Sappy New Year and Creating with Conifers
Happy 2021! I’m stepping into this new year filled with inspiration and enthusiasm to explore and share my plant journey with you all. That is a big part of my goals for this shiny new year so look for new classes posted on my website coming up this spring. I’m a bit of a dork when it comes to exploring plants, and this time of year I am so drawn to learning about all the different coniferous trees that are in the park near our home. After learning about all the benefits of the needles and resin that these trees produce and also adoring the aroma, I have taken to carrying a jar around with me anytime I find myself out walking in the woods to collect the little nuggets of resin. I also keep an eye out for fallen branches of pines, spruces and firs. If you are walking through a coniferous forest, many of the trees will shed a few small branches, perfect for forest floor foraging. Winter is a great time to gather the resin, and I look for resin that is no longer gooey, that has turned brittle and crystalized, sort of like peanut brittle might be. I use my fingers to break off these nubs of resin and if it doesn’t willingly come free from the tree I leave it be rather than gouging it out with a knife. I prefer the gentle approach and the tree is still using the resin to protect itself from infestation. A new thing I learned in preparing for this newsletter is that the resin and sap of the trees are totally different elements. I had thought that the resin was just dried sap, but this isn’t so. The sap carries nutrients from roots to branches throughout the tree, but the resin is a separate compound that is thicker and stickier and functions somewhat like a band-aid, being secreted from the tree where branches have been cut or broken or where it has been eaten by birds or insects. There are always new things to learn!
"Ever eat a pine tree? Many parts are edible." -Euell Gibbons
For those of us who grew up in the 1970's this may bring a smile to your face remembering the Grape Nuts commercials with naturalist and wild edibles expert Euell Gibbons talking about what plants are edible. There are so many good parodies of this commercial on YouTube, and the concept of eating a pine tree has gotten lots of chuckles over the years, but all laughing aside, you can actually eat some parts of the pine tree. There is a 500-year old legend about a French explorer in Canada whose crew was gravely ill with scurvy, a vitamin C deficiency. They were assisted by a tribal chieftain named Donacona who brewed the explorers pine needle tea, which revived them so they could continue their travels. There have been many scientific studies on the active compounds found in pine needs, and they are loaded with flavonols and bioflavonoids. The scent of pine has been found to be soothing for the mind, and just the thought of walking through a coniferous forest can bring some peace.
So, what are conifers and how are they different from evergreen trees and pine trees? Conifers are a group of plants that produce cones, hence the name CONifer. Pines, spruces, firs and cedars are all conifers, as they all produce a cone, although not all of the cones produced are the classic pine cone we tend to think of. Juniper berries of the Eastern Red Cedar, Juniperus virginiana, and the little nubs produced by arbovitae, the Eastern White Cedar, Thuja occidentalis are also considered to be cones. There are more than 600 species of conifers worldwide and in Minnesota we have about 10 different species. Conifers are important to grow as they are great carbon sinks. The photosynthesis removes carbon from the atmosphere and they can store immense amounts of carbon for hundreds of years in their large trunks. They also provide food and shelter for a variety of wildlife. Not all conifers are evergreens, and if you want to learn more about the difference between pines, spruces, firs, cedars, and evergreens The Spruce has a good resource page for this. https://www.thespruce.com/difference-between-evergreens-and-conifers-2131029. I would recommend having a few good tree books particular to the areas that you frequent, and also check the web for information provided by the DNR. 'The Botanical Safety Handbook' gives Pinus strobus, the Eastern White Pine, the highest safety rating, so that is my go to conifer when it comes to bringing it into my kitchen. I know that 'forest bathing' can sound a lot less appealing in the winter, but getting to know the different types of conifers that grow in our area can be a fun challenge and make outdoor walks in the woods so much more pleasant. And now, I am going to encourage you to get all 'Euell Gibbons' out there and taste the needles of the trees you encounter. Please do use a good tree guide so that you can identify what you are trying, but the main shrub you would avoid is the Yew, Taxus spp. which is mainly grown as an ornamental shrub in this area. Pay attention to how many needles are in a a bundle on each branch. There are single needle, clustered needle and scaly needled conifers. I have a lot of red and white pines near me, and an easy way to identify them is that red pine has two needles in each bunch and the white pine has 5 (think 5 letters in the word 'white' to help remember). I am by no means a tree expert but I do so love and admire them and am making it my person mission to get to know them all better and there is so much to learn! So, it's that time of year when we like to bring a pine tree into our homes....the smell brings up so many memories, and is found to be uplifting and invigorating! Pine essential oil is found to be antimicrobial so it's an added bonus to have a celebratory tree inside in a season when colds and flus are prevalent. Does this mean you could make a tea with your Christmas tree? Sure...but only if you know where and how the tree was grown and if it has been sprayed with any chemical to preserve it. I prefer to go out to trim trees in my own yard or in the woods near my home to gather branches for my recipes. The best time of year to gather branches from any tree is when the weather is cold when there are no insects that may attack a fresh cut of a tree. I prune any branches that are in a congested area of a tree or any branches interfering with each other. Once gathered, I use fresh pine needles to flavor vinegar, honey, sugars, spirits or syrup and I dry a good amount for having on hand to make tea. Here are some simple recipes to get you started enjoying the flavor and health benefits of conifers.
