Pine needle tea is full of natural vitamin C, and it tastes absolutely wonderful. Citrus-y and woodsy, it’s a spectacular wintertime tea.
I know what you’re thinking, pine needle tea must be some kind of desperation survival food…and it is…but it’s also really delicious. As luck would have it, not only is it packed with vitamin C, pine needle tea also happens to taste pretty darn good. Citrus-y and woodsy, it smells absolutely wonderful in your wintertime teacup, and it’s perfect for sipping by the fire.
A while back I curled up by the fire reading a recent birthday gift from my husband, a book titled The Indifferent Stars Above which chronicles the journey of the Donner party. I love historical fiction and survival books, and it happens to be both. The book is engrossing and well crafted, but it really brings out the “armchair survivalist” in me.
As they’re trudging through waist-deep snow trying to get out of the pass, I’m almost audibly yelling at the book pages, “NOOO…stop. Make snowshoes before you’re too tired to go on!” Later when they give up and head back, they hunker down in the cabin to slowly starve and die of survey, boiling pine bark and shoe leather trying to extract nutrients.
Starvation is a tricky one to solve given the circumstances, but scurvy is not…especially when you’re hunkered down in a pine forest.
Vitamin C Content of Pine Needles
Pine needles, especially fresh pine needles harvested in winter, contain a good bit of vitamin C. It’s not all that much compared to modern supplements or fresh fruit, but it is enough to keep you healthy in a pinch.
One US forest service study found that pine needles have somewhere between 0.72 and 1.87 mg/g of Ascorbic Acid (vitamin C) when sampled mid-summer. Other studies note that the vitamin C concentrations are 4-7 times higher in the winter months, steadily increasing in the colder months and peaking in February and March.
While the recommended daily intake of vitamin C is 60 mg/day for adults, rather unethical studies on prison inmates in the 1960s showed that you can fend off scurvy with as little as 10 mg/day. Based on that, a study concluded it would have been possible to fend off scurvy during the sieve of Leningrad using pine needle tea (source).
Nutrients in Pine Trees
Beyond the needles, every part of a pine tree is edible, and though it may not contain many calories, each part is rich in different nutrients.
The outer bark is full of antioxidants and tannins, and it’s actually sold these days as a new-age health supplement. The inner bark has some calories and is surprisingly sweet (though you’ll burn more calories harvesting/processing it than you will gain eating it). Pine bark flour (made from both the outer and inner bark) is a traditional food in Scandinavia and is still used to this day.
We’ve cooked a good bit with pine bark, and it’s surprisingly tasty (for bark), but pine needle tea is downright pleasurable. Nutrients or not, I’d still harvest pine needles to make cups in the wintertime.
Obviously, if you’re going to forage ingredients for pine needle tea, be sure you’ve actually harvested pine. Other conifers, like spruce and hemlock trees, are edible as well, and make delicious tree. (Note: Poison hemlock is a flowering plant, and has nothing to do with hemlock trees.)
The main thing to look out for is yew tree species, which are toxic. They have flat needles with a white color on the underside. They look a bit like hemlock trees, which also have flat needles, but are green on the underside.
Either way, yew doesn’t look much like pine other than having needles. Pine needles aren’t flat, you can roll them in your fingers, and they’re much longer than the short (around 1 cm) yew needles.
Ponderosa pine out west is potentially toxic, at least to cows, but it’s unclear if it has any effect on humans. Best to avoid it just to be safe.
If you’re at all confused, I’d suggest reading this guide to identifying conifers.
How to Make Pine Needle Tea
To make pine needle tea, you only need a few handfuls of fresh pine needles. Fresh needles are much more flavorful and aromatic and have higher vitamin concentrations. Pine shoots (also sometimes called pine candles) can also be used, and they have a much more resinous taste.
How much you need depends on your tastes, but I’d say somewhere between 2 and 4 tablespoons of chopped pine needles makes a good cup of pine needle tea. While you can leave them whole, chopping them up a bit increases surface area and will help extract more flavor.
I like my tea a bit stronger, so I opt for around 4 tablespoons of chopped pine needles (1/4 cup) per cup of tea. Experiment a bit and see what you like.
Learning Herbs has a winter foraging pine activity book that suggests using pine needles to make a wintertime chai, mixing the following in 6 cups boiling water:
- 3 Tbsp. Pine Needles, chopped
- 2 Cardamom Pods
- 1 1/2 tsp. Grated Ginger
- 2 Cinnamon Sticks
- 2 Star Anise Pods (or 1/2 tsp Fennel Seeds)
- 1 tsp. Whole allspice
They’re making quite a few cups of tea with a lot of different aromatic spices, but only 3 Tbsp of pine needles. Though it’s probably good, you likely won’t taste the pine needles at all in that mixture.
Personally, I like plain pine needle tea. Just 2-4 Tbsp. chopped pine needles to a cup of water, steeped for 10-15 minutes.
What Does Pine Needle Tea Taste Like?
While you’d expect pine needle tea to taste bitter or intense, it’s actually quite subtle. It’s aromatic, like a pine tree, but it has really subtle citrus notes, like a floral hoppy beer (rather than a sour citrus).
It has a bit of resinous flavor that tastes like the woods, in a warm way that’s not at all bitter.
I like pine needle tea plain with nothing added, but I’ve read that a bit of honey or milk is a common addition. I think honey would be lovely, but I’m skeptical about the milk.
Warm chai spices are the perfect complement to pine needle tea on a snowy winter’s day, but I’d keep it subtle, so you still taste the mild resinous pine flavor.
Edible Pine Recipes
Just about every part of the pine tree is edible, including the needles, bark, resin, and even pine pollen.
Pine needle tea is a warming wintertime tea, full of pleasant resinous flavors and mild citrus notes.
- 2 to 4 Tbsp. Pine Needles, Chopped
- 1 Cup Water
- Honey to Taste (Optional)
- Bring water to a boil in a tea kettle or saucepan.
- While the water is heating, finely chop the pine needles to help them infuse better into the tea.
- Once boiling, remove from heat and add pine needles (or pour over prepared needles in a tea pot).
- Allow the pine needles to steep for 15-20 minutes.
- Strain and enjoy, adding honey, lemon, or milk if desired. (I prefer it plain, just as it is.)
Be sure to positively identify any wild-foraged species before consuming. There are toxic look likes, namely toxic yew species. Other conifer species such as spruce and hemlock also have edible needles and might make a fine substitute. Be sure on your identification, and check to make sure the conifer species is edible.
Wild Foraged Recipes
Looking for more tasty food straight from the woods?
- How to Make Cookies After the Apocolypse (100% Wild Foraged Cookies)
- How to Make Acorn Flour
- Chokecherry Syrup
- Elderberry Pie
Hoping to learn a few new wild plants this year?
- Foraging Morel Mushrooms
- Foraging Autumn Olive
- Foraging Nannyberries
- Winter Foraging: 50+ Plants You Can Find in the Snow