Monday, May 23, 2011

Pine as Food

Tough, two needle pine and male pollen cones
small sea beans
We spent part of our weekend at the seashore in Rhode Island, enjoying the break from the rain and seeking out new edibles in a salt pond environment. This is a good time to go, before Memorial Day, because the summer people have not arrived yet, and there is abundant, free parking. Most of the Westerly area beaches and shore is private property with no access, or access only for residents. Shellfishing licenses are required for out-of-staters, but we don't shellfish anyway. Our original search was for glasswort (genus Salicornia), which we found just sprouting up from the salt pond muck. It is our second discovery of pine pollen that was a pleasant surprise.

There were several pines along a sandy road we were following along resident-restricted Weekapaug Beach. They were about 30 feet tall, but appeared somewhat stunted. I tried several sources to identify this species, but my best conclusion is a non-native species, either Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris),  or Aleppo pine (Pinus halepensis). Neither grow in this area usually, but are used as ornamental landscaping. The bark of the mature trees are scaly, red underneath. The needles are tough and grow in pairs in the fascicles, about 4 inches long. The older cones do not have a sharp spur on each cone scale, just a bump. I did not notice large seeds in the cones, just thin, flat ones.

 The pines seemed to be doing well in the salty environment where the ocean is just over a single dune. While passing one of the trees, we noticed they were making buds and small male pollen cones, and when we tapped the new growth, a cascade of yellow powder coated our hands. Robert suggested collecting the pollen, he observed that gathering pollen from these pines yielded much more than gathering pollen from cattails.I let him know we had an empty gallon jug in the Jeep, so he went back and got it and fashioned a gathering tool. He cut a hole into the side of the jug, and would place the pollen bearing male cones into the hole, then give it a tap. Most of the pollen stayed in the jug.

Lately we have started just snapping off each mature and some nearly mature male cones from each tree and putting them in a large bucket. We can't possibly reach every male cone because the trees are very tall, so over collection isn't an issue. One home, the bucket is placed in a warm area for a few days for the cones to mature further. We then take a piece of screen material, it is the same thing used to replace damaged window screens, and attach a sheet over the top of the bucket and shake the pollen out onto a very large piece of paper (best to do this outside on a day without wind, otherwise your furniture and shelves get a coating of pine dust!). For use we then start sifting the resulting pollen through finer and finer sifters until it is clear of debris, then spread it out over large platters and allow it to air dry for a few days. Once dry, we store it in glass jars in the freezer to use all year in baked goods and smoothies.

Pine pollen, almond, oatmeal, and banana smoothies

We brought the pollen home and sifted it first through a flour sifter to remove bugs and large debris. Then Robert sifted it through a tea strainer for very fine results. He spread the bright yellow powder on sheetpans to dry in a low oven, then put it in a glass jar in the freezer for storage. So far, we made some cheery, yellow cream-of-wheat, and pollen pancakes. The flavor is not very strong, but subtle. A search on Google brings up some amazing claims as to the nutritional and medicinal values of pine pollen, along with lots of purchasing sources. One site claims "Pine Pollen has over 200 bioacitve natural nutrients, minerals and vitamins"  and will be happy to charge you $29.79 for 2 oz. of pollen.

Food found in the wild, free, but for your labor. The season is short, just about 5-10 days.

We have also made a tea, or more correctly, a tisane from pine needles. The needles of the white pine (Pinus strobus) are slender and fragile, and within easy distance of our house. We gather them fresh and steep them in very hot, boiled water for 20 minutes--don't boil the needles as it will dissipate the aromatic oils in the steam.. The flavor is refreshing and pine-y, and the tisane is full of vitamin C. Robert has also gathered some of the inner bark, or cambium layer of pines and tinctured it in brandy. Gillian also likes to chew on the inner bark as a trailside nibble, and it is full of starches, sugars, and vitamins.

Evergreen syrup added to seltzer or mixed into cocktails is refreshing!

While working with some teens at a summer camp on some foraging lessons, we went out to collect assorted conifers on site to make a conifer syrup. We collected the needles of white pine, hemlock, fir, and spruce and had the kids use scissors to snip them up into smaller bits, and let some of the more responsible kids use a knife to chop the needles. (It's important to avoid yew, which contains the toxic alkaloid taxine. Yew can cause cardiac arrest among other symptoms, so you need to be able to differentiate your evergreen enough to identify yew from other conifers.) The syrup is made by mixing equal amounts of sugar and water in a big pot, then bringing it up to a boil, then simmering it for about 3 minutes. Make sure all of the sugar is dissolved, and then add the chopped conifer needles--we added enough to almost double the volume in the pot, essentially equal amounts of syrup and needles. Allow it to sit covered overnight, then strain out the solids. The syrup can be kept in glass for a short period, but also add a bit of ascorbic acid to prevent the sugar from crystallizing when it is kept for longer periods.

Finally, spruce tips are a wonderful edible in the spring, nice and tender. Gillian loves to eat them raw and right off the tree! They can be infused into syrups, sugar, or even salt as a flavoring. When nice and light green, they can be chopped and added directly into a cookie like shortbread.


Owl Jones said...

You guys should head down to South Ga each spring and we can provide you with semi-truck loads of pine pollen. ( And we'd be more than happy to get rid of the stuff. ) ;)

Peter said...

That pine pollen will make a nice addition to the spruce powder I made recently. How lovely.

Anonymous said...

Here, in NE CT we have huge white pines on our lawn which provide us with a beautiful yellow cover for our in ground pool as soon as we take the cover off.