From Pine Tree to Pine Tar (and a bit about baseball)

Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) is a Eurasian native, distributed across Europe into Eastern Siberia. It is the national tree of Scotland, and the only native pine in northern Europe. Human activity has pushed native populations to extinction; while, at the same time, appreciation for this tree has led to widespread introduction in other parts of the world. Like other pines, humans and Scots pine have a long relationship going back millennia. Pines are incredibly useful trees, which explains both the overexploitation and mass planting of Scots pine.

Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) via wikimedia commons

In Sweden and other Scandinavian countries, Scots pine not only has a long history of being used as a building material, but also for producing pine tar. As the name suggests, pine tar is a dark, sticky substance extracted from pine wood. Wood tar production dates back centuries and has been made from a number of tree species, including pines and other conifers as well as deciduous trees like birch and beech. Wood tar has myriad uses – as an ingredient in soaps, shampoos, and cosmetics; as medicine; as a food additive; as waterproofing for ships, roofs, and ropes; in hoof care products for horses. It’s no wonder that as demand for pine tar increased in Scandinavia, it became a cash crop for peasants, earning it the nickname “peasant tar.”

Pine tar soap – a decent soap if you can tolerate the intense smell. Regarding the smell of pine tar, Theodore Kaye writes, “The aroma produces reactions that are as strong as the scent; few people are ambivalent about its distinctive smell.”

A study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science examines small and large funnel-shaped pits in Sweden determined to be used for making pine tar. The smaller pits date back to between 240 – 540 AD, the Late Roman Iron Age. They would have been used by Swedes living in small scale settlements. The larger pits date back to 680 – 1160 AD and signify a shift towards large scale production during the Viking Age. As the centuries proceeded, Sweden became a major exporter of pine tar. Their product set the standard. Even today “Stockholm Tar” refers to pine tar of the highest quality.

As Europeans colonized North America, they were introduced to several new pine tree species from which to extract pine tar, including longleaf pine (Pinus palustris), a southeastern native with exceptionally long needles. Pine tar production was especially prolific in the southeastern states, thanks in part to the abundance of longleaf pine and others. North and South Carolina were dominating production by the 1800’s, which helps explain North Carolina’s nickname, The Tar Heel State.

Extracting pine tar from pine wood is fairly simple. The process is called destructive distillation. Pine wood is placed in a contained, oxygen-free environment and subjected to high heat. As the pine tar is released from the wood, the wood turns to charcoal. This is what was happening in the small and large funnel-shaped pits discussed earlier. Root pieces and stumps of Scots pine were placed into the pits. Brush wood was piled on top and then set on fire. As the brush burned, the pine wood below carbonized, and pine tar collected at the bottom of the pit. In larger pits, the pine tar was piped out and deposited into a barrel – a set up known as a pine tar dale.

pine tar dale illustration

Modern production of pine tar is done in kilns (or in laboratories). The concept is the same – wood is enclosed in the kiln, heat is applied, and pine tar drips from the bottom of the kiln. Heartwood, also known as fatwood, is the best part of the pine tree for making pine tar, particularly the heartwood of old stumps. Making pine tar is such a simple process that anyone can do it, and there are numerous tutorials available online.

My familiarity with pine tar comes from being a baseball fan. Pine tar is a useful, albeit controversial, substance in this sport. Batters have a variety of means to help them get a better grip on the bat in order to improve their hitting. Rubbing pine tar on the bat handle is one of them. However, according to Major League Baseball rules, anything applied to, adhered to, or wrapped around the bat to help with grip is not allowed past the bottom 18 inches of the bat. Pine tar is allowed on the bat handle, but if applied past that 18 inches mark, the bat becomes illegal.

pine tar stick for baseball bat handles

This rule goes mostly ignored; unless, of course, someone on the other team rats you out. Which is exactly what happened in 1983 to the Kansas City Royals in a game against the New York Yankees. Royals batter, George Brett, had just hit a home run, which put the Royals in the lead. It had been suspected for a while that Brett had been tarring his bat beyond the legal limit, and this home run was the last straw for Yankees manager, Billy Martin. He brought the suspected illegal bat to the attention of the umpires, and after measuring the bat’s pine tar stain they found it to be well beyond 18 inches. The home run was recalled, and the Yankees went on to win the game.

It doesn’t end there though. After a repeal, it was decided that the dismissal of the home run was the wrong call. If an illegal bat is in play, it should be removed. That’s all. The home run still stands. The Royals and Yankees were ordered to replay the game, starting at the point where Brett had hit his home run. This time the Royals won.

This saga is well known in baseball. There is even a book all about it, as well as a country song and t-shirts. But that’s only part of baseball’s pine tar controversy. While batters are allowed to use it on their bats, pitchers are not allowed to use it to better grip the ball while pitching (however, they can use rosin, which curiously enough, is also made from pine trees). Of course, that doesn’t stop them from trying to get away with it. Sometimes they get caught, like Michael Pineda infamously did in 2014. There are arguments for allowing its use – and perhaps in the future the rules will change – but for now pine tar use by pitchers remains prohibited.

