Pine needles, and conifers in general, have a very mixed review of their safety versus toxicity online. When we first began foraging, we brought with us various misconceptions about what was and wasn’t edible. For example, I grew up being told that Mountain Ash was poisonous, but information is coming out saying otherwise and that its great for use in cooking meat! I haven’t tried it yet because I plan to do more research before harvesting that berry. But when you spend so much of your life being told one thing and then another pops up, you have to be careful and do your homework before accepting new info as truth.
Growing up, I also would nibble on Lodgepole Pine needles from time to time. I liked the flavour. I wouldn’t actually swallow the needles, but I chewed them for their juice. Imagine then, beginning my foraging career being told that Lodgepole and Ponderosa Pine are poisonous?! Well, I had to do more research. Sites such as: https://www.superfoodly.com/how-to-make-pine-needle-tea-recipe-for-benefits-or-dangers/ make the erroneous assumption that if it’s bad for animals, it will be bad for humans too. But as Green Deane of Eat the Weeds points out in http://www.eattheweeds.com/bet-your-life-on-it-myth-busting/ what’s good for animals isn’t necessarily good for humans either. Again, you have to do your homework!
I let well enough alone on the Pine needle question until it became clear that the reason why some wild foods are classified as dangerous by some people and not others, both historically as well as in present-day, is because of differences in preparation. There is no clearer example of this than popping into any grocery store, heading to the produce department and grabbing yourself a bag of potatoes! Did you know the potatoe is a member of the Nightshade family, and that its leaves and any green in the skins should not be eaten? Of course you already knew that potatoes have been a white-man staple food for eons across the European continent. So what makes the potatoe safe to eat? A) Cooking it in any variety of ways. B) Ensuring any greenish colour on the skins is removed before cooking. C) NOT eating the leaves, stems, etc.
I came across a similar discrepency with Chokecherry berries where some native tribes said it was poisonous while other native tribes said it was a staple superfood in season. Now there’s some historical conflict for you! I found the answer in how the berries were prepared! Eat them raw and risk mild cyanidic side effects. Cook them to remove the hydrocyanidic compound and they’re fine. Then we found a field guide at the local Superstore.
This field guide was written by various authors all with Phd’s in various aspects of botany, silvaculture, etc. They had an entire section on conifers, their historical uses whether for food or medicine, and a very interesting statement in their warning box at the bottom of each conifer entry. This statement is absolutely necessary to understand in order to learn where potential toxicity is purported to come from. Unfortunately, a similar warning should be on every single black, green or white tea sold on the market, but it is not there!
Conifer needles contain oils that if eaten in significant enough quantities, will cause hardship to the kidneys, much the same as the tannins present in black, green, or white teas. Overworked kidneys have problems of their own, so it pays to drink such teas in moderation. Conifer oils can also have an effect on the female urterus that causes it to contract. This is a good thing for menstrating women who are not planning pregnancies, but it can be abortive if a pregnant woman drinks too much, or a contraceptive to women trying to plan their pregnancy. There is a comment in Green Deane’s article linked above where a woman successfully used this aspect of Pine Needle Tea for this purpose after having a miscarriage. She didn’t want to go the chemical route to cleanse her uterus, so she had some Pine Needle Tea instead.
Due to this particular side effect being a bane to some and a boon to others, Ashtree Wildcrafting has a warning on any teas containing enough concentrations of conifers to be a potential threat to those planning or going through pregnancy. This is the crux of the matter however, if you binge on any tea with conifer needles in it, you will reap side effects. But if you enjoy in moderation, your chances of encountering them are no greater than the side effects of drinking black, green, or white tea.
Pine Needles in particular are said to be at least 5 times stronger in Vitamin C than your average lemon. They also have traces of Vitamin A and Beta-Carotene.
Once we found the source of the potential toxic threat that is so badly blown out of perportion online these days, (because most of these sources don’t state where the threat comes from) and once we learned that the threat is increased or decreased by how much material is steeped and for how long, we knew we could safely use it in our teas.
Conifers are also great for help with opening lungs and breathing easier, whether you have a cold, asthma, or other congestive lung condition. We have a personal Conifer Blend that contains several different conifers in it, Pine being one of them, that drastically opens up the airways and induces coughing to get phlegm out. However, this is so strong that we are hesitant to offer it to the public. We have a milder version that also works for us, but we only have it available as a specialty tea for those who might benefit from it. Examples of what Pine Needle tea itself are good for, along with a more comprehensive list of potential side effects, are listed here: https://www.organicfacts.net/health-benefits/herbs-and-spices/pine-needle-tea.html We have observed that the longer you let conifer tea sit, the more the oils are released into the water, and it is these oils responsible for the side effects mentioned.
Keep in mind, the above list of side effects assume you are only having straight Pine Needle tea. At Ashtree Wildcrafting, we’ve never made, nor will we ever offer, teas made JUST of one ingredient, particularly ingredients than when had by themselves seem to have such a long warning list. Instead, we believe in moderation. Pine Needles feature in a number of our teas, but not as the primary ingredient. They are added for their nutritional content and addition to the overall flavour/smell bouquet.
As with just about anything we’ve come across so far in our foraging journey, foods that were historically eaten or drunk but that get freaked out over now, are usually freaked out over because knowledge of how to prepare them is lacking. This is particularly the case where historical references conflicted with each other. One group knew how to eat or drink something while another group did not have that knowledge. If we learned how to prepare the potatoe for safe eating and now consider such preparation normal, if we ingest amazing amounts of green, black and white teas without thought of what the tannins are doing to our kidneys, then it’s safe to ingest Pine Needles as well, with thought to preparation and moderation. So pay attention to steep times mentioned with our teas, and pay attention to any warnings we feel the need to share. Failure to observe these warnings and recommended preparation methods will have consequences, if not immediately, down the road.