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Food | Survival

Foraging Pine Needles: What to Do With Them & How to Make Pine Needle Tea

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When most people think of pine trees they think of Christmas trees, or artificially-scented pine household cleaners. Fewer people know about foraging pine needles and pine’s edible and medicinal uses—its true gifts to us. 

Most of us are familiar with pine nuts, but did you know that other parts of the pine tree are edible too, including the needles, bark, pollen, and even pine cones. Pine trees belong to a group of edible conifers which also includes spruce and fir trees. The needles of these trees are used for a variety of purposes such as cooking, baking, garnishing, and brewing tea.

Pine needles have a stronger, more woodsy flavor profile than spruce and fir which tastes more citrus-y. This post focuses all about pine needles, from how to forage them to what to do with them including how to make pine needle tea plus a roundup of five pine needle recipes.

How to tell the difference between pine, spruce, and fir trees

Properly identifying the tree is the most important step when foraging your own pine needles. People often confuse pine trees with other conifers such as spruce and fir (which are also edible by the way). Here are a few quick tips on how to tell the difference between these three types of evergreens:

  • Pine trees are characterized by their long needles, typically longer than that of spruce or fir. Needles grow in clusters of two, three, or five. Fir and spruce tree needles grow individually.
  • Fir trees have softer needles and won’t hurt you if you brush up against them. Fir branches have needles that grow on opposite sides so branches appear flatter. Each individual needle is also flatter. If you pluck off an individual needle, it should lie flat on your hand and not roll.
  • Spruce trees have sharper and spikier needles that will hurt when brushed up against. Spruce needles grow around each branch in all directions and are round. An individual needle will roll easily in your hand.
SprucePineFir
What’s the difference between fir, pine, and spruce? Take a closer look at the needles.

What types of pine needles are edible?

Most native conifers in Canada and the US are edible. However there are a few species of pine to AVOID, along with a dangerous lookalike:

  • Yew: With its distinct red berries and scaly bark, this species is deadly to consume.
  • Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa): Contains isocupressic acid that induces labor in cattle—not recommended for pregnant women.
  • Lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta): Also contains isocupressic acid.
  • Norfolk pine (Araucaria heterophylla): Not technically a “true pine,” although said to be potentially poisonous, particularly for dogs and cats. If you have furry friends, make sure they’re not ingesting any needles from this species of pine. 

Tips for foraging pine needles

Pine trees grow throughout most of the Northern hemisphere. 

According to the book Foraged Flavor by Tama Matsuoka Wong and Eddy Leroux, the best time to gather pine needles is in early spring when you can smell the fragrant pine sap. If you go in springtime, you’ll be able to benefit from new growth and pick a few young spruce tips along with your pine needles while you’re at it. (You can also harvest pine needles in the winter, although you won’t see any young needles anymore, and you’ll be cold outside!)

She favors the needles of white pine for cooking with. White pine needles have five long needles in each cluster.

Bring a pair of sharp scissors to snip the branches. Select branches with thinner clusters of needles as these crumble more easily.

When foraging, it’s always wise to abide by a few guidelines:

  • Ensure you’ve properly identified the tree before consuming.
  • Ensure the area you’re foraging in isn’t treated with chemicals or pesticides.
  • Avoid harvesting anywhere along roadways and farmer’s fields to stay clear of pollutants.
  • Practice good stewardship by not over harvesting from a particular tree or area.

Pine needle benefits

Pine needles, as well as needles of other conifers are rich in vitamins A and C. Raw conifer needles purportedly contain more vitamin C than most citrus fruits. 

Vitamin C has many health benefits. It boosts the immune system, protects against cardiovascular disease, and is great for the eyes and skin.

Pine needles are most commonly used to make tea. Pine needle tea (referred to as tallstrunt in Sweden) is used for medicinal purposes to soothe a sore throat when you’re feeling sick, and to also open airways.

How to make pine needle tea

Note: If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, do not consume pine needle tea. Please consult with your doctor before drinking pine needle tea.

Once you’ve gathered some branches, you’ll want to rinse them thoroughly in water to clean them. Afterwards, remove the pine needles. The pine needles come off easily by plucking them. 

Here’s a flavor tip: Younger pine needles have a more delicate flavor, whereas needles from mature branches have a stronger, more bitter taste. If you’re looking for young pine needles, harvest the light green needles at the tips of each branch. To help release the pine-y flavor, try gently mashing the needles with a mortar and pestle. 

Depending on the type of pine tree you’ve harvested from, you’ll have varying lengths of needles. Feel free to cut them into smaller pieces—kitchen shears work well for this job.

Pine Needle Tea Instructions:

Boil 2-4 cups of water. For every one cup of water, add roughly two tablespoons of pine needles. Let the pine needles steep for 10-15 minutes. If you have a teapot with a strainer, this is perfect. Otherwise, you can add the pine needles directly to your mug. Strain and enjoy! 

Sweeten with honey or a sweetener of your choice, or enjoy on its own. If the flavor of pine is lacking, you’ll want to add more pine needles and allow it to steep.

Cooking with pine needles

With their aromatic woodsy scent and earthy, herbal flavor, pine needles pair nicely with light meals such as white fish or chicken. Many recipes call for pine, but spruce and fir can sometimes be swapped in too.

Pine Needle Oil

A fragrant oil great for brushing onto fish or chicken prior to grilling or roasting (via WNYC).

Pine Needle Shortbread Cookies

The ultimate Christmas cookie with hints of pine and citrus. This recipe is vegan-friendly too (via A Virtual Vegan).

Pine Needle Vinegar

A simple, yet delicious recipe that infuses the scent and flavor of pine with apple cider vinegar. Add to salad dressings for a citrus-y splash. (via The Seasonal Table). 

Smoked salmon in pine needles

Use fresh or dried pine needles to infuse salmon with a lovely woodsy flavor (via Akis Petretzikis).

Northeastern Kvass

From the Wildcrafting Brewer, this kvass recipe is as wild and woodsy as you can get (via ACF Chefs).

Other uses of pine needles

Besides brewing tea and cooking or baking with pine needles, there are loads of other ways to use pine needles around your home. Here are some ideas:

  • Move over Pine-Soil—make your own pine vinegar for cleaning solution with real pine needles, not the chemical stuff.
  • Use pine needles as a mulch in your landscaping instead of traditional wood.
  • Make your own pine needle-scented potpourri. 
  • Get your craft on—pine needles have long been used in traditional Indigenous handicrafts and basket weaving.
  • Make a pine needle tincture
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  1. ZenSeekers, Tell the difference between pine, spruce and fir, https://www.zenseekers.com/story/tell-difference-between-pine-spruce-and-fir. Accessed August 2020.
  2. Chavich, Cinda (15 April 2014). “Backyard harvest: Taking advantage of spring’s first crop.” The Globe and Mail. Accessed August 2020.
  3. American Conifer Society, Pinus Genus (pine), https://conifersociety.org/conifers/pinus/. Accessed August 2020.
  4. Matsuoka Wong, Tama and Eddy Leroux (2012). Foraged Flavor. Clarkson Potter Publishers. ISBN: 978-0-307-95661-3.
  5. WebMD, The Benefits of Vitamin C, https://www.webmd.com/diet/features/the-benefits-of-vitamin-c#1. Accessed August 2020.

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