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  • Writer's pictureOrion Aon

Pinecone Syrup: What Is It and How to Make It?

Updated: May 16

One of my favorite smells is a conifer forest after a gentle rain. For me, it’s specific and rooted in nostalgia, but it’s also relatable to anyone who has spent time in a Western forest. So, needless to say, I was excited when I learned that you can make a sweet syrup that embodies the essence of that smell, and all you need are two ingredients! Pinecones and sugar.


Pinecone syrup, also known as Mugolio, is a sweet, foresty concoction that has been getting an increasing spotlight over the last couple of years, but not without reason! Almost everyone knows what a pinecone is, and finding out that you can make delicious confections with them is very intriguing! At a base level, pinecone syrup is simply a mixture of immature green pinecones and sugar that, when left to sit for several weeks, becomes a delicious, sweet, piney, citrusy liquid. However, it can get more interesting than that.


A jar of piñon pinecones and turbinado sugar.
Piñon pinecones and turbinado sugar have been my favorite combination for syrup.

History


As far as I can find, pinecone syrup's origin seems to be the Italian Alps. This region is part of the native range of Mugo pine, Pinus mugo, where the name Mugolio comes from. Mugo refers to the tree, and olio means oil in Italian. The oil part of this interests me because another technique parallels pinecone syrup called oleo saccharum, or oil sugar, in Latin. This method involves mixing citrus peel and sugar, resulting in a flavorful syrup! In Korea, a similar process is used with various fruits and vegetables to make a sweet syrup called Cheong. I am certain there are other examples from other countries, as well! In English, syrup is a viscous liquid made of sugar and water. For pinecone syrup, the water is coming from the cones themselves!


Sustainability


It’s important to remember that pine trees can be an important food source for wildlife, are slow-growing, and don’t produce bumper crops of cones yearly. Some species take upwards of five years between every crop of cones! Remember all of these as you harvest the green cones and leave plenty for the critters and future forests. Only harvest cones from trees that have plenty of them, and always leave behind more than you take. If a branch has three or four cones, I may take one. Spread your harvest out over many trees through the population. And show reciprocity in whatever way feels right to you. Some people ask permission and give thanks, others pick up trash and care for the environment, and some even take time to remove invasive weeds if they see them growing in the area - it could be bonus food! It’s easy to let the excitement overrule a sense of morality. I have been guilty of it in the past myself.


Cones from piñon pine, Pinus edulis.
Cones from piñon pine, Pinus edulis.
 

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Which Cones and When?


You’re probably wondering where to find some cones to make this stuff. Before you go on a night mission to pillage your neighbor's manicured Mugo, let me tell you about some options for making pinecone syrup. There are many of them! For all of these species, you are looking for immature green pinecones. You can forage these from all species of pine in the Pinus genus, most spruces and firs from Picea and Abies, Douglas firs in Pseudotsuga, some cedar and juniper from Cedrus and Juniperus, and a few other obscure options. Check out my articles on Eating Pine Trees and Foraging Spruces if you need help identifying those trees!


Here are all the species I have tried and my thoughts about them.

  • Pinon pine, Pinus edulis. This is my favorite so far. It's partly for nostalgic reasons but mostly because it’s delicious. This syrup has tangerine and orange citrus notes and a nice piney flavor.

  • Scots pine, Pinus sylvestris. Scots pine is a common landscape tree, so the cones are readily available. It has a sharper citrus note and a mild piney flavor. Also, very good!

  • Ponderosa pine, Pinus ponderosa. I’ve only tried this one once, and it was with older cones. The syrup was good and had a stronger pine flavor than some of the other species.

  • Austrian pine, Pinus nigra. This one is very similar to ponderosa! Another very common landscape tree that usually has plenty of cones.

  • Blue spruce, Picea pungens. Syrup made with spruce cones tends to have a more subtle flavor than pine cones.

When to harvest these cones depends on your region, but the best time is generally early spring. In urban landscaping where pines are common, the cones may be the right size in early April. However, if you're foraging in a montane habitat at high elevations, there may not be cones until July! Luckily, the cone size is pretty forgiving for mugolio, as long as they're green and small enough to fit in a jar and mix well with sugar.


Check out my Foraging Calendar for a more detailed look at the species and when to harvest them!

Pinecones from ponderosa, spruce, scots, and Austrian pine, and spruce tips.
Pinecones from ponderosa, spruce, Scots, and Austrian pine, and spruce tips.

Alternatives & Toxic Species


Pinecones aren’t the only wild foods that will work for this method! Similarly, spruce, fir, and pine tips (the new growth) also work great. I’ve also used pollen cones, which are more abundant and available than seed cones. Any fruit will work as well! I made some wild plum syrup that was amazing! Start experimenting and get creative with it. You might be surprised by what you end up making!


Notes on Pine Toxicity

You may come across reports of ponderosa pine and a couple of other pine species being toxic. These seem to originate from isocupressic acid toxicity in cattle and other livestock. Isocupressic acid has abortifacient qualities for cattle. I could not find any recorded instances of toxicity for humans, though it is recommended that pregnant people should avoid consuming isocupressic acid and other diterpene acids. I would suggest avoiding pine products if pregnant to be extra cautious. I have consumed ponderosa pine needles, tips, and cones without ill effects. Your experience may vary. Only consume wild foods if you're 100% certain of your identification and comfortable with trying something new.


