Wise women and the plants they love: Katja Swift, Pine

As part of our Wise women and the plants they love series, clinical herbalist Katja Swift lets us in on a few secrets about pine, its medicinal uses and how she likes to prepare it.


Katja Swift is the director of the CommonWealth Center Holistic Herbalism and teaches at both the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, and Northeastern University. She also enjoys getting sticky with pine resin every once in a while… 

It’s so hard to pick just one favorite plant. Herbalists have a game, about what one plant would you want to have with you if you were stuck on a desert island – except, it’s “what 13 plants would you want if…” because no one can quite manage numbers smaller than that!

But, because we’re teaching a lot of first aid classes this summer, Pine has been front and center in my mind, and in particular, the resin(though here in New England, most locals refer to it as “pitch”.) The resin has a high concentration of volatile oils and smells absolutely delightful, which is good, because it’s also super sticky and darned near impossible to wash off your skin.* That’s a benefit, actually – when you’re out in the woods and haven’t time or access to tools for medicine making, you can put pine resin directly on a wound as an antiseptic and immune stimulant. But really, making pine resin into salve is so easy, and so much more pleasant to smear on your skin – I honestly never leave home without it – in my first aid kit, that is!

All you need to do to make the salve is gather yourself some “glops” of pine resin (from whatever type of pine is local to you), making sure that you leave some behind for the tree. Those glops of resin (which sometimes kind of look like bird poop on the side of the tree, and other times look like yellow bits of amber drips) are actually part of the tree’s immune system, and they are functioning like a scab over injured areas of bark. When you take some of the glop (that’s the technical term!), make sure that you leave a nice thick layer behind to do its job for the tree. There will be bits of stuff in it – pine needles and dirt and whatnot – but don’t worry, you’ll strain that out later. Put the pine resin right into a pot of oil (I like to use plantain and calendula infused olive oil, or tallow if I have some) and warm it gently until the pine resin melts. Carefully strain it through cheesecloth, which will catch all the bits of dirt and leave you with the clean oil. Then you can add your beeswax as you normally would, and you’re ready to go!

We use pine resin salve on pretty much everything except burns (I prefer honey with lavender for burns). And I really do always have some in my bag :-)

What are the other 12 plants, you ask? Well, that varies sometimes, but usually it’s something like: chamomile, ginger, elder, wood betony, tulsi, sage, kelp, yarrow, linden, codonopsis, angelica, and rose. And also lobelia. :-)

* You can actually wash the pine resin off your skin fairly easily with oil. But sometimes it’s fun to go around all sticky!

A warm thanks to Katja Swift for sharing her piney wisdom with us all on the blog. I can’t wait to try out her salve and would love to hear how you go if you try it too. Until then stay tuned for further installments of Wise Women, and if you haven’t done so already, check out our earlier post with Susun Weed, Julie McIntyre and Kristine Brown.

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