Winter Teas from Pine Family Trees

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The Pine family (Pinaceae) is likely one of the first groups of plants that our ancestors recognized as broadly edible and safe. As human beings made their way further into colder climates, it would have become essential for life. Pines, spruces, firs, hemlocks, arbor vitae – all rated quite highly to pre-Industrial Europeans and Native Americans. Not simply for their timber, but their edible and medicinal uses as well. Above all else, the Pinaceae represented a crucial and easily available source of Vitamin C during the winter, sorely needed when diets were strictly seasonal.

While we now have a wide access to various supplements and pills to ensure that we don’t succumb to scurvy, some of the products made from the Pine family are still quite interesting from a perspective of taste and culinary curiosity. In particular, simple teas made from the needles of most conifers are an extremely healthy alternative to tannin-rich coffees and teas. In addition, those products are generally made quite far away. Your nearest Pine family member is probably in your front yard. They are available year-round, but I usually enjoy them most in the winter, both for their warming quality and their strong, seasonal flavor.

In the spring, the newly-emerging needles of conifers are soft, and can be eaten raw. Many wild food gatherers consider them a delicacy, and some only eat them raw, as a trailside nibble. The needles are gathered together at first in a tight cluster, usually referred to as a “tip,” as in “spruce tips.” While a tea can certainly be made from them, they are much finer used in prepared salts and sugars, infused in vinegars or alcohol, or added to other prepared dishes. As the seasons progress, these tips unfurl and harden off and become the years fresh set of needles. These are the needles you will collect for tea, and they are available any season of the year. Theoretically, one could use older growth just as well but the most recent sets will have more of the energy of the tree, and therefore more flavor.

All Pine family needle teas are prepared in the same fashion. Clip the freshest growth from the tree (see pictures and descriptions below for each genus), then wash the needles. Cover the needles with water (they should all be floating) and bring to just shy of a boil. If possible, do not allow the water to actually boil, as this will result in loss of Vitamin C. Instead, maintain a simmer and a careful eye on the pot, and allow it to simmer until you have enough depth of flavor. In practice, the amount of time this takes will vary radically, depending on volume involved, but the same procedure applies whether you’re making a cupful or a gallon. You will simply have to allow your taste to tell you when you have made a good tea. I prefer to simmer mine until its a little shy of what I’m looking for, then allow it to sit and steep until it cools, overnight if possible. I’m convinced this provides not only a fuller flavor than straining the needles immediately, but also a rounder and more complex one.

As to the flavor? Well, Pine family products are strong. Spruce in particular is a very robust flavor. Your appreciation of each of them may vary, and indeed you may despise them all. What they probably won’t remind you of is cleaning products, a common fear. Here are three that I particularly enjoy, two of which are made from native trees in my area, the other from a very popular import.

Eastern White Pine Tea (Pinus strobus)

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Needles of the Eastern White Pine, with new growth visible at the bottom.

To collect pine needles, it’s best to look for a small colony of trees, and select from the younger members. I often select the needles from small trees growing along the perimeter of a hiking trail, since those trees are generally slated to be trimmed by the park workers anyway. Pull the freshest growth at the ends of the branches, concentrating on the lowest branches. You won’t need many pine needles to try a tea – a half-pound of them makes almost two gallons of tea.

This is my go-to Pine family tea, the most broadly palatable and subtle in flavor, and drinkable cold as well as warm. Some will likely disagree, indeed I have often read of people finding Pine products stronger than those of Spruce. Perhaps they use another Pine – I have always used Pinus strobus, since it is locally abundant. In addition, the needles are softer than other Pines, which always suggests to me greater palatability. In any case, tea from Eastern White Pine is citrusy, warming and somewhat mellow at first, but quickly following is a spicy and slightly resinous aftertaste. It’s “strong” in flavor to many, pleasant to some, and certainly beneficial to all. Pine tea has the most flexibility of these three in terms of being used for other applications, such as making a syrup, vinegar, or kombucha. It combines well with sugar, which tends to accentuate the citrusy taste, and makes a fine granita or sorbet.