Yew Species are Extremely Toxic

All portions of yew, Taxus spp., except the fruit around the seeds, contain taxine, an extremely toxic alkaloid. Do not use any part of yew to make mugolio. Yew would most likely be confused with spruce or fir before they have cones. Yew have small red berries and flat, pointed needles that are green on both sides. They are uncommon in Colorado and the southern Rocky Mountains but can sometimes be found in landscaping. They are much more common east of the Mississippi River, on the West Coast, and in the north Rocky Mountains in Montana, Oregon, and Canada.


The berries and needles of yew, Taxus species.
The berries and needles of yew, Taxus species.

How to Make Pinecone Syrup


I can’t think of a process that has a better simplicity-to-delicious-outcome ratio! The hardest part is waiting for the syrup to be finished.


Here’s everything you will need to make pinecone syrup:

  • Container. I usually use a quart jar for 1-2 cups of cones, but smaller and larger batches work equally well!

  • Cones. Remember to collect them sustainably, as mentioned above. You can always make small batches if you only harvest small amounts of cones.

  • Sugar. Most natural sweeteners will work! I’ve used white, brown, and turbinado sugar with equal success. Honey, agave, or maple will also work, producing a thinner syrup with less piney flavors. Turbinado has been my favorite so far.

  • Citrus. Optionally, some citrus juice helps dissolve things, adds flavor, and increases acidity.


Bottle pinecone syrup and the strained out pinecones.
Bottle pinecone syrup and the strained out pinecones.

The Process


  • Mix the pinecones and sugar in equal amounts. Roughly 50/50 will do the trick, but you can also weigh them or use volume. They’re all a little different but work the same. I usually eyeball it. You may add some more sugar or supplement with a splash of water or citrus later on, anyway.

  • Place a lid on the jar and allow it to sit for at least a month. This is called maceration. The sugar pulls moisture from the cones and dissolves, turning into our pinecone syrup!

  • There are many different recommendations on where to store the jar during the process, from the pantry to the roof exposed to the sun and elements. I prefer to keep it on the counter where I will see it or on the sill of a sunny window. I think the sun helps dissolve the sugars a little faster!

  • The cones ferment pretty vigorously for the first week or so; leave the lid slightly open or use a fermentation lid to prevent damage to the jar.

  • Once the sugar has started to dissolve, usually within the first few days, I mix things up every day or two. This prevents any contamination on the cones that become exposed to the air, and it also seems to aid in dissolving the sugar that settles to the bottom.

  • After the sugar has completely dissolved, strain out the cones and bottle the syrup! It can be stored in the pantry, fridge, or canned, though cooking will change the flavor and consistency. I’ve had a couple of bottles in our pantry for over three years. The sugar and acidity make it shelf-stable. I think the refrigerator is the best option if you have the space, and it will likely preserve some of the flavors longer as well!


Notes


  • If you use a liquid sweetener, you could get away with a fermentation weight and air-release lid for a hands-off process. I prefer working with my ferments, though!

  • I’ve had a few people tell me they had contamination issues, so don’t be completely passive with your syrup. Mix up the jar on occasion! I usually give everything a good swirl once things are liquid.

  • You can use whole green cones up to about an inch in length. If you find larger green cones, you could try cutting them into pieces, but you may have mixed success.

  • The minimum maceration time is a month or once the sugar is all dissolved. Longer times mean more aging and deeper flavor. I once macerated on for a whole year! If things haven’t completely dissolved after a month and you don’t want to wait any longer, pour the contents into a sauce pot, add some water, and simmer everything until dissolved. It works, but it’s different from the non-cooked version.

  • The leftover cones are usually too dried out and flavorless to do anything with, but feel free to try experimenting! Let me know if you find anything that works.


Foraging Calendar


To learn more about the best seasons to harvest curly dock and many other wild foods, check out my Foraging Calendar & Wild Food Database! You can try the demo version to learn more, and join my Patreon to gain full access to the Foraging Calendar and other exclusive perks! Joining is the best way to support all the work I put into my content and website to help you learn about foraging! Thank you for checking it out!


Screenshot of my Foraging Calendar and Wild Food Database

19,883 views5 comments

5 comentários


Neida Ratzlaff
Neida Ratzlaff
18 de mar.

The easiest and most sustainable way I've found to collect small pinecones is to go out after windy weather and look for branches that have blown down.

Curtir

Jessica Poe
Jessica Poe
17 de mar.

Do you wash the pinecones off first? Or do you want the natural yeast on them?

Curtir
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Latina Webster
Latina Webster
09 de jul. de 2023

This is so cool, the national forest is literally my back yard and I am excited to try this. I have one question to which I did not see any reference to in your article. At what age should the cones be when harvested? New baby cones, more mature, on the ground???

Thank you,


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Orion Aon
Orion Aon
10 de jul. de 2023
Respondendo a

Thank you! I'll edit the article to make that more clear, but you want immature green pinecones! Any under an inch should work.

Curtir
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