“Some of my kin look just like trees now, and need something great to rouse them; and they speak only in whispers. But some of my trees are limb-lithe, and many can talk to me.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien
Spring is in full swing now. Every day I find myself acknowledging the returned life of a different plant, greeting them warmly as old friends do. I smile at the frills of Yarrow foliage, call out to the bright orange of the paintbrush blooms, I jump and squeal in delight at the appearance of new raspberry leaves. These plants are my friends; I am not half so delighted with humans. Unfortunately, they are so very seasonal. I watch them now as they wax with the season, they bring a giddy joy, a sense of anticipation – all under the watchful, steady eyes of my most patient allies; Conifers. These evergreens are incredible, efficacious and reliable; they are always there for you and me; the great providers of the ages.
As we go forward into the seasons that are so abundant in life and growth I’ll be writing about many plants and their various uses and benefits. But first, I want to pay tribute to what is perhaps the greatest of them all; the great coniferous evergreens we all tend to generalize as Pines.
First we are going to touch on some scientific distinctions and facts to make sure we are all on the same page. After that I’m going to introduce (or, depending on who you are, elaborate) you to some of the incredible bounty of these trees and their practical (ahem, edible) applications.
What are the Facts?
Conifers are also known as Coniferophyta, Coniferae, or Pinophyta; they are plants of a single class known as Pinosida. Conifer is a Latin word, the compound of Conus (meaning cone) and Ferre (meaning to bear) literally, “The one that bears cones.” Pretty straight forward. The female cones contain seeds; their primary methods of dispersion are via wind or through the assistance of various birds. Interestingly, some trees are fire-adapted; their cones may remain sealed for 60-80 years, releasing seeds when fire dispatches the parent tree
Conifers are predominantly trees, and include but are not limited to; Cedars, Firs, Junipers, Larches, Pines, Hemlocks, Redwoods, Spruces and Yews. Conifers are ancient, with an approximate 300 million year old fossil record. They are most prolific in the northern hemisphere, and dominate the plant population of the Taiga, the world’s largest land biome and most extensive coniferous forest. They can pull moisture out of the air through their needles!
With around 629 living species, their mature sizes range drastically. This Earth’s tallest and oldest living trees are all conifers. The tallest are the Coastal Redwoods, notably the tree Hyperion, who looms an immense 379.7 ft. into the air The oldest are the Great Basin Bristlecone Pines; most wizen among them is the tree Methuselah who has stood for nearly 5,000 years. If that doesn’t blow your mind, you simply don’t have a great enough understanding of these measurements.
What are they good for?
We all know how useful conifers are to us as a means of survival when it comes to creating fire. Dry needles may be used as tinder, cones as kindling. Pitchwood (wood heavily innervated with resin) and dry wood to spread the flames higher. To keep us warm, to cook our food. They are often felled for paper product, lumber, and craft supplies. These trees are an integral part of our daily lives, they have allowed our society to expand to the bloated mess we are today. We utilize their remains at an industrial pace and they continue to provide. What a forgiving plant.
But how can we use a living tree – and leave it that way, in a manner that still greatly benefits us as individuals? That is where we are going here….
Many parts of Conifers are actually edible. The inner bark (cambium) that lies beneath the bark and in front of the woody core is edible in a pinch, though most won’t choose to ingest this for fun. The sap is also edible, though I can’t say I favor it. The primary parts you’ll want to eat or use in a recipe are the seeds, pollen, and needles. The seeds are often known of as pine nuts, and only few species bear ‘nuts’ large enough to be worth the trouble. The pollen is a little known nutrient dense treasure that anyone can collect at the right time of year. The needles, however, are always around for immune boosting power.
Pine nuts around here are usually collected from Piñon Pines of two varieties; the single leaf piñon (Pinus monophylla), and Pinus Edulis, or Colorado piñon. Fall is harvest time; there is an entire community of folks around here that celebrate this harvest like a holiday, and for good reason. Pine nuts are incredibly expensive to purchase in store, and are often imported from Asiatic countries where society is more familiar with edible pine products and their benefits. Harvesting and preparing piñon is also pretty labor intensive, driving cost. The seeds must first be extracted from the cones via drying and heating or, less effectively, brute force. The hard, nearly seamless shells must then carefully be cracked away from the flesh. Nuts are often roasted after.
Pine nuts are crazy tasty. They are buttery and sweet and fresh and earthy and….I could go on. I f*ckin love piñon. Pine nuts are most often used as the primary ingredient in pesto, but go well in many recipes. Eating them straight is perfect. Like most nuts/seeds, Pine nuts are nutrient dense; high calorie, but very high in healthy fat, protein, and an ample amount of necessary nutrients. Notably, they contain a healthy amount of; manganese, iron, vitamin E, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, riboflavin, niacin, folate, zinc, copper, thiamine, and choline.
To be honest, I never knew much about pine pollen, other than the notable yellow dusting come spring time in the forest. I was recently informed, however, that pine pollen is incredibly nutrient and antioxidant dense – it is a well-known supplement in many Asiatic countries. It is starting to gain popularity here for a good many reasons.
