Many people are familiar with pine needle tea, but most are genuinely surprised to learn that practically the whole tree is edible and that, in fact, all pines are in some way or another edible.
The eastern white pine, however, is considered to be the most palatable pine. Native to eastern North America, this distinctive tree can grow up to 150 feet tall. It has a straight trunk with grey-green bark for younger trees and dark grey or brown bark for older ones.
The scientific name is Pinus strobus. Pinus means "pine tree" and strobus comes from the Greek word strobilos, which means "pine cone." Strobos also means "whirling around," referring to the whirled pine branches.
Eastern white pine leaves grow in bundles of five needles that can grow 5-inches long.
In addition to making a healthy, vitamin A- and C-rich tea, the needles can be infused in water with sugar for a wonderful syrup.
They can be used to steam meat and fish and add great flavor to honey, vinegar, cooking oils, sugar and salt. Pine needles also can be dried and ground into a powder and used as a spice.
The young shoots, or candles, at the end of the branches are harvested early in spring and used the same way as needles but also raw in salads. The shoots taste a bit like rosemary and can be used as such.
Pine bark also is edible. I don't mean the actual outer bark, but the yellow, white, soft inner layer, or cambium, which sits in between the outer bark and the wood.
American Indians used it as food for its fibers, carbohydrates and vitamin C. Cambium can be boiled and fried in oil or butter, or dried and ground into a flour. It makes excellent crackers when cut into squares and deep fried. Though pretty chewy, they're also crisp with a pleasantly piny and somewhat sweet flavor.
The inner bark can be harvested throughout the year, but it comes loose easier in spring.
To harvest, choose an old tree that is going to be cut down or one that was cut down recently. With a knife, cut through the bark until you hit the wood. Then scrape off the bark and peel off the inner layer.
If a live tree must be used for survival, don't circumvent the tree, which will kill it, but make a narrow, rectangular cut instead.
Being both male and female, the white pine tree bears male pollen cones as well as female seed cones. The latter can be found higher up the tree and contain pine nuts. These can be harvested in the fall as the cones begin to open, though they're miniscule and also need to be shelled, which is a lot of effort for tiny seeds with little flavor.
The commonly known bigger and tastier pine nuts come from different pine trees mainly found in western North America.
In spring, the clusters of small, yellow-green male pollen cones can be harvested before they release their pollen. These little, piny, juicy, sweet-tasting cones can be found on the lower branches and can be eaten raw or cooked.
Leave them on the tree and collect their pollen by shaking the cones into a container. Pollen can be used as a flour or soup thickener.
If you want to intrigue your dinner guests, dress your table with pine cones and twigs and serve them an appetizer of cambium crackers with pine needle powder cheese spread.
For the main course, you could make stewed meat and pine shoots, served with a pine needle-flavored pollen sauce accompanied by steamed pollen cones as a side dish. And who could resist trying pollen flour pancakes, drizzled with pine needle syrup, sprinkled with pine nuts for dessert? Martha Stewart would be jealous!
This is the last month of the year and this also is my last column. It's been a privilege and a joy to share my knowledge about edible wild plants, and I hope I was able to inspire a few readers to want to continue learning about the subject.
Though my writing ends, my edible wild plant club will continue. Our free monthly meetings are a great way to ease into foraging and meet other enthusiasts. We're always happy to welcome new members.