When we first arrived in New Mexico we set up our tent on the crest of a hill in the National Forest outside of Santa Fe. The mountains that surrounded us were still capped with snow. For about a month we explored that little part of the mountain where we camped – it was so different from anything I had ever seen! So open, so dry, so powerful!
It was here that I fell in love with the pines.
There were two types that I came to know: the Ponderosa pine growing majestic with long needles and large cones, the tallest tree by far on these arid mountains, and the piñon growing low with its twisted branches and bristly needles.
The piñon were everywhere. They made the shade that we sat under to cook our food. They lent their twisted branches for us to hang our clothes and diapers on to dry and so I discovered their abundant pitch! I discovered a huge store of it one day on a wounded branch. I took a small bit and played with it in my fingers. The smell was heavenly. “Is there a history of people eating pine pitch?” I wondered, and tried a little piece. So opening! I wanted to use the pitch, to integrate it into my life in any way I could!
At an artisan market in Santa Fe I met an herbalist from Taos. She showed me a salve she had made, an old remedy that the grandmothers of the Southwest passed down to their families, she told me. It was made from the sap of the piñon. When I got home I learned more; the sap of conifers (like pine, spruce, and fir) is well known in many traditional cultures to have astounding healing properties. The trees themselves use it to heal their own wounds. If a branch is broken or a piece of bark torn from the tree the pitch oozes liberally onto the wound providing a protective and healing bandage for the tree. Applying the raw pitch or a salve made from the pitch will have the same healing and protective properties on wounds to our human flesh. It stimulates rapid regrowth and activates an efficient immune response to whatever ails your skin, be it a burn, a splinter, a scratch or cut, or an infected area.
The first thing to do is collect the pitch. I was lucky enough to find a time when both of my kids were sleeping(!!!). I took a jar (a cleaned-out and dried 24 oz applesauce jar) and went to visit the trees. I don’t have to walk far to find the pines – just outside my door there is one who gave a little of its pitch. When collecting, remember that the tree is using the pitch to heal itself, so don’t take so much that you expose the tree’s wound. Often there is plentiful pitch, so much that it drips down and falls on the branches below. I walked through a piñon grove and many of the trees had plentiful sap, but most of it was too high up for me to reach. I tried climbing, with jar in-hand, and got a bit of sap that way. (The sap is seriously sticky. I don’t recommend wearing your favorite clothes while doing this.) I filled the jar about a third of the way with sap. The best sap to collect for this is the sort that is still soft and pliable. The hardened sap takes much longer to infuse, but is still just as healing. If the hardened sap is all you can find, then make sure to crush it into little pieces before you try to infuse it into your oil (crushing between two flat stones works well). Late spring, summer and early fall are the best times to collect the pitch. If you live where piñon doesn’t grow, then harvest pitch from a different species of pine or even fir or spruce.
Once you’ve collected enough pine sap, sort through it. Pick out any obvious bits of bark or moss. Return it to the jar. I decided to add some pine needles to the pitch – I had some more helping hands at this point – Peacy helped my strip the needles from a few sprigs that we collected and added them to the jar. This part of the process is pretty messy.
Once everything is back in the jar you can add the oil. I think olive oil works very well with the pine pitch, but you could use a different oil if you prefer. Fill the jar with oil, but leave an inch or so empty at the top so you can work with the material in the jar while it is infusing.
You can let the sap infuse slowly by putting it in a very warm place (like on a shelf above a woodstove) for a few weeks, but I’m not patient enough for that. I think it works just as well and doesn’t seem to compromise the properties of the salve to use a double boiler method on a very low heat for a few hours. I put enough water into a large pot so that the water level is even with the level of the olive oil. I turn on the heat as low as it will go and let it infuse for at least 4 hours. This part of the process smells amazing, by the way.
The oil changes color and becomes thicker as more and more of the pitch dissolves into it. The pine needles loose their color – they give their vital green to the oil and slowly turn a more brownish green as they infuse. It’s a beautiful process to watch.
Every hour or so, as the oil was infusing, I took it out of its water bath to stir it, breaking up any chunks of pitch that were holding together. I used a clean dry pine branch, about a centimeter in diameter and maybe a foot long, to stir the oil with. It worked better than a spoon and it was much easier to clean up. I just put it into the compost when we were all done. Be careful when returning the jar to the pot of hot water and put it in very, very gently or the jar could break. This has happened to me before when making salves and it’s really messy.
After about 5 hours there were still a few of the hardest chunks left that hadn’t dissolved, but it was getting late. Micah was ready to go to sleep and Peacy was too, although she wouldn’t have admitted it. I removed the jar from the hot water bath and stirred it one last time. Then I used the pine stick to remove most of the browned needles (some stayed stuck to the bottom of the jar). They held together easily for the transfer to the compost.
This next part was so satisfying. I had been dreading straining the oil, thinking it would mean a lot of very hard clean-up work, so I tried just pouring the oil into a clean jar first. I used another 24 oz applesauce jar. I’m so glad I did this – all the bits of bark and extra needles stayed stuck to the bottom of the first jar as I poured and the oil came out clean! I never had to strain it! The old jar was impossible to clean… although I admit, I didn’t actually try. But in truth I wouldn’t recommend using your nicest jar for this process unless you intend to spend a while cleaning it up afterwards.
So, there you have it! That is how you make pine pitch oil.
To make a salve from the oil add some beeswax to a jar and let it melt using the same double boiler method that you used for the pine pitch oil. If I’m using a pint jar I usually try to get a little less than 1/2 cup (1/4 pint) of melted beeswax. Then, after the beeswax has all melted, I add the pine oil – a little less than 1 and a half cups (3/4 pint). This should fill the jar almost all the way to the top. Then I let this sit in the hot water bath again until it is totally dissolved. Stirring can help this process along.
If you’re only making a small amount of the salve for personal use then you can let it cool in whatever container you mixed it in. And you’re done! If your like me and you want to make a bunch of little tins to sell or give away, then you need to figure out what sort of container you’ll put the salve into and how to transfer it without making a huge mess. I use one ounce metal tins, so I use a baster (like the sort people use for turkey, but this is one I reserve specifically for this purpose, since it’s hard to clean beeswax and oil out of a baster). It’s nice because the baster has a little “1 oz” mark on it. I suck up an ounce of the hot salve into the baster and carefully transfer it from the jar into the metal tins. One pint makes about 15 one ounce tins. I let the salves cool, cap them, label them and store them in a relatively cool place. There you go!
This was such a fun process and so rewarding. If you feel drawn to the healing power of pine pitch, then I suggest you try this recipe!