Norway Spruce Tea (Picea abies)

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Freshest growth of Norway Spruce is generally more reddish, the older more grey.

To collect spruce needles, look for the most outward-branching lengths on the lower part of the tree and bend them backwards, then tear from the older growth. The newer growth on Norway Spruce will be more reddish and less grey.

This is not a native tree, but one widely planted in my area and in many other parts of the world. The original Christmas tree, the Norway produces strong, citrusy tips in the spring. They are large, plentiful and a natural choice for infusion or making spruce sugar. The tips are the true delicacy, but the tea is tasty as well. Strong, spicy and buttery, very rich in color and flavor. The woodsy, resiny taste is more pronounced in spruce tea than in pine, and unlike pine I don’t find it palatable cold. Spruce is the more natural partner to savory cooking applications, and has been used in sauces and glazes for meats, strong fish and hearty winter vegetables.

Eastern Hemlock Tea (Tsuga canadensis)

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Fresh growth of Eastern Hemlock – the new growth will softer and less rigid.

To collect Hemlock needles, look for fresh growth at the tips of lower branches, from juvenile trees if possible. Bend them back to tear, in the same manner as spruce. If you tear downwards you will just end up with a shower of needles.

Eastern hemlock is the only one of the three species mentioned here that comes with not one, but several caveats. The first is not to confuse it with the highly poisonous, herbaceous plant in the carrot family that is also called Hemlock. Europeans who first encountered the tree in the Americas thought the freshly crushed needles smelled like that plant. The second is not to confuse it with the highly poisonous Yew, which it does somewhat look like (pictured below). In the Eastern US, yew is very rarely grown as a tree, but very often grown as a shrub. Hemlock has cones, usually always persistent, Yew does not. If you are in any doubt as to whether or not you have a Tsuga canadensis, then by all means do not collect it. The third (and thankfully, final) caveat is that T. canadensis in our area is often parasitized by the wooly adelgid, a kind of aphid. Adelgid damage on hemlocks is usually easy to spot – the trees generally look unhealthy and the branches will be dotted with white egg sacs, which are soft and look a bit like cotton or spit has gotten on the plant. While I’m not sure that one would be made sick by adelgid-infested hemlock tea, I wouldn’t care to find out.

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This is a yew / don’t confuse the two!

In taste, the hemlock tea is somewhere inbetween spruce and pine, perhaps more complex and nuanced than either. As a consequence, I enjoy it the most as a pure drinking tea, usually with just a dab of sugar to mellow it out. It has the spicy and smoky notes of spruce, but isnt quite as bitter. I have yet to experiment much with hemlock tea beyond drinking it, but I can imagine it has other culinary uses. The tips in spring are the tastiest of all the Pine family I have tried, although they do tend to be on the small side.

All three of these teas are fine, healthy drinks, which can be made from a locally abundant resource and which have minimal impact on our environment. They represent a forgotten flavor, one which we have learned to dislike or distrust in our post-Industrial diet. Many other members of the Pine family can be used in the same fashion, and indeed all of these trees produce other useful and edible products, some of which we will hopefully discuss as winter turns into spring.

Note :  

To make a greater quantity of any of these needle teas I usually follow a basic ratio of 1 oz of dry needles to 1 quart of water.

The Fourth Season

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A typical January scene

Wild food gathering in the temperate parts of the world inevitably means coping with the problem of winter. What do you do? Can you do anything?

Yes, you can. Actually, there’s quite a bit going on out there. You just can’t see it. The earth and (eventually, often) the snow conceal most of it from view. The rest is made invisible by our long conditioning that “nothing happens in the winter” when it comes to plants.

The foraging literature itself is faintly discouraging when it comes to winter. They don’t tell you not to do it, but the implication is that it isn’t particularly worthwhile. Emphasis tends to be placed since the Gibbons era on enjoying the fruits of the other seasons of harvest, sitting back in your chair with a seed catalog, shelling hickory nuts and sipping on persimmon wine. The winter section of every foraging book is like an afterthought, usually accompanied by a list of plants so desultory that it squashes the imagination, rather than firing it.

