Spruce tips have a bright, citrus flavor that works well in both savory and sweet dishes. Almost all conifer tips are edible, and the only exception is yew trees.
Pine and fir tips have their own unique taste, and as an added bonus, all conifer tips have medicinal properties.
A spruce tip is the new spring growth at the end of a branch. The tree hunkers down for winter, but then in the spring, they send out tender (and flavorful) new growth. The flavors can vary from tree to tree, ranging from bright and citrus-y to warm and resinous.
While spruce are the most famous, other conifer tips are also edible.
Identifying Conifer Species
We don’t have many spruces on our land, but we have a plethora of hemlock, pine and fir trees. I’d had my eye on making spruce beer for years, but without a source of spruce tips, it seemed out of reach.
A few months ago, when I was doing research for an article on how to eat a pine tree, I learned that all conifer tips are edible with the exception of yew trees which are questionably toxic. That’s a pretty big selection of conifer tips and a lot more options than spruce tips alone.
I found a really excellent guide to identifying different conifer species here, and it takes you through all the ins and outs of different varieties. I’ll give you a quick rundown of each species as I know it.
As it turns out, we do have a spruce or two in a few landscape plantings around our house. Spruce tips tend to stay inside a papery covering when they’re young, which helps you identify them at a distance.
Beyond that, spruce trees:
- Tend to have short and stiff needles, that feel a lot sharper than the other conifers.
- Each needle comes out of a single small woody projection (instead of in groups like pine needles) and if you pull out a needle the woody projection remains (unlike needles on fir trees which come off clean)
- Needles are square in cross-section, and they can be rolled between the fingertips.
Spruce tips are the canonical “tip” that’s used by fancy chefs to create real world-class foraged food. This spruce tip ice cream is served in classy restaurants, and they’re also used as an exotic veggie mixed with pasta or in stir-fries.
Still though, my favorite are fir tips…
My favorite thus far, all the fir tips around these parts are lightly sweet with a hint of citrus. Grapefruit maybe, with an ever so slight bitter note. They’re also a lot more pleasant to harvest than spruce tips since the needles are soft and you won’t get spiked if you trip into the tree.
Fir trees have:
- Soft, flat needles.
- Needles grow individually from the branch (unlike pine) but they’re attached with what looks like a tiny suction cup (rather than a woody projection like spruce).
- a white-ish color on the undersides of the needles.
Thus far, I’ve been eating fir tips raw out of hand because they’re so good. I have a boatload of them squirreled away in the fridge, and I’m hoping to get creative over the next month or so. Tips keep really well if they’re refrigerated promptly, so these will be coming out for fun projects all the way into mid-summer.
I did make a lovely fir tip posset, which is a simple eggless custard that simmers cream until it thickens and then adds a bit of lemon juice to help it set up. If you summer the spruce tips in the cream, they infuse beautifully.
Probably the easiest to identify of all the conifers, pine trees have many long needles coming out of a single point of origin. Beyond that, pine trees have:
- Upturned branches that tend to grow sparsely in comparison to other conifers.
- They grow in whirls circling the trunk, and the tree puts out a new ring of branches each year (handy for approximating the age of a pine tree).
Pine shoots are a bit different than all the other “tips” in that they’re more of a tight shoot and they don’t really look like conifer needles. It’s the shoot of a new branch coming out, and there are no needles visible yet. They’re pretty plain-looking, but they’re packed with incredible flavor.
Warm, spicy and resinous, pine tips taste like sweet pine candy to my palate. Imagine the smell of pine, but without the “green” taste of the needles (if you’ve ever recreationally eaten pine needles). Slightly bitter, but still warm, comforting and mildly sweet.
I made a pine shoot syrup that’s totally out of this world, and just uses sugar to draw out the natural liquid from the pine shoots. Add in 2 parts pine shoots and 1 part sugar to a jar, then give it a good shake. Allow it to sit for about a week, shaking it any time you think about it, and then spoon out a taste of heaven.
I dipped a spoon in for a taste, and I’m glad I was alone because I actually let out a soft moan…so good! Next year I’m making a huge batch of this stuff.
