The mountain pine (Pinus mugo) is a wild shrub that belongs to the Pinaceae family. It is also commonly known as mountain dwarf pine, or simply mugo. This tree species holds great environmental importance in the natural habitats where it thrives. Furthermore, it is considered a medicinal plant due to the presence of valuable essential oil, known as mugolio, in its branches.
Let’s get to know the botanical characteristics of mountain pine, its environmental significance, properties, and the uses of its essential oil.
Pinus mugo is a bushy evergreen shrub, typically about 3 meters tall. In sheltered areas, it can reach the form and size of a small tree, growing up to 5 meters. The main stem is upright, while secondary branches typically lie close to the ground in the lower part of the plant, becoming ascending and finally erect towards the terminal portion. The bark of the branches is initially greenish and later becomes brownish-gray and scaly.
Mountain pine leaves are needle-like and are found in pairs on very short branches called brachiblasts. They have a flat-convex section, are linear, and range from 2 to 7 cm in length (shorter towards the terminal part of the branches). As mentioned, mountain pine leaves are evergreen and persist on the branches for varying periods of 3-9 years. These robust and sharp leaves are densely clustered towards the terminal part of the branches. They are dark green in color, with a glaucous leaf surface due to the presence of a protective waxy layer. Sometimes, in the final part, they can be observed spirally twisted.
Mountain pine is a monoecious and dioecious plant, meaning it has both male and female flowers, although they are separate. The male flowers are yellow and grouped in oblong cones, located in the lower part of young branches. These are the flowers that produce pollen dispersed by the wind for pollination. Female flowers are purple-purplish and are grouped in small oval-shaped cones, inserted individually or in pairs at the tips of the same branches. Flowering is extended, occurring from May to July.
Mountain pine produces pinecones or strobili, which are globose or ovoid-conical in shape. They can be found individually or in small groups of 2-4 elements. These cones persist on the branches and only fully mature in their third year. Additionally, they are not carried on a peduncle but are erect. The surface is shiny, ranging from initial green-reddish to brown in full maturity. They are small, approximately 3-5 cm in size. Inside the scales, they contain oval-shaped seeds, each with an extended side forming a wing, aiding in natural dispersal.
Where to Find Mountain Pine
Mountain pine grows spontaneously in Italy, both in the Alps and the Apennines, at altitudes ranging from 1,200 to 2,700 meters above sea level. It also inhabits the subalpine zone, where it thrives between 1500 and 2300 meters in altitude. In the Eastern Alps, it is already present in rocky areas above 400 meters. It is also found in the central-western Alps, especially in the form of a subspecies known as Pinus mugo ssp uncinata. It can be found either in isolated formations or in small woods called “mugheto.” It prefers slopes and debris soils with a limestone and dolomitic composition, thriving in well-lit mountain locations due to its photophilic nature. Further south, it can be found in the Apennine range, such as in Abruzzo, in the Majella National Park, extending down to Campania. In Europe, it can be found in many UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Mountain pine holds significant environmental importance in the areas where it grows spontaneously. For this reason, it is a species that must be protected and reintroduced through adequate repopulation practices. It is a pioneer species capable of stabilizing poor, loose, and rocky soils. Mountain pine formations can fragment the winter snow cover, creating natural barriers that prevent avalanches and protect valleys. Furthermore, it contributes decisively to soil conservation by improving soil quality. It also plays an important role in supporting wildlife, providing shelter in its dense branches for birds and mammals, particularly chamois, which feed on its branches when no other fresh vegetation is available.
Properties of Mountain Pine
From the terminal branches of mountain pine that have not yet completely lignified, mugolio is extracted—a valuable essential oil primarily composed of terpenes and borneol esters. Mugolio has balsamic, expectorant, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, and diuretic properties. Therefore, it is a sought-after product in both the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries and can be easily found in herbal stores or specialized shops. This essential oil also has proven antioxidant capabilities, fluidifies bronchial secretions, disinfects the respiratory system, and acts as a sedative for coughs and excess bronchial asthma.
Its antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties extend to the urinary excretory system, where it is useful against pyelitis, catarrhal cystitis, urethritis, and for regulating diuresis. For external use, the same infusion can be used for washing or compresses as a skin disinfectant. Additionally, its balsamic vapors can be inhaled by tossing leaf fragments into boiling water.
Harvesting Leaves and Cones
In a domestic context, both the leaves and cones of mountain pine can be utilized. Cones are chosen to produce high-quality grappa, while the leaves are used for their essential oil content (for the properties described above). The best time for harvesting is during spring and summer by cutting the tips of the year’s branches, which are easily recognizable due to their green and non-lignified bark. Of course, harvesting must be environmentally respectful, minimal, and done only for personal needs, which mountain enthusiasts are well aware of.
Domestic Uses of Mountain Pine
Branches, cut into small pieces, are dried in the sun and stored in paper bags. They can be used to prepare an infusion with balsamic and expectorant properties, using 2 g of dried material in 100 ml of water. To experience its effects, 2-3 cups a day are sufficient. For external use, the same infusion can be used for washes or compresses as a skin disinfectant. Finally, the balsamic vapors can be inhaled by tossing leaf fragments into boiling water.