For our final Feature Plant Friday for 2018, we are taking a look at the pine tree, an iconic symbol of Christmas celebrations across the world. While the pine trees we now associate with Christmas are native to the Northern Hemisphere, did you know Australia has their own native species, including two that are over 200 million years old?

While pine trees from the Northern Hemisphere are members of the Pinaceae family and those in the Southern Hemisphere belong to the Araucariaceae family and aren’t considered ‘true’ pines, both belong to the Pinales order, which includes all surviving species of conifers. Both are evergreen trees that are commonly used as ornamental trees, in the timber industry, and in traditional medicines and cultural celebrations.

Faiths and Cultures:

While we typically associate pine trees with Christmas celebrations, pine trees, and evergreen trees more generally, have played roles in celebrations since the Ancient Egyptians and Romans. But where did the Christmas tree come from?

The origins of the modern Christmas tree is commonly attributed to the Lutherans of 16th to 18th century modern Germany, who hung ‘paradise trees’ with decorations symbolising the biblical story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. Early decorations included apples, to symbolise the apple that Adam and Eve ate before being cast out of the Garden, as well as wafers, to symbolise the Eucharist, and candles to represent the light of Christ.

Eventually the apples were replaced with shiny red balls like the bauble we use today, the wafers by cookies, and candles by Christmas lights after electricity became more widely used. This custom then spread through Europe during the 19th century following the marriage of Queen Victoria and her German cousin Prince Albert, as wealthy middle-class families wanted to copy this new royal custom.

Pine trees are also called Yule trees, named after the pagan celebration of the birth of the Sun. Yule trees were placed in homes during winter holidays and Yule was celebrated around evergreen trees to ward off winter depression. This celebration then became associated with Christiantiy after the religion spread across Europe after the 5th century.

While Bunya pines aren’t true pine trees, they are a significant part of Aboriginal cultural practices. Bunya trees grow in a small area of Queensland and Aboriginal people from south-eastern Queensland and northern New South Wales would gather to hold Bunya feasts. Each clan owned particular trees and these feasts would be an opportunity to share lore and dances, trade goods, and discuss laws, marriages, and regional issues. However, due to the displacement of Aboriginal populations by settlements introduced by the government, the last Bunya feast is believed to have occurred in 1902.

Wollemi pines are another Australian native that, along with Bunya pines, were widespread around 350 million years ago along with the dinosaurs! In particular, Wollemi pines growing in the Blue Mountains have been dated back to over 200 million years ago and are now quite rare.

Medicinal Uses:

Medicinally, pine nuts, needles and bark have been used to treat everything from stuffy noses to blood pressure problems. In traditional Chinese medicine, pine resin is used to treat burns, while the pollen is used to relieve rheumatic pain and fatigue, as well as strengthen the immune system and heart.

Pine has also been used to treat inflammation in the upper and lower respiratory tract, the common cold, blood pressure problems, and even applied to the skin to reduce muscle and nerve pain. Early research has suggested that products containing pine extract can improve thinking and memory in middle-aged and older men when taken alongside vitamin C. However, more evidence is needed to prove the effectiveness of pine in treating all of these complaints.

Pine tree oil can also be applied to the skin to treat conditions such as eczema, but symptoms can worsen if you’re allergic to pine. Some pines also have poisonous needles, although these are often not ‘true’ pines and don’t belong to the Pinus genus. Examples of these include the Norfolk pine, the iconic pine that grows in coastal areas including Manly, which can cause vomiting in cats and dogs if the needles are consumed and skin irritation in people who handle the needles. So if you’re considering using pine needles, extract, or oil to treat any conditions, you should consult a doctor first.

Culinary Uses:

Pine trees also have many culinary uses and edible parts including the nuts, pollen, needles and even the bark! Pine nuts are quite commonly used in salads, quinoa, in pasta dishes, and in meatballs. The inner bark, also known as cambium, is rich in vitamins A and C and can be eaten as raw slices or ground into flour that can be used to thicken stews and soups or to make bread. Pine needles are often used to make tea and wine in Sweden and eastern Asia while the pollen of some species can be taken as a supplement.

Bunya nuts are often roasted and eaten or ground into a paste or flour that can be made into bread. Nowadays, these highly nutritious nuts are used in pizzas, pestos, gnocchi, and salads.

Keen to try something new? Here are some recipes to get you started:

Pine-needle tea, The Old Farmer’s Almanac

Broccoli, pine nut and chilli penne, SBS Food

Lamb and pine nut meatballs with parsley salad, Taste

Gardening Facts:

Pine trees are evergreen conifers, which means that their leaves stay green year-round and bear cones. While most species grown commercially aren’t Australian natives, they have become naturalised, meaning that they can exist on their own in the wild, and many species of wildlife have adapted to live in pine plantations. Many pine species are a great addition to gardens because of their ornamental cones and because they also attract butterflies and moths.

Most species that are native to Australia are also endemic, but are harder to find since European settlement due to logging and their vulnerability to fire. An example of this is the Wollemi pine, which was thought to be extinct until a grove was found in the early 1990s. Wollemi pines can be grown anywhere the Norfolk pine grows. Wollemi are also fast growers, growing up to a metre per year once their roots have been established. Because of their rarity, Wollemi pines can be a great choice for those who want to help conserve an ancient species that could even be a potted alternative to your traditional Christmas tree!

Merry growing, cooking, and Christmas! from all of us here at FoodFaith