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Toxic to Tasty - the Gifts of the Umbrella Pine

Recently I’ve found a couple of huge, beautiful pine cones in my garden, the kind that you want to store away until Christmas to display on the mantelpiece. We have three pine trees that sit on the border between us and our neighbour, one of which is an umbrella pine (or stone pine / Pinus pinea) which was planted around twelve years ago. This year is the first time we’ve found cones on the ground. The reason that the cones of the umbrella pine are so large is that beneath each scale hides a shelled, edible seed known to us all as ‘pine nuts’ or ‘pine kernels’ (çam fıstığı). The outer shells of pine nuts are incredibly tough and black in colour, hence why the Pinus pinea is sometimes referred to as the ‘stone pine’.

I’ve been thinking how best to describe the flavour of pine nuts, but they don’t really have much of a flavour, more so a butter-like smoothness that gives Mediterranean dishes such as pesto, stuffed vine leaves (dolma/sarma) and irmik helvası (semolina halva) an extra touch of something special.

Native to the Mediterranean region, the umbrella pine is easily identifiable as it forms a bushy, parasol-shaped canopy higher up the trunk than our local, common pine, the Pinus brutia. Bergama in Izmir is Turkey’s main pine nut producing region. Close to Muğla, commercial umbrella pine plantations are located around Aydın and Milas. If you’re interested in seeing the trees en masse, there’s a fantastic drive from Karpuzlu (Aydın) to Lake Bafa, which passes through a vast Pinus pinea forest. The trees are reminiscent of coral growing from the ocean bed.

Cones can take eighteen months to mature on the tree and need to be harvested when the cones first begin to open during the late-winter months. Finding cones on the ground in May means that many of the seeds have dried up and disappeared, something I discovered after eagerly crushing open around thirty tough seed shells, to find only four healthy seeds. The majority had shrivelled away, leaving just their skins.

The idea of having a supply of pine nuts in my own garden led me to do a little research into harvesting techniques…

Considering their high price in the supermarkets, it may come as no surprise that pine nuts are difficult to harvest. The trees can grow up to twenty metres tall, and so manually picking the cones from the tree is dangerous work. Pickers use a telescopic ladder (imaging a tall, slim pole with steps either side) to climb high up to the fruitful branches. They can extend the pole as they climb up by adding extra pieces, but a maximum height of around twelve metres is possible. It’s also common for the lower branches of the trees to be cut, to form a natural ladder to climb high up to the lower canopy. Pickers then use a stick with a hook to shake the branches and knock the cones down to the ground. Trees with a wide canopy can pose an extra challenge to pickers, also harvesting cannot continue in wet weather due to the risk of the picker slipping.

There is an alternative to the perilous practice of manual picking. Mechanical harvesting is undertaken in some countries. A machine can be clamped to the trunk to shake the tree, causing the cones, old branches, and dead needles to fall. This method is not common in Turkey yet, though studies show it reduces harvest time massively, and of course human risk is minimal.

It’s not just pine nuts that the umbrella pine gifts us with. Rosin, the sticky resin of the Pinus pinea and other types of pine, has an impressive list of uses. It can be distilled to create a volatile spirit called ‘turpentine’ (‘terebentin’ in Turkish), which is commonly found in hardware and hobby stores. It is used as a thinner for oil paints, is utilised in the Turkish art form of ebru (paper marbling), acts as a solvent for waxes, sealants, lacquers, varnishes, adhesives and polishes, plus it features in paper and printing ink manufacturing. Additionally, turpentine plays an important role in the pharmaceutical and chemical industries, being found in aromatic cleaning products, antiseptics, perfumes and insecticides. More controversial uses of turpentine include homeopathy and soap making. Centuries ago turpentine was used by some doctors to kill intestinal worms, though unsurprisingly, considering the high toxicity of the substance, this practice ceased. Rosin (pine resin) is the non-volatile extract produced by distillation and has its own impressive and eclectic list of uses. When molded in a solid block it forms a wax for the hair on bows of stringed instruments such as violins, and is traditionally used to 'pitch' wooden beer casks, creating a water-resistant lining. Dancers also apply powdered rosin to minimise slippage on polished floors.

Interestingly, the Greek wine retsina holds a heady, pine infused aroma, due to the addition of sap from the Aleppo pine (Pinus halepensis). If you’ve ever tried retsina, you’ll know it’s the kind of drink that puts hairs on your chest. Which is a little ironic, as pine rosin can also be used as a natural hair waxing substance. It really is that sticky!

And it doesn’t end there. Pine tar, a dark, sticky substance extracted via a process involving high heat and pressure, can be used in soap making, creating a soap which relieves skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis. It is also used as a wood preservative and sealant, particularly in the maritime industry. Who knew a single tree could benefit so many crafts and industries?

Once again I am in awe of the history and uses held by one single plant in my garden, the list of ways to use pine derivatives stretches as vast as its roots. The next time I gaze at the branches of an umbrella pine, or bite through a pine nut in my pesto, I’ll take a moment to appreciate just how much this tree genus gives us. I’m also determined to attempt a safe and successful pine cone harvest next winter. The temptation is too much to bear!


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