Yet, we all know this is precisely what is needed in the winter. A spark, a kick, especially after the holiday madness/joy (or forced madness/joy) is over and our bodies start to go into hibernation mode. The key is in viewing winter as not a dead time or a rest time but as just another time, simply another season. The activity of plants and trees and fungi around you hasn’t stopped, it’s just different. Which means we need to learn to look differently, to reassess our environment with fresh eyes.

More than just being a neglected time of year to gather wild foods, winter is also overlooked when it comes to studying wild plants and fungi. But if our knowledge of nature is to expand alongside our use of its’ resources, then winter is an ideal time to study as well as collect. Not only will our attention be drawn to interesting things we normally overlook, like mosses and bracket fungi, but towards the familiar things that have changed in aspect. And while the idea of looking at a bunch of dried twigs and seeds might not seem as romantic or appealing as trekking through a spring woods, in reality it can tell us quite a bit about the life cycle of these plants. Ultimately, knowledge of a wild food resource through all of its seasons, all of its changes, is really what we are after : comprehension of the patterns of its growth and how it deploys its energy in order to make our best use of it.

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Uncharacteristic, but possible in a mild winter : Wild mustard forming its broccoli-like flowering head around Christmas time.

Over the course of the next few weeks I will be discussing in some detail how best to take advantage of the undervalued resource of wild food in winter, including profiles of specific plants and accompanying recipes. I hope to be able by springtime to have made my point that winter isn’t an “off” or “dead” season but simply the fourth season. Perhaps it’s a bit more humble than the others, but one well worth getting outside for, and certainly no occasion to hang up the basket. For now, as an antidote to all those discouraging lists of winter wild foods in foraging books here is one with just some of the things I have either gathered or noted as available in the past few winters :

Acorns

Sow Thistle

Cranberries

Juniper “Berries”

Chaga

Watercress

Maple – Sap / Syrup

Rosehips

Pine Needles

Oyster Mushrooms

Blackhaw / Nannyberry

Dandelions – Greens and Root

Daylily Bulbs

Crabapple (hardy species)

Chickweed

Wild Parsnip

Spicebush – Twig

Henbit

Marsh Yellowcress

Chicory

Evening Primrose – Greens and Root

Bittercress

Velvet Shank Mushroom (Enokitake)

Highbush Cranberry

Yarrow

False Strawberry – Greens

Sunchoke / Jerusalem Artichoke

Persimmon

Cleavers / edible Bedstraw

Wild Carrot

Hawthorn – Berries

Pennycress

Plantain

Wintergreen – Leaves and Berries

Ground Ivy

Northern Bayberry

Nettles

Common Mallow

Spruce – Tips

Hickory Nuts

Cattail – Root

Birch – Twig

Turkey Tail Fungus

Wild Radish – Greens and Root

Thistle Root

Wild Chervil

Teasel

Wapato

Hemlock Tips

Sumac Fruit

Linden Viburnum

Garlic Mustard

Wood Ear Fungus

Purple Deadnettle

Birch Polypore Fungus

Winter cress

Wild Mustard

and, of course, everyones favorite :

Field Garlic !!!

Is Foraging Ethical?

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Whether or not foraging is legal varies immensely and is another matter entirely. Certainly, if we think of ourselves as feeling individuals the first question to ask is this one : is it even right?

If I’m no authority in foraging or cooking or gardening than I’m certainly no authority on morality. But I feel everyone who would venture to forage needs to answer this particular question for themselves. In the hopes that it helps people feel comfortable about coming to their own conclusions, I will describe what my answer is, and how I came to it.

There is an old foraging tradition that every writer on the subject usually rolls out. The tradition is one that many of the Native American tribes–the original and greatest North American foragers–utilized when searching for medicinal plants. They would go out in search of a particular plant. When they found the first specimen of the plant they were searching for, they would bury a piece of tobacco beneath it. Then they would meditate on the plant, its’ characteristics and virtues and then go out in search of others.

