"Ever Eat A Pine Tree?"
Updated: Dec 4, 2022
Pine trees can be found in many parts of the world and offer us lots of foraging opportunities and unique culinary experiences! The quote that I am using for the title of this article is from the late Euell Gibbons, a pioneer in wild foods and foraging in North America, and has a little bit more to it that sums up this article quite nicely! Unfortunately, I'm too young to have seen the Grape Nuts commercial that the quote came from, but it went something like this.
"Ever eat a pine tree? Many parts are edible."
Euell went on to say that he would rather eat Grape Nuts than pine trees, I haven't had the cereal in question in quite some time, but I'm betting Euell might change his stance after trying some freshly bottled pinecone syrup!
Before we get into the foraging and eating of pine trees, let's talk about what a "pine" actually is and how to identify them. Pine is often used interchangeably with conifer and can sometimes lead to confusion. The largest family of conifer trees is the "pine family" Pinaceae, which also includes subfamilies and genera for spruces, firs, larches, and more! It's the pine family, but it isn't exclusive to only the pine species. So, calling a tree a pine could refer to the pine family or the pine genus. Species in the Pinus genus can be referred to as "true" pines, to be a little more specific. That said, in this article, I will be using "pine" when I'm referring to a species in the Pinus genus.
Pinus is the largest pine family genus, containing between 100 and 125 species. As far as my knowledge goes, all species in the Pinus genus are edible though some do have cautions regarding pregnancies, mostly stemming from livestock consuming large amounts of pine. Nonetheless, please research your local species before consuming it. As always, be 100% confident and comfortable before eating any wild foods.
Pinus species can be identified by their needles, cones, bark, and geographic location. When it comes to needles, the number and their size are both critical for helping narrow down the species. Most of them will have two to five needles per bundle, known as a fascicle, though a few rarer species break that rule. Those needles can vary from less than an inch to several inches or more! These bundles also generally have a papery sheath around their base that helps contain the needles in their neat little bundles.
Pines are monoecious, meaning each individual can produce both male and female cones. Male cones, or pollen cones, grow towards the end of the branches in clusters. They are small and tightly packed when young but loosen and release pollen as they mature. These can vary in size and color and are less useful for identification than female cones. Female cones, or seed cones, also generally grow towards the end of the branch but behind the male cones. Young female cones are made of tightly packed, soft, green scales. Those scales become woody as they mature, eventually opening to release seeds. The size, shape, scales, and decorations or spines can help identify a pine.
In Colorado, we have several pine species, including ponderosa, lodgepole, piñon (pinyon), southwest white, limber, bristlecone, and several non-native species common in urban areas, such as Austrian and Scots pine.
Now, let's get onto the eating of pine trees! They have many edible parts, including cones, seeds, needles, pollen, and even bark in some instances! That said, a pine tree isn't something you can walk out and eat. Technically, you can eat the young pollen and seed cones. I have, but they're more enjoyable in cooked or processed applications, and they have many of those, which we will get to shortly! The needles are high in vitamin c and are often used for tea. The pollen is loaded with nutrients and is mainly used as an additive to baked goods or confections. Eating pine bark is more of a novelty, though some species can be dried, ground, and used as a kind of flour!
Here are a few more specific ideas to get you started and inspired!
Pinecone Jam (Varenye) - My Instagram video for making this! This method works best with tiny green cones.
Pinecone Sun Syrup - I waited a whole year to make this video; it's one of my favorite ways to use pinecones.
Pickled Pollen Cones - I don't have a link, but use the small, still-closed pollen cones in your favorite pickling brine!
Pine Pollen Truffles - I got to try these last year at the Midwest Wild Harvest Festival, where we enjoyed eating food crafted by Alan Bergo and his team. Mind-blowing.
Needle Tea - pine needle tea is pretty simple; steep the needles in hot water! Remember the warnings above, and please research your local species!
Pine Bark - here's an excellent resource for using bark as flour.
Pine Seeds (Nuts) - most people are familiar with pine nuts, the seed of pinyon pine, Pinus edulis, but any pine seeds are edible if you're willing to harvest them! Here's a great article from Hank Shaw on the subject.
Pine Pitch Gum - bonus! This is something that Erica, Wild Food Girl, taught me. Here's a post from her about it.
When foraging pine, as with most foraging, please keep sustainability in mind. Many of these trees are very important for wildlife, and when it comes to cones, they will often go years between crops. So only take a small percentage and spread the harvest over many trees.
I hope you get to experience the flavors of a pine soon so that you can answer Euell's question with a resounding "Yes!".
Some of these pines and over 100 other species of edible plants and mushrooms can be found on my Foraging Calendar! You can find more info on my Patreon Page if you want to check it out. Your support helps me create more articles just like this one! Thank you!