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)
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)
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)
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.
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.
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.