(an information-heavy post)
Hello kids, welcome to conifer 101. In which we discuss the identifying, nibbling, gathering and processing of conifer bits for food purposes. During the last few months of my obsession and your patient listening, on Facebook I suggested a conifer gathering post and it was met with THUNDEROUS applause and approval (glares at people to nod in agreement). So here goes. Conifer 101.........
To identify your local conifer species, the best thing I can say is to type in ‘yourstate or country’ plus ‘conifer species’ on a google search. You’ll likely find something. If that comes up blank, then try ‘yourstate’ plus ‘pine species’ or ‘fir species’ or ‘spruce species’. For example, I just searched for North Carolina conifer species and got not much, but a search for North Carolina PINE species brought up THIS page: http://www.duke.edu/~cwcook/trees/ which lists all trees in North Carolina*. The scientific name for fir is ‘abies’, for spruce it’s ‘picea’ and for pine it’s ‘pinus’. On this NC list there’s 1 abies, 1 picea and 8 pinus. That’s a baseline of what to look for.
This particular website is great because it tells you exactly where to look, for example, if we’re looking for abies fraseri, it grows on high mountain peaks and occurs in 9 counties in NC. Reading further we can see that most of the population has been killed off because of air pollution, acid rain, and an introduced bug. And this is probably a good time to bring up the most important aspect of wildcrafting (soapbox alert): responsibility.
Addendum: According to the beautiful and knowledgeable Stephany Hoffett, there's a Virginia Tech Tree app that is really good.
Lovely readers, when we interact with the natural world, we take on responsibility for our actions. If we harvest too much, too vigorously, it can do more harm than good. If we don’t pay attention to what we’re doing, we won’t notice the changes we’re making. There is infinite joy to be found in the feeling of being CONNECTED with something. With our area. With the plants that grow from the same soil we do. In connecting our food and our medicine with specific moments in time, like sitting on top of a mountain breathing crisp cool windy air, or with running through a sudden rainstorm sheltering a bag of acorns with your body. There is, in this, I think something so many of us city folk have been missing, and I really encourage you to get out there and give it a try. Conifers are a great place to start because they’re abundant and easy to ID. But in a situation where the majority of the population has been ravaged, I’d suggest exercising what is probably the hardest thing to exercise: patience. The natural world knows what its doing; it’s best to leave them be. If you feel like going and finding one that is flourishing amid a declining population, and sitting at its base and saying hello will help (I’m odd like that, and often do these things) then by all means do so. If while you’re there you find branches that have recently fallen on the ground then by all means gather them. But let that be all. Go back to your search online and find a species that is common and healthy. Back in North Carolina, after reading all of the descriptions, let’s say we decide upon the eastern white pine. Now we get to go and walk around and find them. Do an online search to find out where they like to grow and see if anybody in your area has seen them. Go and explore. Take a picnic. Bring with you either photos or notes with you so that you know how to ID it when you get there. The good news is that, for long-needled pines, there aren’t really any possibly toxic lookalikes. Where you have to be careful is with fir and redwood species, as those flat needles could be mistaken for yew, which IS actually toxic. If you're unsure, just snip off a sample, bring it home, look up numerous pictures, and make sure, like, for sure. If it’s a pine, or if you're certain, you can just proceed to the nibbling part. Which is, of course, the fun part.
Sniffing and Nibbling.
Nibbling, my friends, is a very important part of wildcrafting. Once you’ve identified your species, know where they are, know that they’re abundant and healthy, and that you might be interested in working with them, find a section of bark or branch, bury your nose in it, and give it a good long smell. Does it smell good? Does it smell sweet? Coniferous? Sharp? Resinous? If there are more of them around, smell each one. Doing this on a warm afternoon helps as that’s when the sap will be running more. Find the one that smells nicest to you, pick off a needle and give it a nibble. Nibble with your eyes closed and your heart open. Nibble like a rabbit who has just discovered taste buds. Nibble like a child who has just discovered something edible in the back garden. Like it? While you’re at it, take a deep breath and see how it affects you- most of the conifers have some kind of effect on the lungs (firs are especially good at this; in fact we nibble on the needles when hiking at altitude just to help our lungs open more). Do a body check to see if it affects you anywhere else.