Further Reading – Medicinal Uses for Pine Tar:

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Botany in Popular Culture: Futurama’s Holiday Spectacular

Matt Groening and David X. Cohen’s animated sitcom, Futurama, is replete with social commentary. Set in the 31st Century, it’s not surprising that much of that commentary involves environmental issues. Episode 13 of season 6 – a special, holiday season episode – addresses a number of such issues, including extinction, global warming, fossil fuel depletion, and Colony Collapse Disorder. The episode is broken up into three, distinct segments; each has its own storyline, but all – apart from being environmentally themed – center around traditional (in the fictional world of Futurama) holiday celebrations. Hence, the title of the episode: The Futurama Holiday Spectacular.

Botany plays a particularly prominent role in the first segment of the episode. In the 31st Century, Christmas has morphed into a holiday called Xmas. In the opening scene, the Planet Express Crew has decorated a palm tree to look like a Christmas tree. Looking despondent, Philip J. Fry (a pizza delivery boy from the 21st century who was inadvertently cryopreserved and thawed 1,000 years later) laments, “Something about Xmas just doesn’t feel like Christmas.”  Just then, the arrival of Santa is announced.

In the 31st Century, Santa Claus has been replaced by a robot called Robot Santa, and instead of gifts and holiday cheer, he brings violence and mayhem. The crew begins to lock down the Planet Express headquarters in preparation for Robot Santa’s arrival. Disturbed by this, Fry demands to know how “this crazy holiday” is celebrated – “preferably in song.”  At which point, Robot Santa bursts out of the fireplace singing, “It’s the violentest season of the year…”

robot santa

After a few violent exchanges between the crew and Robot Santa, Robot Santa sings, “The one thing that you need to make your Xmas Day splendiferous / Is a pine tree – a pine tree that’s coniferous.” The crew agrees; they need “an old-fashioned pine tree.” But there is one problem.

“Pine trees have been extinct for over 800 years,” explains Professor Farnsworth. Apparently, they were all chopped down and turned into toilet paper during something called “The Fifty-Year Squirts.” Yet, the Professor exclaims, “There is one hope and, as usual, it’s Norwegian!” And at that, the crew heads off to Norway.

In Norway, the crew arrives at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault where, as the Professor explains, “since 2008, the vault has preserved seeds of every known plant species in case of extinction.” They are confronted by a seed vault employee who asks why the crew is “pokey-poking about the seed vault – guardian of mankind’s precious botanical heritage there?”

The Professor tells the man that they are there to “rummage about a bit.” The crew notes that there is a Germ Warfare Repository that has been constructed right next to the seed vault and asks if there are any cross-contamination concerns. The man says, “No,” and then lets them inside where he brings them a container marked Pinus xmas. Amy notices some “splork” on the seeds and asks, “It’s not germs is it?” Again the man says, “No.” 

futurama2

The Planet Express crew at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault being presented with the seeds of Pinus xmas.

Back in New New York, Fry plants a pine tree seed outside the Planet Express building. A year later, a sapling as tall as Fry has emerged. Fry declares, “Now that’s a tree worth chopping down.” At that point, President Nixon pulls up in his limousine and sees the tree. “That’s what my poll numbers need, ” he says turning to Vice President Cheney – both of them animated heads in jars. Cheney orders Nixon to steal the tree.

The tree is transplanted in front of the White House. During the Xmas tree lighting ceremony, the tree begins to grow rapidly. Apparently it was contaminated with a weaponized virus after all. It begins to produce cones which then fly off the tree and explode. Shortly after the explosions, more pine trees begin to emerge and grow rapidly, at which point Leela exclaims, “Wait! This could be a good thing. Reforestation has begun!” However, this reforestation is occurring at an extremely rapid pace, and before long all land on Earth is completely covered in pine trees.

Soon, all manner of wildlife is found frolicking among the trees. Again Leela exclaims, “Arguably, this could be a good thing. The planet has returned to its primeval state!” The Professor concurs, “All these pine trees are fighting global warming by producing oxygen.”

But the “good news” doesn’t last long. The oxygen level continues to increase and quickly reaches 80%. Ignorantly, Bender decides to celebrate his own laziness with a cigar. As he lights it, the entire planet bursts into flames. Robot Santa returns to announce, “Ho ho ho! Everyone’s dead!”

Futurama

Similar dark comedy ensues in the other two segments as the crew learns about the holiday traditions of Robanukah and Kwanzaa. Again, both segments explore important environmental concerns in the process. Al Gore’s animated head in a jar makes appearances throughout the episode. If you are looking for some added hilarity during this holiday season – as well as some bleak environmental messaging – you can’t go wrong with Futurama’s Holiday Spectacular.

Interesting fact: In 2011, this episode of Futurama won an Environmental Media Award for best comedic television episode with an environmental message. EMA’s have been awarded since 1991 to “honor film and television productions and individuals that increase public awareness of environmental issues and inspire personal action on these issues.”