Pine Pollen is released from male cones (catkins) come springtime. The pollen is an androgenic substance, and notably contains testosterone; it is known to help balance testosterone and estrogen. Both men and women are generally pretty safe to consume pine pollen, though it is mostly used as a male supplement.
Pine pollen is something of a stimulant, promoting dopamine and better moods as well as increasing libido. Pine pollen is a complete protein! According to this in depth, incredibly interesting article, “Pine pollen contains folic acid and other B vitamins, beta-carotene, Vit. E, selenium, calcium, iron, magnesium, nucleic acids, living enzymes, MSM, polysaccharides, essential fatty acids”…the list goes on. If you have time, click through that link and read about it!
You can harvest pine pollen yourself, snipping off the catkins when they are in full production and placing them in a bag, close the bag shut and shake vigorously, then remove and compost the empty cones. Simple!
Needles aren’t necessarily edible as they are right off the tree. You won’t die if you crunch on some but it sure as shit is not what most would call pleasant. Usually if you’re going to actually eat the foliage of a conifer tree, it’ll be the very young new shoots that are soft and easy to chew. These are often pretty damn piney and citrusy, and take an acquired taste. Most choose to consume the abundant nutrient action found in the needles by form of tea.
Known commonly as pine needle tea, this is the panacea of all cold remedies, if you ask me. Steeping coniferous needles in hot water has ensured the survival of many a population. The vitamin C content in pine needles is absolutely through the roof – over 400 mg to a roughly chopped cup. The needles are also high in vitamin A, and act as an expectorant to thin and loosen mucus. There are claims that pine needle tea is a cure-all for just about everything. Obviously I can’t confirm this, but research continues to reveal more and more benefits.
I personally always make pine needle tea if I feel like hell. I drink it when I feel like I’m getting sick, I drink it when I am sick, I drink it when I’m getting over being sick. I make it if I know I’ll soon be in a situation that will expose me to a bunch of nasty viruses and germs, or even if I just feel like it. Alone it has a pleasant mild flavor that makes me feel incredibly peaceful and grounded. I often mix it with other herbs or green tea for different benefits and flavor profiles. If there is one thing I use conifers for, it is their needles to make tea.
It is generally advised that pregnant women avoid drinking pine needle tea for fear that it may cause an abortion. This is unlikely, and is based on cattle abortions following consumption of Ponderosa Pine needles. I would not, however, think that it would be worth the risk. If you are pregnant, it should be simple to avoid drinking this tea and finding your vitamin C elsewhere.
Before I lay out some simple instructions on how to brew, I’m going to touch on what trees to avoid sourcing from.
There are three Conifers to avoid when making pine needle tea. Yew, and Norfolk Island Pine (Australian pine) are pretty toxic. The Ponderosa Pine is generally avoided as a precaution, though has not caused any recorded human abortion or poisoning.
Yew is a type of conifer that is definitely poisonous. Consume enough and you will die. Do not make tea out of this sucker. Seriously.
Norfolk Island Pine, or Australian Pine.
These ugly little shitheads are usually those tiny little potted “Christmas trees” you see around that season. They are toxic to you and your animals. Don’t make tea out of them; don’t even buy them for that matter.
Ponderosa Pines are incredibly prolific in my area, and sometimes difficult to distinguish. They are a bit more free-form than many pines, less of a christmas tree shape and more of a, “I do what I want,” shape. They have two-three needles per bundle at 5-10 inches in length. Their cones are 3-5 inches long and squat, with ready barbs. I’ll leave a link at the bottom of this article to a pdf I personally use to help me identify them when I’m rusty.
Making Pine Needle Tea
After those considerations, play around with needles from different species! White pine is beloved for this use. Some folks really love to use Junipers for their unique flavor. Some even use the Juniper berry (actually a modified cone) in their tea. I would caution to use juniper sparingly, as it can be aggravating to the kidneys in greater quantities.
To Make Pine Needle Tea
First collect your needles. It is preferred to use young needles, but not required. You’ll have to play around with the quantity to use for your personal tastes. I like tea in big ass cups, technically soup mugs….For this I tend to use about ¼ cup worth of needles after chopping
Set your water to boil
Remove the brown papery husks and discard them. Roll your needles firmly between your palms to help release their oils, then chop them into about 1 inch sections.
Toss your needles in your cup, and once your water is boiling, pour it directly over.
Your needles will float. Allow the needles to steep until they dull in color and sink to the bottom of your cup. Strain and enjoy!
If you wait until the tea is no longer scorching hot, you can stir in some raw unfiltered honey and enjoy its immune boosting enzymes.
Do you love Conifers?
What about their products like pine nuts and tea? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below, or connect with us on any of the following social platforms!
Identifying Pines: http://ucanr.edu/sites/Tuolumne_County_Master_Gardeners/files/175794.pdf
Now, for the disclaimer – I am not an adventure guide, personal trainer, doctor, nutritionist, or medical authority, this is meant to be only a source of information and inspiration, implementing these techniques into your daily life is something you do of your own free will and at your own risk.
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