In the depths of New England winter, it can seem like the green of the landscape has all been replaced by white and grey. The perennial herbs sleep below blankets of snow, the limbs of oaks, maples, birches, all bare. We’ve spent the past Autumn harvesting and making medicine to store for the winter and carry us through until the new growth of Spring.
Behold, the sleepy winter forest, which holds gifts of strong medicine: cedar, juniper, hemlock, spruce, and pine, to name a few. For me, it is the white pine in particular, bows drooping with the weight of heavy snow, that represent the quintessential image of Vermont winter. White pines have long been a dominant presence of the New England landscape. As a slow growing, long-lived tree, they reach mid-life at 200 years old and can easily reach heights of over 200 feet. These majestic giants, although logged extensively since the beginning of colonial conquest and exploitation, can still be appreciated in many Vermont woodlands.
White Pines, along with many other evergreen trees of northern New England, hold potent remedies in their needles. If you have ever tasted a cedar tip or a hemlock needle, then you know the instant sensation of aroma and flavor that comes from crushing a tiny needle between your teeth: aromatic, warm, piney, and a little sour.
The unique flavor of evergreens tells us much about their medicinal properties. Aromatic: they are rich in essential oils with antimicrobial and immune stimulating properties. Warm: they increase circulation and help break a fever. Sour: they are high in vitamin C and other phytochemicals.
Many of the evergreen trees can be used as warming winter remedies. They can be made into tea, added to a bath, or used as a sinus steam. I’ve even been known to boil fir branches from my Christmas tree to fill my house with their lovely aroma.
Here I will share with you a recipe for White Pine Syrup. You can substitute pine with a variety of evergreens, just make sure you positively identify any tree before using. There are a few evergreens that are poisonous, such as the yew. Also, I prefer to use windfallen branches. If you harvest directly from a living tree, please be respectful and only take what you need. Never overharvest and always ask permission and thank the tree for it’s gifts.
White Pine Needle Syrup
1 cup fresh or dried (but still green) pine needles
2 cups water
1 cup honey or sugar
Rinse pine needles with cold water and coarsely chop
In a pot, combine pine needles and water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.
Let simmer for 1 hour.
If the water level becomes low, add a little more.
After 1 hour, check to see if the water level is approximately half the original volume. Reduce further or add more water accordingly.
Remove from heat and let cool.
Strain while water is still warm.
Combine 1 cup of tea with 1 cup of honey or sugar. Mix thoroughly.
Bottle, label, and store in the refrigerator.
Take 1 tsp of syrup 2-3x/ day at the onset of a cold. You can also make herbal soda with the syrup by adding it to seltzer--about 2 oz per 16 oz of seltzer, or use it in cocktails. Get creative--the sky's the limit.
Evergreens remind us that even in winter, we are supported by the abundance of nature and the healing properties of the plants all around us. So get out those snowshoes or cross country skis and go explore the forests and woodlands in all their winter wonder.
Lately I've been fully appreciating the importance of having mentors in my life to continue to inspire, encourage, and help me see the world more broadly, more clearly, and in new ways that are necessary for growth.
The wisdom that comes from experience is like nothing else, especially when that wisdom can be conveyed directly to you in a personalized way that helps you see it as clearly as possible from your own vantage point.
A mentor isn't just an impartial teacher or resource. A mentor sees your gifts and where you need encouragement. They have your back. They're rooting for you. They want you to succeed.
The skilled and wise mentor is able to impart knowledge in a familiar and digestible way. I've often held the attitude that I should be able to do the research, put in the time, and figure out everything myself. But there is something so valuable about getting the information, the method, the theory, the design, from someone who has lived through it. Who really knows it from within. A mentor can answer your questions in real time. They can explain something from different angles until you really get it. They can see the spark of understanding flash across your face and build upon your confidence in that moment, gently guiding you along and closer to your goal.
In a sense, plants are mentors too. They are our elders. They have been around for millions of years. Humans have been evolving alongside plants since before we were human. They impart information to us in a different but equally intimate and personalized way. The phytochemistry of plants is in constant communication with our bodies on a molecular and cellular level.
I remember once hearing herbalist Richard Mandelbaum say, "to ask how humans discovered herbal medicine is like asking how we discovered how to breathe." Think about that for a moment.
Every time you walk into a forest, you breathe in millions of terpene molecules from the trees. These tiny plant chemicals relax the mind, slow the heart rate, and strengthen the immune system. This is no coincidence, we have learned from the plants how to live. Humans developed color vision to better see the pigments of fruits, which often indicates the concentration of nutrients. We require the bitterness from plants for our digestion to work properly--they teach us how to metabolize toxins. Just as we need human mentors to guide us through life and help us grow, we require plants as mentors to stay in balanced health.
And like mentorship, the way that phytochemistry and phytonutrients interact with our bodies and minds is highly individualized. An herb can have some effect on one person and an entirely different effect on another. It is precisely this individualized relationship between our bodies and the bodies of plants that makes herbalism such a simple, elegant way to tap into the abundant gifts and wisdom that the plant world has to offer us. Plants and herbal medicines can be our mentors in health. All we have to do is accept their guidance.