How to Forage for Evergreen Tips

How to Forage for Evergreen Tips

Spruce tips have been having a culinary moment for a few years now, which I love and understand—they are delightful, but I don’t know why the spotlight hasn’t expanded to include the tender tips of all our other evergreens, too. Pine, fir, and hemlock are easier to access for most people in the Lower 48 and can be used in similar ways. If you’ve wanted to bring home the flavor of the evergreen woods but you’ve tasted a needle and were put off by the stiff texture and turpentine flavor, it was probably just your timing that was off. Spring tips are what you’ve been waiting for, and now is the time to get them.

The term “tip” is referring to the meristematic part of the tree, which means the new, actively growing parts. On conifers, like pine, balsam, and fir, this will happen at the very top of the tree, and at the ends of all the branches. If you look around conifer woods in the middle of spring, the trees are all a deep, forest-green, but for a period of a few weeks in May and June, you’ll notice that the very ends of all the branches are lit up with bright, spring-green—these are the tips. If you brush against them at this stage, they’ll be soft and rubbery, if you pinch them, your thumbnail will go right through, and if you pop one in your mouth, it’ll taste somewhere between citrus, hops, and summertime in Maine. This is when you want to pick them. As the season progresses, this new spring growth will toughen up, both texturally and in flavor, becoming much more resinous.

The flavor between species, and even within a species from tree to tree can vary quite a bit, so it’s best to taste test for yourself before committing to collecting from a tree. I’m partial to balsam fir for fresh eating because of their more mellow, approachable flavor, spruce for pickling for their bright flavor and snappy texture, pine makes the perfect candy with its solid, cylindrical shape, and hemlock is my favorite for trail nibbling because they are bite-sized and too dainty to do much else with.

There are many different species of pine, spruce, and fir in North America and lucky for us, our native evergreens are a pretty safe bunch to collect from, except a small few. You’ll want to avoid eating tips from Yew trees, Ponderosa pine, and Juniper trees and shrubs, as the foliage of all of these have compounds that are toxic to humans.

You’ll want to grab some kind of basket or jug that you can strap to your waist so you can pick with both hands, though if you come across a tree loaded with plump tips while you’re out on a walk, unprepared, picking with one hand and filling up your ballcap is not the end of the world. I do it all the time, and a hat-full is enough to make some treats.

I like to go looking for tips in early- to mid-successional growth forests so the trees are still young enough that I can reach their branches. When collecting tips, especially with younger trees, don’t pick the tips from the very top of the tree, called the apical meristem, because this is the tree's sole vertical growth for the year and you don’t want to stunt that. Similarly, when picking from the branches, spread your harvest around, taking a little here, a little there, and not stripping all of the tips from any single branch or any one tree. Collecting tips can be addictively fun, and it’s easy to be tempted to keep picking because there are so many within reach, but be realistic about how many you’ll actually use, and stop there—a little goes a long way.

Once I’ve picked what I want, I like to get them into a cooler or the fridge as soon as possible, as the weather during picking season can be pretty warm and they will start to ferment very quickly, especially in a plastic bag or jug. If you can’t get them cooled soon, try to spread them out on something clean in a shallow layer so they’re not piled up, or if they need to stay in your picking container, turn and mix them periodically with your hands to disperse the heat. Once you get them home, you may store them in the fridge for quite a long time if you’re not going to use them right away, and even better, they freeze really well without any prep.

Once you’ve checked yourself for ticks and tended to all of your blackfly and mosquito bites, as they all seem to peak around tipping time, it’s time to decide how to use them. I usually divide my harvest into a handful of treats to enjoy year-round. I’ll use a few handfuls a year for fresh eating, pulling apart the tips and sprinkling the soft needles over green salads, fruit salads, and ice cream, but most of my tips are used as a flavor infusion more a myriad of pantry liquids.

I’ll chop some spruce and fir and infuse in vodka along with other springtime aromatics for a seasonal variation on gin. I’ll cover a jar of pine tips (usually called candles or shoots) in honey and let that ferment on a dark shelf for a couple of weeks and then put it in the fridge to use as a sore throat coat to take by the spoonful, in my tea, or to make the dreamiest holiday baklava you can imagine. I’ll fill a half-gallon jar ¼ of the way with tips and fill it with either rice, cider, white wine, or champagne vinegar and let that infuse for a few weeks to a few months, tasting weekly until I love it. I’ll layer the tips in a jar with granulated sugar and let them ferment into a “mugolio” or “pine shoot syrup.”

I’ll dry some and grind them up with salt for finishing savory meals or grind them into sugar for dusting sweets. I’ll cold-brew in sweetened water for a few days and then use it as the base for the most refreshing sorbet or popsicles. I’ll blend with some form of dairy, like milk, cream, yogurt, or a soft, sweet, cheese, for the creamiest, dreamiest desserts like ice cream, posset, custards, cakes, and frostings. If nothing else, try tossing a handful into your water bottle, and then see if you don’t want more.

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