This pine shoot syrup can be used to flavor meats, and I’m thinking it’d make a really unique baklava-like treat. It’s also a natural cough syrup, in the same way as this pine needle cough syrup.
Thus far I’m not a huge fan of hemlock tips. They’re wicked tiny, and they taste distinctly sour to my palate. Hemlock trees have needles that are flat and come out in one plane from the stem like a fan.
They can look a bit like yew species, but the underside of hemlock needles are white, while yew are a uniform green.
While I’m passing on hemlock tips, I am loving baby hemlock cones. The underside of mature trees produce tiny hemlock cones that you can harvest at the same time as tips. They’re sweet and flavorful, and much better tasting than the tips.
A little later on they produce a lot of pollen from those little proto-cones, and I’m trying to come up with some way to gather it. Give the branch a whack and you’ll see what I mean, as a huge cloud puffs off the branch if your timing is right.
Avoiding Toxic Species
While most conifer tips are edible, there are a few to watch out for. As always, do your own research and don’t just take my word for it. I don’t know every single species worldwide, and there’s the potential that some are problematic and I’ve just never heard of them.
Here are the ones I know to be potentially toxic, but I’d suggest positively IDing any species you intend to eat and making sure it doesn’t cause issues in humans.
All yew species are toxic, and they can look a bit like hemlock if you’re not careful. Your best bet in avoiding a potentially toxic yew tree is to positively ID the conifer as something else edible. Pretty simple.
In the northeast, we do have some yew species, namely Taxus canadensis, which looks quite a bit like young hemlock trees. The main difference is hemlock trees have a white underside, and this species of yew is evenly green on both sides.
I’ve never seen a yew tree to my knowledge out here, and I think they’re maybe more common in the Pacific Northwest. You can see I’m no expert on these, so do a bit of research to see if there are any in your local area to avoid.
Cedar is generally considered not edible, though I have heard of some traditional ways to use it (and it’s commonly used as a medicinal tree species in various preparations). Don’t use any cedar species.
Out west there is a potentially problematic species known as ponderosa pine. I’d recommend you do your own research on this one, as it’s questionably toxic.
Eaten in large quantities, it causes abortion in cows and other complications. I’ve read plenty that says that’s a problem specific to cows, but still, I’d definitely avoid it if pregnant.
I don’t have access to this species, and I’m in no way an expert on it, I’d suggest you do your own research and use your best judgment.
Spruce Tip Recipes
Regardless of the type of tips you’re harvesting, search for “spruce tip recipes” because that’s the one that everyone knows. Each conifer tip has a slightly different flavor, but so does each individual tree. They all produce slightly different flavors, so if you find one you don’t like, that doesn’t mean the next tree might not be better.
- Spruce Tip Syrup ~ Honest Food
- Fiddlehead Salad with Spruce Tips, Peppermint, and Pecorino ~ Forager Chef
- Pickled Spruce Tips ~ Forager Chef
What’s your favorite way to use spruce tips? I’m always looking for new ideas! Leave me a note in the comments.
Yew trees are used to make/derive a Chemotherapy called taxol. Probably named from their name tacos cana……
That is interesting since I received Taxol for stage 4 breast cancer. Thank you for sharing that information.
Besides the yew, what medicinal benefits can be derived from the fir, spruce and pine?
I harvested spruce tips this year to add to compound gin I am infusing. Should be ready to drink in a week!
I have eaten pine tip jelly for years and plan to make some this year. As for foraging pine pollen – which is very good for enhancing the male libido – I was told by an herbalist to put a large jar over pine/spruce tips and shake the pollen in the jar and it collects real well that way. I plan to do that this year, Great idea. Thank You for your article lots of encouragement to continue with enjoying all that we live amongst. YAY
I am curious how would you use the pine pollen? Sprinkle it on foods or a tea? This article is amazing i love how we are surrounded by so many great things in nature that can provide nourishment but yet most of us are so unaware. I am super excited to learn more about this topic.
Tincturing Pine pollen in alcohol is preferable. But Have used about half tsp. in a morning fruit smoothis
When do you collect the pollen?
Improperly harvesting conifer tips can damage trees.
