Consider the humble pine needle.
Once it has done its vital job of transforming carbon dioxide into oxygen, it falls to the ground, its life over, only to be trampled upon by a passing deer, good for absolutely nothing — or is it?
I hate to confess it, but once upon a time, the only use I knew for a pine needle was slipping one into the pant leg of a fellow camper as a practical joke.
Yes, like many a hiker, I had discovered — the hard way — the remarkable ability of pine needles to ascend pant legs thanks to their pointy tips and the built-in spring action of their shape.
This allows them to move up but never down, in this way perfectly simulating the movement of whatever creeping creature you would least like to feel scurrying up your leg and heading for your private parts.
Sad to say, that was, for many years, the only use I knew of for a pine needle.
That was before I walked into the humble home of Marina Bañuelos in the little village of Emiliano Zapata, which lies 20 kilometers west of Guadalajara, just along the western perimeter of Jalisco’s sprawling Primavera Forest.
Karina Aguilar, director of Guadalajara’s network of urban parks, had mentioned Marina’s name to me on several occasions.
“You should see what she does with pine needles,” she had told me.
But I must confess I was imagining nothing more exciting than key chains as I stood before Marina’s kitchen table, waiting for this humble, unassuming mother to show me her crafts.
Well, my eyes and those of my companions literally bulged as Marina and her husband slowly filled that little table with exquisitely beautiful baskets, jars, vases, hot pads, purses, napkin holders, bowls and even a fully functioning table lamp. At the end, there was hardly any room left for a rack filled with very nice earrings, pins, necklaces and, of course, the inevitable key chains.
“How did you ever learn to make all of these things?” I asked.
“Something like 15 years ago,” Marina replied, “I was working in a pharmaceutical laboratory, but the hours were making it very difficult for me to take proper care of my family. Then I heard about a course in Artesanías de Ocochal (Pine Needle Art) that was being given in the Primavera Forest.
“I took the course, quit my job and I’ve been making things out of pine needles ever since. I like doing this, and I like the fact that I am recycling a natural product from the forest, turning what is considered waste into something beautiful.”
Of the 27 people who took that course, only Marina has continued to produce pine needle handicrafts.
“This kind of work is ideal for a mother. You can do just about everything inside your home. But then you have to take your pieces somewhere to sell them, and that’s what discouraged the other people who took that course.”
Probing a little deeper, I learned that another off-putting aspect of this craft is that it hurts your fingers. “But then you develop calluses,” said Marina, “and it no longer bothers you … Well, not so much, anyway.”
“Let me tell you how we prepare our material.” continued Marina. “First, we collect the pine needles from the forest, then we select the ones that are not too fat and not too thin and as long as possible. I prefer the needles of the Michoacán pine and Pinus oocarpa (also known as Mexican yellow pine or egg-cone pine).
“Then I boil the needles and clean them. There’s a kind of cap where the needles are joined together, and this must be removed. Finally, I put the wet needles into plastic bags to keep them moist and flexible. This way, they are workable, but when they’re dry, they break easily and can jab you.”
Marina also explained that she can produce two different natural hues in her pieces by drying some pine needles in the sunlight and others in the shade.
“Of course,” she added, “I also have techniques for dying the pine needles just about any color you can imagine.”
Marina’s finished product is very tough and resilient.
“You can wash it, and you can cut it,” she said, “and it’s amazing how these things made of pine needles always keep their original aroma. If you own a pine-needle basket, you always have a little bit of the woods in your home.”
I asked how long it took her to make the large jarón (something like a vase) that she showed me.
“It took 20 days,” she said. “I am selling it for 800 pesos, but in terms of the work required to make it, the price should be much higher. Nevertheless, some people still complain that it’s too expensive.”
In addition to pine needles, Marina incorporates pinecones and various seeds into her designs. In one bracelet, for example, I found fascinatingly shaped cat’s-claw pods, jojoba and peach seeds, frijoles (beans) and mini coconuts (coquitos) from the queen palm tree.
“In 2019,” Marina told me, “I participated in a meeting of artisans in Monterrey where there were people from Puebla who work with pine needles, but they have a different sewing technique. You might say they do the opposite of what we do here in Guadalajara. So they showed me their technique, and I showed them my methods for coloring pine needles.“
It is said that Mexico has more species of pine tree than any other country. That being the case, I figured there ought to be a few more uses for pine needles than those I now know about.
I found out that they are good as fire starters or mulch, but most interestingly I learned (from Gerry the Forest Ranger) that pine needle tea has many medicinal properties. Fresh pine needles, he says, especially those of the Douglas fir, contain five times the amount of vitamin C found in lemons.
Gerry also mentions that pine needles contain high levels of vitamin A and antioxidants.
“There is researched evidence that pine needle tea can help to slow the aging process,” he said. “Taoist priests drank pine needle tea as they believed it made them live longer.”
Want to give it a try? Just boil water and pour it over your fresh pine needles. A few minutes later, enjoy your healthy, longevity-boosting tea. I tried it using Pinus Oocarpa needles and found the flavor, well, every bit as delightful as tepid tap water. I guess I’d better give the Michoacán pine a try next.
Should you ever find yourself in the neighborhood of Emiliano Zapata (one of the gateways for entering a particularly spectacular part of the famed Primavera Forest) look for Marina’s house at No. 7 on the main street or just input “P99F+F4 Emiliano Zapata, Jalisco” on Google Maps.
You can also contact Marina through her Facebook page Quichali or send her a WhatsApp on her mobile phone: 556 602 5191.
The writer has lived near Guadalajara, Jalisco, for 31 years and is the author of A Guide to West Mexico’s Guachimontones and Surrounding Area and co-author of Outdoors in Western Mexico. More of his writing can be found on his website.