It is the dead of winter here in Middle Tennessee, and there is not a lot of plants to forage at this time of year. The landscape is frozen and brown. January is my least favorite month of the year. It is the only time when your breath gets taken away from you when confronted with the cold temperatures outside, and it has the least amount of daylight. Oh well, it is a great time to cuddle up with the kids, have a cup of tea and watch television.
One foraging item you can find easily right now is Pine needles. Just the smell alone can perk me up. If you examine a Pine tree closely, you will see that the needles actually grow in bundles which helps to determine what type of Pine that you have. The most common types of Pine that you will find growing in this area is Loblolly Pine (three needles, 6-9" long), Shortleaf Pine (two or three needles, 3-5" long), Virginia Pine (two twisted needles, 1 1/2 -3" long), and Eastern White Pine (5 needles, 3-5" long). The Eastern White Pine is the tree I most often come across. Here's a little shortcut in identification. White has five letters in the word and an Eastern White Pine has five needles in a bundle. If you find a Pine tree with five needles in its bundle in North America, you can be very confident that it is an Eastern White Pine. Any of the above Pine trees can be used to make Tea. You want to avoid choosing Yews (short stubby needles often with red berries), Norfolk Island Pine (frilly, flat, pretty needles often sold as indoor Christmas Trees) and Ponderosa Pine (smells like turpentine and is found growing in the North Western part of the U.S.).
My children and I were watching a series called Alaska, the Final Frontier on Netflix last night. It is about a family that has been homesteading on 600 acres of Alaska wilderness for three generations. It is fascinating. They have no running water, frequently hunt, raise farm animals and grow their own food. Tired of the lifestyle, one of the twenty-something sons had left in his teens to make his way in the civilized world. He returned disenchanted and with a new found appreciation of the wild Alaska frontier. Unfortunately, he and his wife spend a lot of time playing catch up on survival skills. In one scene he is talking about one of the first years back when he spent a winter (nine months) eating mostly red meat and cheese. He had not spent any time focusing on growing a garden. He ended up with Scurvy, an ancient disease caused by a lack of vitamin C. There had not been a case of this disease in the area since the 1800's. In the background of the scene, I could see mountains filled with Pine trees. If he had just plucked some Pine needles and had Pine Needle Tea on a regular basis, he would not have had Scurvy.
Not only is Pine Needle Tea tasty, but it has 4-5 times the vitamin C of fresh squeezed orange juice and is high in vitamin A. When the first European colonist arrived in the new world, many were suffering from Scurvy, often with teeth falling out due to the disease. The Indians introduced them to the use of Pine needles as a remedy and saved many lives. There are also historic references to sailors adding Pine needles to their beer on long journeys to prevent Scurvy. It has been a popular herbal remedy for preventing and relieving the symptoms of colds and flues. The inner bark of the tree can also be used as a food source if times are truly tough.
Trees can have slightly different flavors so I would suggest trying a few until you find one that is most appealing to you!
Pine Needle Tea
1 cup Pine needles
3 cups water
Honey or any sweetener (optional)
Rinse and chop your Pine needles.
Bring the water to boil in a saucepan. Add the Pine needles, reduce heat and simmer for ten minutes. Turn heat off and let sit for five minutes.
Strain liquid into cups and add sweetener.
Add Pine needles to bottom of cup. Pour in boiling water. Steep for twenty minutes. Strain, reheat and add sweetener.