Photos by Tracy Grant
Healthy refreshment from out your own back door
In a landscape that is covered in snow and usually considered barren except for the animals, there is still sustenance to be procured. Our modern minds, unless trained otherwise, think of agricultural land as the only source food or drink. Wild landscapes are not places we typically associate with harvest or bounty.
Yet for the vast majority of all life on Earth, wild places were the only place to procure food or drink. Throughout our evolution on this planet humans have managed to make it to almost every place that is possible to inhabit. And cold climates with snow for half of the year or longer are no exception.
For most of this time our outdoor pursuit of food and drink could not be confined to only the months of warm weather. When we look through the lens of history we see that in fact our current situation is an aberration. Being able not only to sit inside all winter long but even gain weight while doing so would have been a highly unusual prospect for much of humanity in the past. Cold or not, most people in cold climates were outside every single day in the search for at least ingredients to make tea, if not an animal to put into the pot.
Winter becomes something to dread when one spends 99 percent of one’s time inside, wishing for it to be over. But partaking in outdoor activities can shift our perception, and we can learn to appreciate the spectacular season of cold.
The northern hemisphere is host to a circumpolar group of trees that we call “pines.” These are trees in the genus Pinus,an ancient lineage that dates back at least 130 million years. While it is tempting to label all trees that do not shed their leaves each fall as “pines,” this is factually incorrect. Pine trees, and especially the eastern white pine or Pinus strobus, have an identity all their own and it is completely different from spruces, firs and cedars. The state tree of Michigan is the eastern white pine, and if you spend enough time in the backcountry of our beautiful state you will quickly see why. These trees are majestic, graceful and an integral part of our forest ecosystems. They also have needles that have helped humans through hard winters for a very long time.
Imagine yourself in this scenario: It is midwinter, most of the grains you harvested are eaten up, the vegetables and fruits are long gone and you have been living on a meat-and-fish diet for quite some time. It is very filling, of course, but there is something lacking in this diet that becomes crucial after a time of eating in this way: vitamin C. Day after day you start to feel a little bit weaker. Maybe your gums begin to bleed, perhaps your legs swell. If this goes on for too long you will pass on to the next life. You must find a way to get this crucial nutrient.
Humans intuited the need for vitamin C long before it was ever given a name. Sailors and pirates were known to have brought sauerkraut and limes on long ocean voyages to ward off scurvy (extreme vitamin C deficiency). The inhabitants of the colder regions of North America had an easy way of dealing with scurvy: They made tea from various coniferous tree species. White pine is often said to have been the most used of these evergreen trees. Perhaps not for the content of its vitamin C, as all of our coniferous tree species have vitamin C, but probably more for the delicious flavor.
Vitamin C content of oranges pales in comparison to the potency that white pine boasts. While the content varies from tree to tree, it can be safely assumed that the needles of white pine contain three to five times the content of oranges or limes. This is a hefty dose, and also one that can be obtained relatively easily by most individuals for no money at all. Imagine the drop in our collective carbon footprint if we relied on pine needles for our vitamin C rather than imported citrus fruits. We might truly begin to see a different world if we all started to live a little bit more locally.
But vitamin C is not the only thing the eastern white pine has going for it. Pine trees also have vitamin A, arginine, proline and other essential amino acids. Not to mention that pine trees have been studied for their antioxidant, antimutagenic and antitumor properties. Arginine is a source of nitrous oxide, which regulates oxygen release from red blood cells, protects the heart, stimulates the brain and regulates inflammation. The beneficial aspects of imbibing a little conifer tea from time to time during the winter are incredible. There is almost nobody, unless allergic to pine, who should not seek out and regularly drink tea from this plant.
One thing I often hear when I encourage people to forage is that foraging is not sustainable and can put stress on plant populations. But Pinus strobus is listed as a species of least concern, and its populations are known to be expanding. Couple that with the fact that these trees are incredibly easy to plant and grow and you have yourself a sustainable perennial crop. I feel that it is of the utmost importance for our society to begin living a little bit more locally, and adding something as essential as local vitamin C supplementation to one’s regimen is a great place to begin.
Harvest and Preparation
White pine is a fairly easy tree to identify, and there are no look-alikes that will cause you harm in Michigan. The best identifying characteristic is that the bunches (panicles) of needles that grow together on white pine are in groups of five, while the needles on a red pine (Pinus resinosa) have panicles of two. A quick online search, a field guide or a local expert will assist you in easily identifying the correct tree to harvest from. Foraging mantra: Always be 100 percent confident of any wild plant or fungi before consuming it.
Once you have located a healthy specimen, gathering pine needles is as easy as removing the needles from the branches. Most if not all Native American cultures that utilized this species harvested from the east and south side of the tree, believing that the tree contained more of the beneficial compounds in the regions that received more sunlight. Whether or not this is true, the entirety of the tree will have plenty of vitamin C, arginine, proline and other nutrients. If you want to be more traditional then by all means harvest on the southeast side of the tree. Be kind to the tree and only take as much as you need for yourself. Harvesting more than you need will only cause unnecessary harm.
There are many ways to make pine needle tea. My preferred method is to bring a quart of water to boil on the stove. While the water is heating cut a generous handful of the pine needles into little pieces so that maximum surface area is exposed. Once the water has reached a full boil toss in the pine needles, turn off the heat and cover it for 10 to 20 minutes. After the steeping has finished you can simply drink as-is, or you could add some honey or maple syrup to sweeten it up a touch. This tea is delicious, healthy and, best of all, local. Scurvy doesn’t stand a chance!
Pine needle tea should only be consumed a few times a week. While this drink is healthy and delicious, some good things are better left to moderation. The very high amount of vitamin C could possibly cause issues if taken too much. At most I like to drink tea from coniferous species three times a week.
Instead of wishing away winter, praying for warmer weather and better foraging opportunities, learn to appreciate the simple bounty that this beautiful season provides. Winter is majestic, quiet and has an unparalleled calmness that the other three seasons lack. The cold brings a coming-together of community, a time of introspection, and the coziness of fire. I have come to love the winter season; now that you know one of its generous secrets, perhaps you will too.
This story comes to us from Edible Grande Traverse.