By Alicia Funk
Spice up winter days with recipes made from local evergreens. The first step is the most fun — it involves being outside to gather the ingredients. Evergreen needles are available year-round, and offer a delicious way to boost the immune system.
Pine needles from western white pine (Pinus monticola) and Jeffrey pine (Pinus jeffreyi) provide a delicious flavor with beneficial immune system compounds, including vitamin C, flavonoids, and shikimic acid. Numerous studies have been done on the nutritional benefit of pine needles, as well as the bark. Tea from the needles has been used traditionally to help fight off coughs and fevers. The tallest recorded western white pine is over 220 feet in height, and the trees grow at 5,000 to 10,000 feet in elevation. Jeffrey pines can reach 80 to 170 feet and grow at 5,000 to 9,000 feet in elevation. They are the dominant species in the Lake Tahoe Basin.
Douglas fir needles (Pseudotsuga menziesii var. menziesii) support immune system health, with reportedly five times the vitamin C content of lemons. The needles have a delicious citrus-like flavor that is the strongest in the spring, but drinks and even a sorbet made from the needles can be enjoyed year-round. Douglas fir trees can become 160 feet tall and grow on moist slopes below 5,000 feet.
Make a strong tea out of the pine needles by placing one part wild ingredient to four parts water in a pan. Bring water to a boil, turn off heat, add needles, and let steep for 20 minutes. Avoid boiling the needles since that destroys most of the vitamin C. Strain out needles and add honey or simple syrup if desired. For a cocktail instead of a mocktail, add one part alcohol of your choice.
Add a sprig of evergreen and water to an ice cube tray and freeze for cocktail garnishes. Other possible native plant garnishes include Sierra juniper berries, madrone berries, elderberries, and rose hips.
A note of caution: Only gather plants sustainably and when 100% certain of the correct plant identification.
3 cups water
1 cup sugar
3 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 quart fresh or frozen Douglas fir, western white pine, or Jeffrey pine needles
½ cup champagne (optional)
Bring water and sugar to a boil, stir, and turn off heat.
• Add Douglas fir, western white pine, or Jeffrey pine needles and steep covered for 30 minutes.
• Keep liquid, using a fine mesh strainer to remove tips.
• Add lemon juice and champagne if desired.
• Chill overnight in refrigerator.
• Freeze in ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s directions.
• Garnish sorbet with extra tips and serve.
~ Alicia Funk is the co-author and managing editor of Living Wild: Gardening, Cooking and Healing with Native Plants of California, currently in its third edition, with profits benefiting the California Native Plant Society. She facilitates living wild programs for children and adults in Nevada County.