I remember watching Euell Gibbons in the old grape nuts commercials. On one he held out a pine branch and remarked how pine trees were edible. They never seemed too appetizing to me, but if someone were lost in the woods I guess they could gain enough sustenance to survive for a while.
Seeds of all pines are edible, although most eastern species have very small ones. It would take considerable effort to extract enough calories for a decent meal. Pinyon pines (Pinus edulis) grow in the Southwest and they have rather large seeds. As the scientific name indicates, they are edible. These are sold as pine nuts in grocery stores.
Pine needles of all our native types can be used to make a vitamin C rich tea. Vitamin A levels are high too. If this sounds intriguing to you it’s easy to do. I might caution that you don’t boil the needles. Steep them in near boiling water for a few minutes. Boiling will release terpenes and your beverage will taste like turpentine. Boiling also destroys vitamin C, but add sugar or honey if you like.
Pine needle teas have been used medicinally for centuries to treat colds and respiratory infections. The tea acts as an expectorant. It also has decongestive properties. Inhaling the vapors from the tea or using needles as a simmering potpourri may break up mucus in the lungs.
Pine tea contains a chemical called shikimic acid. This compound is one considered antiviral and is a major ingredient of Tamiflu.
White pine (Pinus strobus) probably tastes better but loblolly (Pinus taeda) and longleaf (Pinus palustris)pines more common around here are fine. Some of the western pines are toxic to livestock so I wouldn’t recommend them. Firs and spruces are good. Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) is even acceptable. It is not related to the poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) often found along our ditches. Avoid yews (Taxus sp.) because they contain a chemical called Taxol. This is used in treating some types of cancer but otherwise is considered poisonous.
Inner bark of pine trees is also edible. The best way to fix it is to fry it in oil until golden brown. If you use your imagination the flavor might resemble potato chips. I think it’s a stretch, but that’s the only way the bark is very palatable. This inner bark is thin and will burn if you’re not watching closely. Again, white pine probably has the best flavor and texture. We have few around here.
Pine resin also makes a suitable chewing gum. When I was a kid we used to chew spruce, fir or white pine sap. It wasn’t too bad. There were a few country stores that actually sold spruce chewing gum, but we were cheap skates and collected our own.
The best part of collecting pine seeds, bark or needles is that these things are easy for anyone to identify and they are plentiful. You can camp out in the backyard and your kids can pretend to be pioneers. There’s very little chance they could be hurt by pine products, allergies aside.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.