It is doubtful to me that this applied when the tribes were stocking up on food plants. This is the kind of ritual that only becomes necessary when dealing with the world of the unseen. But in our peculiar situation today as modern foragers, it is one that we would do well to apply to all plants. Especially if one is “finding” a plant for the first time. We can probably dispense with the burial of tobacco at the base of the plant. What we cannot do without is the meditation. This is a clear code : serious study of the plant and its attributes. Attention to the details of its structure and growth. And meditation on the essential “thatness” of the plant in question.

Once one has performed this little ritual and securely identified a plant, then it is time to look around. Is there a community of this plant? Is it large or tiny? Do we now realize that we have seen this plant a million times in a million places? Or is it something uncommon, even rare?

There is no replacement for understanding the size of a community of wild plants before beginning to eliminate them. There is no excuse for not researching a particular plant and finding out its’ viability in your area before culling the herd.

The first thing, though, is to understand the plant. More often than not, a new plant suddenly becomes a familiar friend to me. I remember all the times I saw it and it was just one of “the weeds in the field.” If this doesn’t happen, if you know what something is and don’t immediately know its’ level of abundance in your environment, than it’s time to do more research.

Many of the plants we look for when foraging (and the vast majority of the ones I will be talking about on this site) are abundant, often invasive, sometimes actually serious environmental threats. Many others are often ignored, even by most birds and wildlife. Some others (such as milkweed) represent particular ecological concerns, which must be addressed in very specific ways. A careful study of each plant you care to collect should be made in turn.

The very question of whether or not it is “right” to take things that don’t “belong” to you is one I take seriously. I admit to being made mildly uncomfortable by things like fallen fruit maps and some of the wild food maps. The idea of mapping plant communities I am solidly behind, but it shouldn’t be put forth as “free shit.” Especially when said free shit grows in somebody’s yard. I think I would be pretty damn annoyed if I planted a bunch of citrus trees (which I absolutely would do if I lived in a tropical location) and went out one day to find the ones overhanging the walls crawling with hippies snatching up my pomelos. If they’d only asked I would have shared. That I am solidly behind. Share, ask, talk to your neighbors when you see their apples or chestnuts rotting on their lawn. They might be made glad simply not to have to run over the things with a lawnmower.

But what about the woods? What about the parks? What about the abandoned field down the road? Is it right to take things from there?

This really depends on the nature of the space. No one should be foraging anything from a nature preserve or wildlife preserve. Old abandoned fields? Preserved open spaces? State parks? When it comes to those spaces the rule of abundance applies (as well, of course, as your local and state laws)–understand your ingredient before you harvest it. Find a large community. Make sure it isn’t critical to the local wildlife (this is usually an easier thing to ascertain than it might immediately seem). It goes without saying you wouldn’t be looking for something that was threatened or endangered in your area in the first place.

If you feel you’re not creating a negative impact on the environment, harvest a small amount if its new to you or a reasonable amount if it’s tried and true. There’s never any reason to go overboard. Take only what you know you will use. Take some to experiment with, as long as you will experiment. Make it important.

Assuming you enjoy the particular food in question, your role changes. Now, not only have you become a collector of wild food, you’ve become aware of what that plant or mushroom is doing in the area where you found it. Now you’ve on your way to becoming a minder, a custodian of that plant. If you love nettles, the last thing you’re going to do is let them disappear from your favorite areas. You’re going to encourage them. You’re going to make sure they thrive, so there will always be plenty. Plant lovers have been known to throw the seeds of their favorites in areas where the present populations seem threatened. Mushroom freaks spread spores, naturally.

The “big” question of whether foraging is ethical gradually became unravelled and finally nonsensical the more I studied foraging. The more we appreciate and use the abundance of wild food and medicine around us, the more we become strongly conscious of protecting it. There are surely exceptions, but a fairly widespread ethical streak runs through the heart of the foraging community. That’s really all that can be said–it is ethical if we all keep it that way.

If we really care for this world and these things that we make our food with, we can hardly do otherwise.