Did you know your yard is probably filled with plants you didn’t realize were edible? You don’t even need to wait till the growing season starts to forage in your yard (check out all the delicious edible “weeds” you’ve been mistakenly tossing in the compost when spring rolls around), it turns out your pine and spruce trees are a great resource for winter foraging!
Spruces and pines have been used as a food source by native peoples for centuries, providing sustenance in the lean months of winter. They’re a valuable source of vitamin C, helpful for keeping that immune system humming during cold and flu season, and in fact were used to prevent scurvy by Native Americans. They’re reported to contain many other vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, though I have yet to find a source to link to here.
Spruce and pine tea are often used as a remedy for respiratory ailments, and they also contain large amounts of shikimic acid, the compound used to make the flu-fighting ingredient in Tamiflu!
One study reported that “pine needles exhibit strong antioxidant, antimutagenic, and antiproliferative effects on cancer cells and also antitumor effects in vivo and point to their potential usefulness in cancer prevention.”
Related: How to Fight a Cold Naturally
Much of the spruce and pine tree is edible, but today we’re just using the needles, in an easy-to-make, nourishing tea. If you want to try foraging other parts of the tree, check out this informative post from Eat The Weeds, which reports you can eat the inner bark, pollen, pitch and cones!
Note that pregnant women are advised to avoid spruce and pine tea.
In addition to the health benefits of this refreshing tea, the taste has lots to recommend it. I find the flavor just like a Christmas tree smells. Try it and you’ll know what I mean. That scent that gets in your nose as you decorate your tree is exactly what you taste when you drink spruce tea. Really delightful and uplifting.
As with any herb, it’s best not to overdo, but by all accounts a daily cup of this tasty spruce tea shouldn’t pose any problems for most healthy, non-pregnant tea foragers.
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Identifying Conifers for Spruce Tea
**Always consult a good field guide for foragers or enlist a local expert so you know what you’re collecting.**
Both spruce and pine (as well as fir) trees have needles you can brew tea from, but many find spruce needles have a mellower and more pleasant flavor. To tell a spruce from a pine, just look at how the needles attach to the branch. In short, spruces have needles that attach to the branch individually, while pine needles grow in bunches. (see below)
The main thing to be sure of is that you’re not mistakenly collecting needles from a yew, which is highly toxic. Yews are very different and are easy to identify once you know their features: They have wide, flat, bendable needles, darker on top and lighter on bottom and don’t produce cones (they have red fruit). Here’s lots more on how to identify yews (and why to avoid them) from Eat the Weeds. This video also has a good description of what to look for.
There are enough questions about Norfolk Island Pine and Ponderosa Pine that you should avoid them as well.
Here’s lots more on distinguishing different types of conifers from Iowa State Extension. If all you have handy are pines, no worries! Your tea will taste a little different, but will still make a healthy winter drink when you want it.
When to Make Spruce Tea
Your spruce tea will taste different at different times year. Expect your winter spruce tea to have a stronger flavor and the tea made from spring tips to be lighter and milder. You can actually nibble the newly-grown tips fresh or use them in cooking like rosemary, but that’s the subject of another post. Just keep in mind that conifers are a nutritious food source, and be on the lookout for the new spring growth. In the meantime, enjoy this healing tea you can forage all winter long!
How to Make Spruce Tea
Gather your needles from a tree that won’t have residues from chemical sprays. This likely means avoiding trees in public parks or from yards where homeowners spray their lawns. (If you’re foraging from your Christmas tree, be certain it’s one that wasn’t sprayed, as many commercial operations do spray trees.)
Gather needles sparingly, as the tree needs enough left to stay healthy. I just chopped a few inches off branches encroaching on the sidewalk.
Note that hot water should be poured over needles rather than boiled with them to preserve medicinal elements.
1-2 tbsp spruce needles, on or off the branch, rinsed
1 cup freshly boiled filtered water (here’s why I only recommend filtered water)
Optional: A little sweetener if desired (raw honey would be the most medicinally-useful choice)
You can pull needles off the branch or not, as you prefer. Chopping or crushing the needles will produce a stronger tea and likely will release more of the beneficial compounds. But just dunking a few cut twigs in your cup saves effort and makes straining unnecessary.
Pour water over needles and allow to steep at least 15 minutes, preferably covered. Longer brews will be stronger flavored, but should also contain more of the useful compounds from the needles. I leave mine for at least a few hours I’m not in a hurry or don’t mind a cooler drink.
I’ve successfully re-brewed the same needles to prevent an extra trip out in the cold. I just left the little twigs in my cup while I drank and refilled with fresh boiling water. The second cup was a tad weaker, but still tasty.
Miss foraging ingredients in the dead of winter? Look no further than your conifers!