Consider the humble pine needle.
Once it has done its vital job of turning carbon dioxide into oxygen, it falls to the ground, its life ended, only to be trampled by a passing deer, good-for-nothing – or is it?
I hate to admit it, but once upon a time the only use I knew for a pine needle was to slip one through another camper’s pant leg as a joke.
Yes, like many hikers, I had discovered – the hard way – the remarkable ability of pine needles to pull up pant legs thanks to their sharp tips and the built-in spring action of their shape.
This allows them to go up but never down, perfectly mimicking the movement of the creepy creature you’d least like to feel scurrying up your leg and toward your private parts.
Sad to say, this was, for many years, the only use I knew of for a pine needle.
This was before I walked into Marina Bañuelos’ humble house in the small village of Emiliano Zapata, located 20 kilometers west of Guadalajara, just along the western perimeter of the vast Primavera forest of Jalisco.
Karina Aguilar, director of the Guadalajara urban parks network, had mentioned Marina to me on several occasions.
“You should see what she does with pine needles,” she told me.
But I must admit, I couldn’t imagine anything more exciting than key chains as I stood at Marina’s kitchen table, waiting for this humble, unpretentious mother to show me her crafts.
Well my eyes and those of my companions literally swelled as Marina and her husband slowly filled this little table with baskets, jars, vases, heating pads, handbags, napkin holders, bowls and even a fully functional table lamp. In the end, there was hardly any room left for a display full of very pretty earrings, pins, necklaces and, of course, the essential key rings.
“How did you ever learn to do all of these things? I asked.
“Something like 15 years ago,” Marina replied, “I worked in a pharmaceutical lab, but the hours made it very difficult for me to take care of my family. Then I heard about a course of Artesanías de Ocochal (Art of the pine needle) which was given in the forest of Primavera.
“I took the course, quit my job and have been making things with pine needles ever since. I love doing that, and I love recycling a natural product from the forest, turning what is considered waste into something beautiful.
Of the 27 people who took this course, only Marina continued to produce pine needle crafts.
“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 coins somewhere to sell them, and that’s what turned off other people who took this course.
As I delved a little deeper, I learned that another off-putting aspect of this craft is that it hurts your fingers. “But then you develop calluses,” Marina said, “and you don’t mind… Well, not so much, anyway.”
“Let me explain how we prepare our material. Marina continued. “First, we collect the pine needles from the forest, then we select the ones that are not too big 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 is a kind of cap where the needles come together, and you have to take it off. Finally, I put the wet needles in plastic bags to keep them moist and flexible. That way they are usable, but when dry they break easily and can sting you.
Marina also explained that she can produce two different natural hues in her rooms by drying some pine needles in the sun and others in the shade.
“Of course,” she added, “I also have techniques for dyeing pine needles pretty much any color you can imagine.”
Marina’s finished product is very strong and resistant.
“You can wash it, and you can cut it,” she said, “and it’s amazing how these things made from pine needles still keep their original aroma. If you own a pine needle basket, you always have some wood in your house.
I asked him how long it took him to make it big jaron (something like a vase) she showed me.
“It took 20 days,” she said. “I’m selling it for 800 pesos, but in terms of the labor involved in making it, the price should be much higher. Nevertheless, some people still complain that it is too expensive.
In addition to pine needles, Marina incorporates pine cones and various seeds in her creations. In a bracelet, for example, I found fascinatingly shaped cat’s claw pods, jojoba and peach seeds, frijoles (beans) and mini coconut (coquitos) of the queen palm.
“In 2019,” Marina told me, “I attended an artisans meeting in Monterrey where there were people from Puebla who worked with pine needles, but they have a different sewing technique. You could say they are doing the opposite of what we are doing 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 trees than any other country. That being the case, I thought there should be a few more uses for pine needles than the ones I know now.
I have found that they are good as a fire starter or mulch, but most interestingly I have learned (from Gerry the ranger) this pine needle tea has many medicinal properties. Fresh pine needles, he says, especially those from 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 scientific evidence that pine needle tea can help slow the aging process,” he said. “The Taoist priests drank pine needle tea because they believed it made them live longer. “
You want to try? Just boil some water and pour it over your fresh pine needles. A few minutes later, enjoy your healthy and longevity-boosting tea. i tried it using Pinus Oocarpa needles and I found the flavor, well, just as delicious as lukewarm tap water. Guess I’d better try the Michoacán pine next.
If you ever find yourself in the Emiliano Zapata neighborhood (one of the gateways to enter a particularly spectacular part of the famous Primavera Forest), look for Marina’s house at 7 Main Street or simply enter “P99F + F4 Emiliano Zapata, Jalisco” on Google Maps.
You can also contact Marina through her Quichali Facebook page or send him a WhatsApp on his cell phone: 556 602 5191.
The writer has lived near Guadalajara, Jalisco, for 31 years and is the author of A guide to the Guachimontones of western Mexico and its surroundings and co-author of Outdoors in Western Mexico. More of his writings can be found on his site.