In northern Wisconsin, white pine is the king of the old growth forests. This was the tree that was logged after the United States Civil War to build homes across the northern plain states where trees were so rare. Many of our out buildings and cabins are still built out of this tree because it grows so straight and makes great lumber. The white pine is used here for medicinal purposes as well. It's needles are high in vitamin C and it's inner bark gives enough calories to justify it's gathering on frigid winter days.
The tree has a smooth greenish bark when it is young but as it grows older it gets the vertical crackly bark that set the giant apart from other pines in the forest. It also has medium length needles, about 2 to 3 inches long that grow in clumps or bracts of five. The easiest way to remember this is the remember that it's first name, 'white', has five letters in it and it's needles grow in bracts of five.
The white pine oils are anti-microbial, meaning it helps destroy the "germs" that can make us sick. If you have to 'do your business' out in the woods, tearing off a handful of white pine needles and rubbing them over your hands is as good as using antibacterial soap back at home.
These needles are also high in vitamin C. Many of the old granny women healers of the north often put white pine needles into their healing teas as we all know that vitamin C helps boost the immune system.
We make a vinegar tincture from the needles for this and other uses. If anyone makes their own apple cider or buys it unpasteurized from someone who does they know just how short of a shelf life it has. Apple cider that is made early in the season usually turns to vinegar quite fast (while late season cider goes hard just as fast, yum). Using this high acid cider vinegar, usually higher in acid than you can buy in the store, is a great way to extract the medicinal properties of the white pine needles. Simply cut off the bracts (the little sheath that holds the needles together) and stuff the needles into a clean glass jar. Pour the apple cider vinegar over the needles, cover the jar, and shake. Keep it out of direct sunlight for a month, shaking it a couple times a day. At the end of the month strain out the needles and put them on the compost pile. They'll add a bit of acid to your compost. The remaining vinegar can be taken a tablespoon at a time several times a day if you feel a cold coming on or to shorten one you already have.
What you have just made is not only a healing tincture but a wonderful cooking vinegar as well. It is basically a mock balsamic vinegar, with the same flavor bite that a store bought balsamic gives you. Mix this with oil for a nice salad dressing to dress the greens from your own garden. No need to rely on someone else to flavor your food.
If you boil the needles in water on a low simmer for an hour or so and then strain out the needles (again into the compost pile with them), add equal amounts honey to the pine infused water, you have a good cough medicine and it helps to kill off any bacteria that may be in your system.
Another thing we do with the white pine is take the inner bark and simmer it on VERY low heat in a cooking oil of some sort. We usually use olive oil. Keep this heating for an hour or two but don't let the oil smoke. Turn off the heat and let it set covered if the oil gets too hot. After an hour or two carefully strain out the bark (this makes good fire starter now) and put the oil back into the clean pan. Shave off equal part beeswax as what you have oil and mix them together, heating just enough so that the wax melts into the oil. Quickly pour off this new salve into a heat proof container and let cool.
While on it's own, white pine bark salve is not a healing salve (you would need to add comfrey or chickweed to if for that), the antimicrobial effect helps keep any damaged skin free of infection. Pine tar use to be used the same way in days gone by, but I find that the skin feels better when a oil/beeswax mixture is used instead.
The inner bark of the white pine can be eaten as well, but for me it is a survival food at best. It does have calories but it tastes and feels in your mouth like you are eating a pine tree. Not my favorite food. But the name Adirondack means bark eater and the bark these people ate for winter fare was the inner bark of the white pine tree. It would take whole villages through the winter. So I guess it would be good if you had very little else to eat.
If you want to try white pine bark to eat, this is a good time of the year to do it. The bark separates from the tree much easier in the winter than it does in the summer months. Now, forget all you may have read about boiling the bark up like spaghetti. Yes, if you take long strips of bark off the tree it does kind of look like spaghetti, but if you boil up white pine bark all you'll get is a big pot of tree fibers. It's really gross. The best and only way I know of to make it palatable is to roast the bark on either a hot rock or better yet in a dry cast iron skillet until the bark becomes crispy. It then feels kind of like you are eating a potato chip. It's not what it tastes like but if you flavored it with some sort of dip you MIGHT be able to forget you are eating a tree. I, myself, never have but you can give it a go. Whole tribes of people thought it was good enough to eat.
I'll stick with my mock balsamic vinegar and the occasional needle tea as my wild edible from this tree. As a medicinal though it is one of winter's best and most used plants. The majestic white pine helped build a nation and still keeps us well as we shiver through the dark time of the year.