Pine needles can be used to infuse beverages for a fresh flavor. Credit: Courtesy of Jenna Rozelle

I can’t think of anything more emblematic of Maine than a snow-dusted evergreen forest. We are the Pine Tree State, after all, and the beloved balsam fir is our most common tree.

We celebrate them as part of our place by decorating them for Christmas, making wreaths, portraying them in paintings and bringing their pungent perfume into our homes by way of candles or potpourri, but it’s not very often I hear people talk about eating them. I hope this can change.

Pine and fir should be as iconic a Maine food as blueberry pie. Our native evergreens have so much to offer our meals, and they’re standing right outside our doors. Heck, you might only have to go as far as your living room if you’ve already got your Christmas tree set up.

Last year I trimmed a few small twigs from the back of my holiday tree — a balsam fir — stripped the needles off, amounting to a small handful, and ground them to a powder with a mortar and pestle. I mixed this with confectioner’s sugar in a very basic icing for a very basic sugar cookie, but the result was anything but basic.

This basic sugar cookie has an icing made with balsam fir needles, which provide the flavor of citrusy oils along to complement the sweet icing and buttery cookie. Credit: Courtesy of Jenna Rozelle

The citrusy oils from the needles married with the sweet icing and the buttery cookie, brightening up the classic combo in a way that kept me reaching for “just one more.” I’ll admit, a Christmas cookie, shaped like a Christmas tree, and tasting like a Christmas tree, was a little on the nose, but sometimes the holiday spirit gets the best of me, and I don’t regret it.

It seems like most people are vaguely aware of pine needle tea as the way one would consume an evergreen tree, but it’s kept in the back pocket as more of a survival beverage for times of suffering than an everyday joy and pleasure. I happen to be sipping a mug of needle tea as we speak (just to reinforce that I practice what I preach), so I can tell you that there is joy here.

From collecting the twigs, to snipping the needles, to the first waft of steam — it’s infinitely more pleasurable than waiting in the drive-thru for a Styrofoam cup of who knows what from who knows where.

While pine needle tea is a solid home base — a hot water infusion is the best way to get a sense of a plant’s true flavor — let’s not stop there.

White pine bark tea is actually my favorite beverage in the conifer world, maybe the whole world, and it’s made with a cold water infusion rather than your typical hot steep. The inner bark of pine is brimming with bright flavor but most importantly it contains more polyphenols like antioxidants, vitamin C and proanthocyanidins than almost any other member of the plant kingdom. That makes it an enormous ally to human health, especially in the depths of a Maine winter.

This tea is made best as a cold brew, where you peel strips of young, green, bark from a fallen limb or a tree taken down by the wind. Fill one-third of your chosen vessel (I use a gallon jar) with those and fill the rest with cool water. Cover the jar loosely with a lid or cheesecloth and let sit at room temperature for 1-3 days, stirring occasionally.

I like it best on the second day when fermentation begins and it’s bright and slightly effervescent. I drink it in place of water, or diluted with water, all winter long, sometimes adding accoutrements like slices of lemon and ginger or a splash of maple syrup.

I use our native conifers like pine, fir, and spruce most often in the kitchen as an herb for their uplifting evergreen flavor. They pair best with familiar kitchen staples like citrus, ginger, rosemary, oregano, thyme and — may I emphatically suggest — our native sweetfern.

With this arsenal, I infuse vinegar to dress salads and marinate meats, I enliven cream to pour over berries, whip, or ice, I soak in spirits for lively cocktails, simmer in stocks, lighten up buttery shortbread, make bubbly sodas, pickle the spring tips, jam the young cones, grind the needles into seasoning salts, cure filets of salmon in balsam and throw sprigs of spruce onto hot coals while I’m grilling trout, just pulled through the ice.

Once you dip a toe into the cool waters of cooking with conifers, I think you’ll find the possibilities are endless. Start with tea, and see where the flavor takes you.

Jenna Rozelle

Jenna is a wild foods educator, writer and outdoor enthusiast. She offers guidance to people and businesses who want to safely and ethically incorporate wild foods into their lives. She lives in southwestern...