A while back I took a winter foraging course at our local herbal school, and I was truly amazed at how many ways you can eat a pine tree. Most conifers are not only edible, they’re also medicinal. Every part is useful including the bark, needles, resin, nuts, and cones.
Pine Nuts (Piñón)
The most obvious pine edible is the tasty nuts. They find their way into fancy foods, and you don’t really get extra forager points for eating them. Your mother likely eats them on occasion. You will, on the other hand, get bonus points for foraging your own or growing your own.
While all pines have edible seeds, most are too small to be worth the bother. Worldwide there are roughly 20 species with large edible pine nuts, and most of those grow in warm climate areas. Up here in zone 4 edible nut pines are not a great foraging option, but there is a species of Korean nut pine that’s hardy to zone 4. I’ll be able to report back on their taste in about a decade or so…
Pine nuts are famous for their use in pesto, but really they’re useful in all manner of recipes, savory or sweet. They have a buttery flavor, which makes them especially good in cookies.
Pine needles are perhaps the most versatile part of the tree. Believe it or not, even more than pine nuts, as they can be made into a tasty tea, or mixed into just about any recipe savory or sweet for a spicy kick. They’re also medicinal, which is a lovely bonus.
Externally, pine needles are added into salves for skin care “because pine is astringent, it reduces pore size and fine wrinkles. And pine is a powerful antioxidant which means that it may help to prevent premature aging, and may even help to reverse skin damage.” Adding pine needles to homemade bath salts can help relieve headaches, soothe frazzled nerves, relieve muscle pain and treat skin irritation. A pine needle hair rinse can be used to treat dandruff and eczema while adding shine to your hair.
Internally, pine is high in vitamin C, which makes it perfect in a nutrient-rich pine tea or pine needle soda. Pine needles are also naturally antibacterial, antifungal and expectorant so they make a great pine cough syrup when combined with honey.
Besides their medicinal uses, pine needles are just plain tasty. They add a peppery winter warmth to Douglass Fir infused eggnog or pine needle vodka. A simple pine needle salad dressing can turn a green salad into a warming winter meal.
The needles of each type of conifer have their own individual tastes, and spruce tips are particularly prized for spruce tip beer, or just a simple flavorful spruce tip tea. Buttery cookies and cakes really compliment the spicy conifer needle flavor, like in these redwood needle shortbread cookies, or these Douglass fir shortbread cookies. Similarly, pine needle sugar cookies strike just the right balance between earthy spice and sweet.
I love the idea of incorporating Douglass fir needles into a pear tart, as both pears and conifer are wonderful winter flavors.
Most people know of pine pollen as that annoying yellow powder that blankets their cars and sidewalks in the springtime. Once your neighbors start complaining about their dirty cars, it’s time to get out foraging. Pine pollen season is short, and it’s variable depending on climate. Many of our pines produce cones way out of reach 50+ feet in the air, but if you can find smaller trees you can harvest your own pine pollen.
Pine pollen can be used to replace flour in most recipes, provided you don’t replace more than 1/4 of the total amount.
Harvesting pine bark causes severe damage to a tree, and bark should only be harvested from trees destined to be cut down for other reasons. Pine bark has been harvested for food for hundreds of years, and one reason we know this is because the scars of pine bark harvesting are still present in Scandinavian trees after more than 700 years. Harvesting, even a little, scars the tree for life and harvesting too much will kill the tree altogether.
According to the Herbal Academy’s online Botany and Wildcrafting Course, “As a rule, never harvest from the trunk of a living tree. Only harvest bark from a tree that has been recently cut down for some other reason or has recently fallen over on its own. The timing here can be tricky, as you only want to harvest from recently fallen trees (within a few weeks of falling or being cut down) and not those that have begun to rot and decay. Never, absolutely never, cut a tree down simply just to harvest its bark or its root bark. This is not only unethical, but unsustainable, and is the reason why so many tree species used in herbalism, such as slippery elm (Ulmus rubra), are currently at risk from over-harvesting.”
