it “showed a strong antioxidant activity” against free radicals and had high gallic acid content, which is a type of antioxidant (14). A followup was also published in Sept. 2014 (15).
Are there pine needle health benefits for endurance and fitness? One study published in Sept. 2014 suggested there might be. The 5 week study involved rats divided into 6 groups; (1) control, (2) normal diet + exercise, (3) high cholesterol, (4) high cholesterol + exercise, (5) high cholesterol + pine needle supplementation, and (6) high cholesterol + pine needle supplementation + exercise. The conclusion was that the rats getting the pine needle powder experienced increased protein expression (16). Somewhat related to that same topic, a study published in July 2013 looked at pine needle water benefiting the oxidative stress experienced by obese mice (17).
Although it’s not about the needles, an interested study was published in June 2015 which looked at the pine nuts from the Afghan pine (Pinus eldarica). Forty white New Zealand rabbits of the same age were used in the study. The study suggested “lower blood cholesterol level and aortic atherosclerotic involvement” for the high cholesterol diet rabbits who were receiving the pine nuts.
It’s important to remember that these are all animal studies. The findings in animals, no matter how promising, often end up being quite different when studied in human biology. The research is all very preliminary and much more needs to be done to determine what health benefits (if any at all) exist for humans.
To date, the only verifiable health benefits of pine needle tea would be the vitamin content they may may contain. We have discussed the high vitamin C content. The needles also tend to be rich in beta-carotene (vitamin A).
Making and drinking pine needle tea remains to be a risky endeavor for people who are not experts on botany. Given the lack of studies on human biology, speaking with your doctor before making it a part of your diet would be a good idea. For that same reason, pregnant woman and those who may become pregnant should avoid it altogether.
It’s also important to remember that just because we can eat or drink something and not notice adverse effects, it does not necessarily mean the substance isn’t harming our bodies in more subtle or gradual ways over time. This is exactly why someone can have a food allergy and never know it, until they get an allergy test and discover their body is producing antibodies against what they previously thought was harmless.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.