There are so many great wild edibles that can be collected in the Great Lakes Region of North America, but perhaps the easiest to harvest and the most beneficial in terms of health is spruce tips.
Full of vitamin C, spruce tip tea is an essential tonic for spring after a long winter of vitamin-deficient foods in a sustainable, local diet. Indigenous people traditionally used conifer tips to alleviate lung congestion and to soothe sore throats.
Spruce tips are literally the tips of the branches of the Eastern White Spruce, although just about any
conifer tree will do, including pine, fir or cedar. It’s the tender new shoots that appear in the spring that we’re after, which are just small, undeveloped needles.
At this stage, they taste slightly citrusy and resinous, and as the needles get more mature, they become tough and more intensely flavoured.
I only use them at the tender stage for fresh eating when they can be used like capers with seafood, chopped and put into sauces or marinades or used directly on salads or in salad dressings in place of lemon. They make a great addition to fish stuffing, especially fresh trout and salmon.
My favourite use for spruce tips, however, is tea. Coarsely chopped, they can be steeped in a typical loose-leaf tea vessel or they can be more finely chopped if enclosed in a fine-mesh tea bag. Either way, spruce tip tea is very refreshing and tasty and when combined with a little bit of honey, it’s very soothing and restorative if suffering from a cold or sore throat.
To harvest, look for the light green, fresh emergent growth on the tips of the branches and simply snap them off like you’re picking berries. The tips start developing first thing in the spring, and they continue to emerge for a month or more depending on microclimates – trees in warm areas develop sooner, and low-lying, shaded or north facing trees develop later.
Keep in mind that once you snap off the new growth from a branch, the tree will not grow new needles from the tip and will instead send energy to side-shoots. If you’re harvesting from a manicured landscape, you should consider how that will impact the growth and appearance of that tree. In the wild, try to harvest a limited number of tips from each tree so that you don’t stunt it’s growth or take too much of another animal’s much loved food.
Once you have enough for your immediate use, harvest more to dry for tea to last you until next season as well as for freezing and preserving for other recipes, such as spruce tip beer, spruce tip salt, spruce tip sugar, spruce tip syrup or spruce tip vinegar.
Other Uses for Spruce Tips
Spruce tips are high in vitamin C and contain an oil that is antimicrobial, antibacterial and immune-stimulating and can be used as a salve for skin rashes, cold sores, skin rashes, dry skin, bug bites and as a rub for chest congestion, joint aches, headaches, and arthritis.
There are two ways to extract the beneficial oils – by pressing the spruce tips or by gently simmering them in another light oil, such as grape seed or olive. Pressing by hand is very time consuming and I don’t have an oil extractor, so I only use the latter method, although the former provides a purer, more beneficial oil.
Put the spruce tips that you harvested into a pot and add just enough oil to completely cover them. Heat up and simmer for an hour or slightly more and you can smell a strong citrus aroma emanating from the pot. Remove from the heat and place in a strainer over top of the pot and leave it for several hours to drain.
To make the salve, melt 2 tablespoons of beeswax into each cup of heated oil, stirring well. Add more wax for a harder salve or more oils for a softer one. The type of oil used for the salve is adjustable, so you can experiment by adding other oils that are also beneficial, such as oil from sea buckthorn, cedar or olives. Pour the heated mixture into final containers, such as small mason jars or metal containers that have been saved from other uses.
Spruce tips can be utilized in many recipes where they can replace lemon, capers or juniper berries so please experiment and share your recipes and experiences with me here.