Both the inner and outer bark of pine trees has been used as a food source by the Sami, an indigenous people from northern Scandinavia, and not just as a famine food. The inner bark especially is a rich source of vitamin C, and as Nordic Food Lab notes, “The phloem of the pine is rich in ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), which during the 1800s helped the Sami of the interior of Norway and Sweden avoid the scurvy that was at the time devastating the coastal populations of non-Sami farmers.”
Flour made from the inner bark contains about 1/4 of the calories as wheat flour, but since it’s a good source of scarce vitamins it was eaten by the richest in society. The outer bark is not rich in calories, but it was also ground into flour to help bread and crackers keep, and because it contains tannins that science has since shown to support healthy cell function. A powder made from the outer bark of pine trees is even sold as a modern dietary supplement, which the manufacturer claims “may support healthier cardiovascular and circulatory function.”
The Nordic Cookbook has a recipe for traditional pettuleipä, which is a sourdough bread made from rye and inner pine bark flour. I also came across a recipe from a Sami elder for bread that is made using the outer bark. I made pine bark bread from the outer bark and found it pleasant and mildly spicy.
I’ve also made pine bark cookies with interesting results (recipe coming soon). In the meantime, check out these birch bark cookies, which tasted amazing!
Beyond grinding it into flour, the inner cambium can be eaten fresh as well.
The author of A Boreal Herbal notes, “The inner bark (cambium layer) has long been used as a survival food and can also be eaten in raw slices. I like to use the soft, moist, white inner bark for making pesto. Most pesto recipes call for pine nuts. But one day, when I was making pesto I didn’t have any around. Remembering the flavor of the pine’s inner bark, I thought, why not? I’ll try it. It was wonderful— I haven’t used pine nuts since. The inner bark contains lots of starch and many sugars and can be boiled or ground and then added to soups and stews.”
Though not quite a pine, Tamarack is a related conifer. In Rogers Herbal Manual, Herbalist Robert Rogers gives a recipe for tamarack bread: “Scrape off the softwood and inner bark of tamarack, mix with water, and ferment into a dough to be mid with rye meal. Bury under the snow for a day. As fermentation begins, the dough can be cooked as a camp bread or as dumplings, the sweet wood pulp acts as a sugar for the yeast in the rye.”
Similar to harvesting bark, intentionally wounding a tree to harvest pine resin will scar a tree and provides access to insects and microbes that could stunt or kill the tree. Harvesting from small branches or existing wounds is a better more ethical option. Only harvest resin from the trunk of a tree that’s destined to be cut down for other reasons.
Pine resin is used medicinally for a variety of issues, both internally and externally. Externally, it’s made into a pine resin salve that is very effective against rashes, but “It’s also an effective healing agent on cuts and bruises, helps to draw out splinters, and can be rubbed on your chest for congestion.”
It’s naturally antibacterial, so pine resin has been chewed as a gum for mouth complaints as well as sore throats. A tea made from pine resin is supposedly good for arthritis as well.
The resin or sap from pine trees has a variety of uses, most of which don’t involve eating it. It’s been used to create waterproof sealants for clothing and can be made into a wood stain/waterproofer. It’s also used as an impromptu glue and firestarter.
I know what you’re thinking. Pine cones!?!? Those can’t possibly be edible. Apparently, they are edible and were eaten historically. According to A Boreal Herbal, Indigenous peoples in Canada consumed not only the bark but also the cones of subalpine fir trees. “The cones can also be used as food. They can be ground into fine powder, which in the past was mixed with fat. The result was considered both a delicacy and a digestive aid.”
Pine cones can be used to add flavor to dishes. I’m a huge fan of Mongolian food, and I recently watched a video where they made traditional Mongolian bbq by smoking mutton over a slow burning fire of pine cones.
So tell me, have you eaten any part of a pine tree? How’d you prepare it? I’d love to know in the comments below.
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- Harvesting and Using Slippery Elm Bark