Three Trees Shortbread (Pine, Maple, and Black Walnut) Celebrate the flavors from some trees that live in our world. For the pine needles, taste and explore some pine trees that are near you. I love the white pine for it’s slightly citrus-y gentle flavor and soft needles. If you don’t have a source for black walnuts you can sub pecans or English walnuts. Makes about 6 dozen small slice and bake cookies, or 2 dozen roll and cut cookies 8 ounces unsalted butter, softened ½ cup Maple Sugar 2 Tablespoons minced pine needles (try white pine, red pine, or Norway Spruce) ¾ teaspoon sea salt ¼ cup finely chopped black walnuts 2 cups all purpose flour
Powdered sugar for garnish, optional In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment cream the butter with the maple sugar, pine needles, salt and black walnuts until smooth. Mix in the flour until it forms a cohesive dough. Shape the dough into three 6-inch logs and wrap in parchment paper or wax paper and chill in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour or overnight. If you are planning to do cut-out cookies, press dough into two discs and wrap and chill. When you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Sliced the logs into 24 slices each and arrange the cookies on a baking sheet. Alternatively, roll the dough discs to ¼” thickness and cut into desired shapes and arrange on baking sheets. Bake cookies for 11-13 minutes until edges begin to brown. Cool cookies on sheet for 5 minutes before transferring to a cooling rack and dust with powdered sugar if desired.
Spruce Tip Oxymel
An oxymel is a folk medicine made with apple cider vinegar, raw honey and plant material of some sort. To make an immune boosting elixir, gather spruce tips in early spring, pack into a jar and cover with apple cider vinegar. Let steep for two weeks, shaking gently once or twice a day, and strain after two weeks. Measure the amount of liquid and add an equal amount of honey and mix. Keep stored in the refrigerator, and take one or two teaspoons daily during cold and flu season.
Soaking in a Pine Forest Bath Salts
I like to make an Epsom salt bath to soak in during the cold winter months. I make jars of this pretty and aromatic blend for friends for holiday gifts.
2 cups Epsom salts
1 cup pine, spruce or fir needles, cut into small pieces
5 drops pine, spruce or fir essential oil, if desired
Mix the needles into the Epsom salts and blend in a blender or food processor. Add essential oil if you want to boost the aroma. Store in an airtight jar, and add ¼-1/2 cup to a nice warm bath. You can also use a muslin bag to steep as a tea, to eliminate having little bits of pine needle to clean out of your tub.
Pine Needle and Rose Hip Tea It’s a great idea to boost your vitamin C intake in the winter months and if you think outside the citrus family, pine needles and rose hips are wonderful sources. This tea can also make a lovely drink syrup to stir into cocktails. Makes 2 cups
2 cups boiling water
1 Tablespoon pine needles
1 Tablespoon rose hips
Honey, to taste
Place pine needles and rose hips in a tea pot and pour the boiling water over and cover. Let the tea steep for about 10-15 minutes. Strain into tea cups and sweeten with a little honey if you like, to taste. If you are feeling congested, inhale the steam from your tea while you enjoy it. Simmering the needles and rose hips in the water will make a stronger, more 'medicinal' decoction, but will also make a more tannic, astringent flavor. You can make a syrup with this strong decoction for drinks, but adding an equal amount of sugar or honey to the tea. Store in the refrigerator and add to cocktails or fizzy water over ice.
