In the picture above, I'm holding a small cone from a red pine (Pinus resinosa). These trees line the top of my favorite lookout point, one that opens up from the forest and offers a grand view of the entire valley, stretching north to south.
When I think about winter, these conifers and those that grow at the foot of the mountains come to the front of my mind. Groves of cedar, pine, spruce and fir, dark against white snow or brown bracken. Each needle is filled with energy, stored up to help the tree survive even the coldest, darkest days.
They remind me of candles in the dark, bright spots of vibrancy in a dun landscape, keeping a vigil until the sun returns and the whole forest springs back to life.
When you live in tune with the seasons, you learn to recognize and work with different friends as the wheel of the year turns: vibrant nettles, violets and dandelions in the spring, fragrant wild roses, linden and honeysuckle in the summer. The deep medicine of burdock, yellow dock and barberry in the fading meadows of autumn.
When the final, bright chorus of goldenrod is gone, when the roots have been dug and stored, the conifers have my full attention. Their warming, vitamin filled needles are the perfect ally against winter ills.
It may seem like a bit of a come-down from the abundance of the summer, with its brimming fields of delicious, colorful herbs, but the winter world of the conifers is full and rich, and there are so many ways to invite these beautiful trees into our lives.
The leaves, or what we call needles, of just about all conifers are edible, with the notable exception of Yew (Taxus canadensis), which is toxic - make sure you learn to identify this tree before you go out to harvest.
Another caveat I should mention is cedar (Juniperus virginiana): although perfectly fine in very small doses (the berries make an excellent spice), larger portions or prolonged use can have a strong, and possibly negative, effect on the kidneys due to a strong diuretic action. Caution should be exercised.
While I wouldn’t recommend conifer needles as a main dish - they are very fibrous, offer no real calorie gain in a survival situation, and I have a hunch a pretty unpleasant stomach ache might ensue - they make an excellent tea or garnish, and add a delicious, bright flavor when finely ground and added to cookies, cakes, chocolates, or even breads.
The needles of evergreens are filled with vitamin C, as well as a few important minerals. Their astringency (you know, that thing that makes your mouth get all puckery and weird...) makes them excellent to reach for as a steam or tea when you have a respiratory ailment like a wet cough and drippy nose – it’ll tighten up runny, leaky tissues while helping your body fight off infection.
The resin of conifers is antimicrobial, which makes it a wonderful component to add to oils, salves and liniments. When harvesting resin, be mindful that this is essentially the lifeblood of the tree...
Which brings me to a very important part of working with conifers (and all plants, really):
Be mindful of how you are harvesting, what your impact on the tree will be, and how much you really need to take.
The best possible scenario when harvesting from trees is to find branches recently downed by wind or storms. This season, I was incredibly lucky to come across several downed branches of white pine and eastern hemlock, and so I didn’t feel bad filling up my baskets. I have noticed in my journeys that white pine is particularly prone to losing small branches; I usually find what I need at the foot of a giant white pine near my cabin.
However, if you are in search of evergreen needles and can’t find any branches already down, it is possible to harvest carefully. Here’s how:
- Take only what you need and will use
- Always trim just the ends of the lowest branches.
- Harvest only from the tallest trees.
- Take only a few clippings from each tree.
- Make sure you are using a very sharp, clean blade. A clean cut heals quickly, while any dragging/splintering/tearing will be harder for the tree to recover from.
- When harvesting resin, be sure you are only collecting drops that have fallen down the trunk of the tree, and not from the site of the tree's wound.
- Ask permission. Slow down and listen. Feel. If something tells you it’s not right to take from a certain tree, then don’t. Move on. If you haven’t spent a lot of time with trees or plants, this will sound silly. But I encourage you to give this a try. Spend time in a grove of these beautiful trees, and you will begin to realize that they are their own beings with their own voice and energy.
Now that you know how to collect some needles, let’s get to some fun stuff you can do with them.
Conifer Needle Infusion
To make a delicious, vitamin rich, foresty drink, you only need a small handful of needles. Any sort will do, but I find white pine (Pinus strobus) or fraser fir (Abies fraseri) to be the tastiest. Take the needles and chop them up very finely (or, give them a few pulses in a spice grinder).
Add about a teaspoon (or more, to taste) to a mesh strainer, cover with about a cup of boiling water, and let steep for at least ten minutes (and as long as all day!). In my opinion this tea is delicious without adding anything else to it, but a little honey is a nice way to sweeten it.
To make a delicious evergreen syrup, add a couple of handfuls (about 1/2-3/4 cup) of finely chopped needles to two cups of water. Feel free to add a few spices if you wish - cloves, ginger and cinnamon lend a nice warming element.
Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and let the mixture simmer until the liquid is reduced by half, about 20 minutes.
Strain out the needles, and spices if using, and add honey to the mixture. Start with about 1/4 cup and add more until you reach a sweetness you like.
This mixture stores well for a few weeks if kept refrigerated. It makes a lovely addition to cocktails as a replacement for simple syrup, and a spoonful provides a delicious dose of vitamin C when taken daily.
Making conifer sugar is so simple, and it has so many potential uses. All you have to do is add needles and the sugar of your choice to a spice grinder or small food processor and pulse until fine and well blended. I usually measure out a 1:1 ratio of needles to sugar, but feel free to adjust to your liking. It’s also a good idea to pass the mixture through a mesh sieve to strain out the bigger bits of needle pulp.
Now you are free to follow your hearts greatest creative desires…use the sugar in tea, coffee, any kind of baked goods...
Note: this same method described above can be used to make a pine salt, if your culinary goals fall more on the savory side of the spectrum.
White Pine Vinegar
White pine vinegar is a delicious thing to have around for cooking or as a quick salad dressing. It has a fresh, slightly balsamic taste.
Admittedly, I’ve only used white pine to make a vinegar, as I absolutely love the taste, so I can’t say that spruce, fir, or some other conifer would work as well. But, I have a strong hunch that any of them would be wonderful.
To make a batch, simply harvest enough needles to fill a mason jar about halfway. Chop the needles, cover with apple cider vinegar, and let sit, shaking once in a while, for 4-6 weeks. Then strain and enjoy.
Note: Make sure to use a plastic lid, or place wax paper under the metal lid if that’s all you have on hand - if you don’t, the vinegar may cause the metal to rust.
When making any of these recipes, keep in mind that the amount of evergreen used may vary based on your personal taste and the type of tree you're working with. My personal favorites in terms of flavor are white pine (which has the most gentle taste) and fraser fir. Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) however, while pleasant to some, has a strong citrus flavor that I only find appealing in small doses - I encourage you to experiment to find out what you prefer.
Step out into the deep, quiet winter world of these ancient trees, get to know them, and invite them into your life...and kitchen!