The crisp, dead leaves have been covered over on forest floors in the East by snow drifts. As skeletal limbs of deciduous trees are draped in a white tapestry of ice and snow, the real star of winter appears in stark green contrast: evergreen pine trees.
Pines grow all around us, and go largely unnoticed--too common to warrant any close attention. A few of the more than a hundred species are easily recognized: in the Northeast, white pines are everywhere, scraping against snowy skies; down South, loblolly pines grace the swampy areas. On the other hand, some pines are rare, like the famously elusive Torrey Pine that grows only in a California state park or on the tiny island of Santa Rosa off the Pacific Coast.
Pines have played a significant role throughout our history for their wide range of utilities: pine pitch sealed vessels to make them waterproof, pine needle baskets were woven, pine sap was mixed with honey and chewed like gum, and even soap could be fashioned from pine tar. Eastern white pine has about four times more vitamin C in its leaves than an orange, and also contains antioxidants and vitamin A. Pine also has antiseptic properties, and can help with congestion and infections.
Such a pervasive wild botanical is tempting to collect at random as you walk along the woodside, but it’s critical you know what tree you are working with before you gather pine cones or needles. Fir trees, hemlock, yew, cypress--none of these evergreens are true pines (pine trees are easily identified from their latin name, ‘pinus’ in botanical descriptions)--and some are poisonous! An easy way to differentiate between these evergreens is to examine the leaves (needles). On pines, needles come together in a cluster and are attached at the base to the branch or twig. On both spruce and fir trees, the individual needles are attached directly to the branch. Fir needles are often soft and lay flat, where as spruce are boxy and can easier to roll between your fingers. Always consult with an experienced forager as you begin to work with new species.
White pine tree in snow by B. Rubrecht
Tea is one of the easiest ways to enjoy the benefits of the pine tree’s incredible vitamin C and antioxidant attributes.
To wild harvest these leaves, choose healthy, young bright green needles. Young pine needles that are still slightly flexible tend to have a milder flavor more amenable to teas and tinctures. If you are foraging, please gather responsibly; taking too many from one place or one tree can stunt their growth. Bear in mind that you will need to make sure you are gathering needles from a pine tree (see above) and steer clear of evergreens that have berries in any color.
Once gathered, boil some water and remove it from heat. I find it helps to cut or crush the needles before adding them to the water. It’s best to steep the cut needles in hot (not boiling) water for several minutes, although some folks find it tastier to boil the needles until they are reddish (note that this can take a few hours, but can result in a milder flavor). You can also easily make a simple syrup and boil the needles in it to create a unique (and healthy!) elixir for cooking and cocktails.