Nature’s General Store – The Pine Tree

It’s said, “Whatever goes around, comes around” and pine pitch is certainly a case in point. People have always needed to stick things together as well as disinfect and heal wounds. In modern times, the two needs have been combined in the development of self-stick bandages – most commonly called Band-Aids. A little adhesive strip with a gauze compress in the middle, sometimes treated with antiseptic, these innovative items are found in first aid kits and home medicine cabinets across much of the world. Modern technology is certainly innovative! Or is it?

For hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, those who hunted, fished, fought, trapped and carried heavy loads up slippery trails or merely worked around the cave at do-it-yourself projects, were continuously dinging, whacking, scraping, and cutting themselves. Where were Band-Aids then? Fortunately, with a little creative flare, early people found them in nature. In fact, it could be said they grew on trees – pine trees.

Pines come in numerous varieties, including three that were always in high demand – white pine, yellow pine, and pinyon pine. Hidden inside the tissue of pines are special vessels called resin ducts through which flows that sticky substance we call pine pitch. Containing turpentine and a number of other related chemicals, the pitch is intended to ooze out when a pine tree is attacked by insects, gluing the little beggars in place, or filling the open wound to prevent bacteria or viral attacks and then hardening into a “scab” under and around which scar tissue forms to protect and close the injury.

Eons ago an adventurous entrepreneur finally decided to put the sticky stuff to use. Melted and poured over the surfaces of baskets, it was found to seal them so they would hold water. Pitch was used as glue to attach feathers to arrows or improve the attachment of arrowheads. Turquoise, obsidian and other stones were fastened to Indian artifacts using pine pitch glue.

But, the question of minor wounds and abrasions still existed. Where to look for a solution? To the ubiquitous pine, of course. Turpentine and related chemicals are part of pine pitch and are high effective antiseptics. At some time in our dim forgotten past, an inventive soul with a scrape or cut looked at the aromatic pitch on a pine, sniffed it and decided to smear some on a wound. Darn stuff burned and smarted, but we all know, “if it hurts, it’s good for you.” To his great pleasure, the pitch didn’t easily rub or wash off (not that he was washing very often anyway) and it was readily obtained. In fact, its sticking ability was already legendary. Get it on you, and it was there to stay. So, there they had it, glue that healed.

Recently, at least two manufacturers have come up with liquid bandages not too different from that ancient gooey treatment. Band-Aid Liquid Bandage™ and Medtech’s New Skin™ are two products now available over the counter, both of which hark back to that sticky-fingered experimenter in the ancient fields and forests. The former is a stingless polymer that forms a tough, flexible coating with only one application and the latter is a substance distantly related to fingernail polish, sometimes requiring multiple applications and it does sting a bit. Both stick well and form a clear, waterproof protective covering.

More and more, it seems medical science is learning or re-learning lessons from the past. Not too long ago most drugs were extracted from plants. Therefore they were called – guess what? – Botanicals. Today we’re finding effective cancer-fighting drugs in plants. Paint-on bandages are just the tip of the iceberg. We still have much to learn from nature’s fields and forests.

Dr. Risk is a professor emeritus in the College of Forestry and Agriculture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Content © Paul H. Risk, Ph.D. All rights reserved, except where otherwise noted. Click to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.