“Every tip that’s picked is pruning the tree. That tip will not grow back. So don’t pick too many spruce tips from one branch.”
Spruce tips do grow back. That comment is made on a blog, an outdoors chef sort of person, and it isn’t accurate. I have 3 huge blue spruce in my yard, and one white spruce. The branches grow like mad, even when I cut them back with pruners, through the wood, to keep them out of the drainpipes and off the roof, so I don’t believe for one minute that snipping off some buds is going to stop the branch from growing. I wish. I love the trees, but they are huge.
I gather young pine cones in the spring, cover them with water, put in a slow cooker and simmer for two weeks. Put the syrup in a jar, refrigerate and sip some every day .YUM!!!!
Can you use cedar ?
No, avoid cedar. I should add that to the article too as something to avoid.
Can you specify which type of cedar to avoid? I have made great soda from Cedrus Libani tips and cones, so perhaps you need to specify which cedar to avoid.
Cedar is generally considered not edible, though I have heard of some traditional ways to use it (and it’s commonly used as a medicinal tree species in various preparations). It is a safer option to not use any cedar species.
Cedar is a common name that can refer to trees in three different genera in at least 2 families. It would be helpful to specify what cedar trees to avoid by botanical name–genus and species.
Conifers are LOADED with Vitamin C.
I just bought 29 acres of Spruce trees… different varieties of spruce. Plus the neighbours has 100 acres.
I would like harvest the tips but I do not know yet what I should do with all those spruce. Any idea what could be profitable? I do not want to cut the trees but I would like to start a small business. Not sure what is more in demand.
In Quebec the French people love their Spruce Beer (more like a soda).
Honestly, I don’t have any idea about the market. If you do find out, let me know!
you can try local brewers or restaurants to see if they can use them, we live on vancouver island and I was a cook here for a long time and we used them regularly for cooking and alcohol spirits.
I cannot find a recipe for making edible spruce essence.
Can anyone post one for me please and thank you!
Great article, I cant wait to try out some of these new ideas. Ive been brewing beer with blue spruce tips for years and is by far one of my favorite styles. Cheers!
So I have heard Ponderosa Pine is toxic but others say it is okay. What is your opinion? It looks like your Pine shoots are Ponderosa. I have an abundance of Ponderosa trees around me that have shoots right now and would love to make the syrup.
There is concern that ponderosas pine can cause abortion in pregnant women, however, this is likely a myth (but you may want to avoid it if you’re pregnant). Ponderosa has delicious seeds and is completely edible!
I just realized we have a spruce tree in the yard but it is pretty old and I think is suffering from some kind of fungus.
There are still gorgeous tips growing in though, would those still be edible??
Possibly? I honestly don’t know.
Is Spruce pollen, like the pine pollen edible?
That’s a good question, and I’d assume so? But I honestly have no idea.
Yews are planted ornamentally, often around houses for landscaping, and in cemeteries and public places. They can become trees when not keep pruned. I have come across yew trees when walking around a town and, even though I am very familiar with hemlock and yew, initially been confused. Please help people be very clear on the difference between the two, as yew is really poisonous.
Another way to differentiate yew and hemlock is this: hemlock trees have small cones, and often they will have some clinging to the tree for much of the year, or on the ground underneath them. Yews have red berries in the fall, but only on the female plants, the males do not have berries.
Just curious question wasn’t Hemlock used to poison a Greek or Roman Philosopher way back when?
It’s not the same hemlock, and it’s a completely different plant. The poisonous hemlock is a low-growing plant that looks like a carrot, they just happen to have the same common name. Hemlock trees are not poisonous.
When do the spruce tips usually emerge? I’m in the Crow’s Nest Pass, Alberta, which is very different than the Okanagan Valley, BC, where I’ve gathered tips before. I keep looking, but still no tips like the ones I’ve gathered before. Keep thinking ..did I miss them? Thanks.
They should emerge in early spring. Have you already found and identified some spruce trees in your area?
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Can you make a tincture mixing Spruce and Pine together?
You can certainly make a mixed tincture if you wish. Some people prefer to tincture them separately and then mix them together when taking them so that you still have the individual tinctures if you want to use them separately but you can do it either way.