Conifers are anti-microbial and the needles and resin contain this quality. I like to make a salve with the resin and I use it for skin wounds, slivers and eczema. The resin helps to increase blood flow to the area when applied which can get things moving to heal the tissue and sometimes brings about a little mild inflammation to bring about healing. It is also great for removing splinters because of this activity. It’s a soothing and warming salve which makes it nice for soothing sore muscles.
Next time you are walking in the woods get up close and personal with some conifers and look for areas where branches have been cut or where there are some openings in it's bark. Some of the resin may still be gooey, and will make your hands really sticky and end up inside your winter gloves so it is neater to gather the hardened resin chunks from the tree. The sticky stuff will work great, but it will just be messier. To clean the sticky residue off of hands, just rub them with coconut oil and wipe off with a towel. This works much better than soap and water! When gathering the resin, make sure to give it a sniff to appreciate the beautiful aroma and also to make sure it smells nice. I have occasionally found conifer resin that smells kind of like vomit, so want to avoid anything to spoil the aroma of your salve. I just can't get enough of sticking my nose into my jar of collected resin for a deep inhale of the smell of the forest!
Pine Resin Salve Making an herbal salve isn't terribly difficult and is a great way to make a sticky resin more 'user friendly'. As with any herbal salve the first step, once the plant material is gathered, is to infuse a neutral oil with the material. Because of the nature of the resin, I used heat to melt the resin and infuse the oil so I don't need to mess with a mortar and pestle. I like to use a locally produced sunflower seed oil from Smude's, which is a family owned company here in Minnesota, but you can certainly use jojoba oil, or olive oil or another high quality neutral oil that isn't prone to rancidity. The resin does act as a sort of preservative, which helps this salve last for quite some time. For this project it's great to have some dedicated vessels for wax melting, since it isn't the easiest to wash out of measuring utensils, graters and strainers. 3 Tablespoons (roughly) resin from white or red pines, spuce or fir 4 ounces sunflower oil 2-3 Tablespoons grated beeswax In a 4-ounce glass canning jar cover the resin chunks with the oil and cover the jar tightly with the lid. Simmer in a pot of water for about 1 hour to infuse the oil and melt the resin. You could also do this overnight in a crockpot if you like for a longer infusion. Strain the infused oil and melted resin through a mesh strainer into a glass measuring pitcher or jar and stir in the grated bees wax. Place this container in the pan with boiling water and heat, stirring, until the wax has melted. Check to see that the salve is the consistency that you would like by dripping a bit on a plate to see if it sets up as you like. If you want it to be thicker, add more wax little by little, testing as you go. It helps to consider if you will be using the salve during warmer months so may want to make sure it will hold up to being in a first aid kit in the summer. Pour the salve into small jars and allow to set up. Cover with lids and label. Store away from excess heat and light. This should last at least one year. If you have leftover resin that was strained out, you can use it for incense making or just add to pot pourri.
Extra Credit: I have also been enjoying making my own Bees Wrap to eliminate the use of plastic wrap in my home. I use the resin-infused oil and grated bees wax and iron it into cotton fabric using parchment paper and a towel to protect my iron and my ironing board. It works amazingly well for wrapping cheeses and bowls filled with leftovers and can be reused for quite a few months, simply wiping it off between uses. *Also a shout out to my husband Tom Thulen for taking the gorgeous photos for all of my newsletters. I couldn't do this without him!
Some helpful books and web resources:
The Herbal Academy on making salve The Enchanter's Green on using pine resin The Difference Between Tree Sap and Tree Resin DIY Bees wax wrap
Some helpful books and web resources:
"Trees of Minnesota: Field Guide" by Stan Tekiela