To gather you’ll need a couple of things:
A sharp pair of scissors or secateurs
A receptacle of some kind
I’m a fan of secateurs because they’re ergonomic and really good at chopping off plant parts (as that’s what they’re designed to do). But if all you have is scissors, then by all means, use those. As far as receptacles go, you can take a pretty basket, a backpack, paper shopping bags, canvas shopping bags, a pink fluffy purse, a black leather studded purse, or a cardboard box. It doesn’t really matter. A pretty basket will make you feel like little red riding hood skipping through the woods, whereas a backpack or canvas bag is easy to close up and move swiftly out of a location. Up to you. I’d love to use a pretty basket but its not condusive to multi-mile hikes, whereas a backpack is. A friend of mine keeps cardboard boxes in the back of her truck just in case she sees things when she’s out driving. I keep canvas shopping bags and secateurs in my trunk for the same purpose.
Have in mind what you want to do with them. Few things feel worse than plant material that you've gathered going to waste. I usually gather enough for oils, honeys, elixirs (esp. in the case of fir species which are really useful come lung grunge season), drying (for tea), and a batch of incense. Say you're going to make a honey and an oil, then have in mind the amount you'll need, and gather that.
The best time of year to gather conifer material is in the spring, when the tree is in its natural growth period. In doing this, you'll basically be giving the tree a nice pruning, encouraging it to grow out bushier and healthier. I haven't noticed any negative effects from gathering little bits from trees throughout the year, but it's something to keep in mind and keep an eye on- you want this patch to get healthier and more vibrant over the time you interact with it, not the opposite! I move around from tree to tree, usually taking a few snippings, about 11 inches down a branch, from each. If in doubt, a quick Youtube search for 'pruning a pine tree' will come up with numerous results :). If you find bigger branches on the ground, then by all means, take those.
A couple of quick notes:
First: all conifers exude resins that help them heal wounds. You'll notice it oozing out immediately after you cut them. The only tree that DOESN'T produce enough of this is Douglas Fir, so, if gathering that it's quite important not to take big old branches. I usually go out looking for it after a storm and there's plenty on the ground then...
Second: never ever snip the top off a tree. It leaves it open to disease, fungus and rot. You're basically leaving it open to die.
Now you’re at home with a bag full of conifer material.
We’re going to make a conifer infused honey and a conifer infused olive oil. Both are easy. Here’s what you need:
CONIFER INFUSED HONEY OR OIL
Quart-sized mason jars.
Conifer material to fill as many jars as you want.
Honey and olive oil to fill these jars too.
Chop your conifer material up into smaller pieces and stuff inside the jars. Fill to 3/4 full. Then fill the jars with either honey or olive oil. You can do as many or as few as you like... Put the lids on, then put them in a warm place for a week or so. I keep them on top of the oven as our oven is always warm. Inside a crock pot works, as does in the oven if its warm in there (just leave yourself a note as a reminder that there’s stuff in there).
After a week, strain and bottle both honey and olive oil. Make a pretty label (or a not pretty label- it’s up to you), and put it somewhere prominent so you remember to use it.
The fun part. You can drizzle the oil on roasted vegetables, on roasted meats, on avocados sprinkled with salt. Drizzle it on soups before serving or on fruits for an interesting twist. On bread, hot out the oven with a chunk of cheese and some pickles for lunch. On pita bread with some leftover lamb and a splash of yogurt. Drizzle it on everything. And when you find a favourite combination, please let me know what it is...
As for the honey, you can mix it with yogurt for an after-dinner snack, or on fresh fruit, or on baked apples (‘tis the season). You can make baklava, or a local twist on tarte tatin, or to flavour vanilla ice cream with something magical. And of course there’s hot milk and local conifer honey, for when it’s approaching bedtime and you’re a little hungry...
So, I hope that helps. If you have any questions, leave a comment, shoot me an email, or ask on Facebook.
*Sidenote: if you live in North Carolina, I had no idea how many hawthorns and birches you had and I *might* be slightly jealous.