Pine & Spruce Syrup
The fragrant scent of pine and spruce isn't only limited to the holiday and winter season: this delicious and easy syrup can be made year-round!
PINE & SPRUCE
Having moved to Sweden this year, I now get to live in the kingdom of pine and spruce trees. Well-adapted to the climate and sandy soils here, these trees grow abundantly almost anywhere, offering their beauty and and many shades of green to the landscape year-round.
Both pine and spruce are part of the same family (Pinaceae) that consists of many different conifers (for example also cedars, firs, hemlocks, larches). Humans have benefited from the many gifts these trees bring for a very long time. Aside from being a source of wood for construction, most conifers are not only edible, they’re also medicinal. Every part is useful, including the bark, needles, resin, nuts, and pollen.
Pine and spruce trees were already around when dinosaurs were still roaming the Earth, and although of course not millions of years old, there are also some pretty ancient ones still alive today. Not so far from where I live in Sweden grows Old Tjikko, a Norway spruce (Picea abies) with a root system that is 9,550 years old. In California, the Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longeava) named Methuselah (who has an impressive 4,853 years) was already well-established by the time the ancient Egyptians built the pyramids at Giza!
Throughout our human history, pine and spruce have been part of many of our stories. For the Native American Hopi, the spruce tree was believed to be a medicine man named Salavi once, who transformed himself into a tree. For this reason, spruce trees are considered sacred these people. In Greek mythology, pine was sacred to Dionysos (the god of wine-making and more), since pine resin was used to seal ceramic wine vessels (amphoras). Pine was also closely connected to the sea god Poseidon, as the tree’s wood was prized as a ship building material for its ability to withstand decay. In other parts of Europe, the Celts would light large bonfires of Scots pine after the winter solstice to welcome the return of the sun after a long winter. They would also bring them into their temples or decorate them with lights...can you see the connection there with current day Christmas tree traditions?
Pine and spruce needles are both very beneficial for your body and provide many different health benefits. Because they contain a rich mix of phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, adding some to your diet can benefit many of your body's systems. Because the needles are rich in vitamin C, they can help boost the immune system and reduce inflammation in your body. They also contain vitamins A, D, E and K, which can help support healthy eye function, blood clotting and bone development. One of the best-known medicinal uses of pine and spruce needles you might have heard about already, is that they have long been utilized to relieve coughs and sore throats.
Many conifers play a central role in their ecological community of the forest. For this reason, they are considered keystone species. Because of the critical function they have in the lifecycle of so many other species, their presence helps to increase an area's biodiversity. From birds to squirrels, insects, mosses, and fungi, these special trees provide an important home for many.
We have lost most of the beautiful old-growth boreal forests of the Northern hemisphere due to deforestation over the last centuries. The forests here in Sweden are no exception from this; almost all old-growth forests here have been replaced by tree plantations that are designed to produce large volumes of low-quality wood. This comes at a great cost for biodiversity, the health of the soil, climate, water systems, and in some cases also the wellbeing of indigenous communities. You can help protect these forest by supporting the efforts organizations like the Old Growth Forest Network (US), Ancient Forest Alliance (CA), or Naturskyddsföreningen (SE).
FINDING PINE & SPRUCE
There are at least 115 species of pine, so the first step in identification is to make sure you have encountered one of them. After this you can narrow it down to the exact species. They are evergreen, and usually grow between 15-45m (50-150ft) tall. Pine's spiral growth of their branches, needles, and pinecone scales can be arranged beautifully according to the Fibonacci number ratios.
To accurately identify pine, look for the characteristic two to five needles growing together in a little bundle or cluster. Each bundle will have a small papery sheath at the base. Depending on the season and age of the tree, you could also see if you can spot some pinecones. The scales of their cones tend be more woody and rigid.
There are about 35 species of spruce in the Pinaceae family, mostly growing in the northern temperate and boreal regions of the Earth. They are large trees, growing anywhere from 20-60m (60-200 ft) tall. They can be distinguished from other members of the Pinaceae family by their needles, which are four-sided and attached individually to small structures (sterigmata) on the branches. Their cones hang downwards after being pollinated, and have thinner and more flexible scales than those of pine.
The needles of all spruce species are edible, but like with pine it's important to do proper identification, and not confuse them with other types of trees. There are a few lookalikes that are important to be aware of. Common yew (Taxus spp.) is toxic and should be avoided. Yew typically grows as a shrub, and has flat, bendable needles, and produce red berries instead of cones.
HARVESTING & PROCESSING PINE AND SPRUCE
For this recipe you can either use pine needles, spruce tips or needles, or a combination of both. You can harvest them anytime throughout the year. Different species will have a somewhat different scent and flavor, so you could really get to know each of them better if you work with different species at different times. The fresh springtime tips and needles will generally have a more fresh and citrus-like flavor than older needles. There are a few species that can taste slightly bitter, so you can do some experimenting to see which ones you like best!
Whether you're working with pine and spruce needles or anything else in nature, it’s important to walk softly on the Earth and to forage with care. We are guests and receivers of gifts from wild lands and forests, so please consider how you can do this respectfully and only take what you need. There are a few guidelines specifically for working with pine and spruce:
Always harvest from mature trees so that young trees get the time to grow.
Only collect a handful of small branches or individual needles from each tree.
Don't harvest from the apical meristem, which are the top of the tree (see photo below) and the places from which the branches will grow longer.
Now that you have learned all about pine and spruce, let's make some syrup!
VISUAL GUIDE PINE NEEDLE & SPRUCE TIP SYRUP
Making this pine needle and spruce tip syrup is very easy, and as a bonus it will make your kitchen smell like a forest! Below you can see the steps to make it, followed by the whole recipe.
PINE & SPRUCE SYRUP RECIPE
Disclaimer: Every year there are people that are poisoned or experience other negative health effects from eating inedible wild plants or mushrooms that resemble edible species. For this reason it's essential to ensure proper species identification and to consult multiple quality sources for doing this. It's also important to always be aware of your unique health considerations, and to check and follow all local foraging regulations before you harvest anything in nature.