Fir tops have had a culinary moment for a few years now, which I love and understand: are lovely, but I don’t know why the spotlight hasn’t expanded to include the tender tops of all our other evergreens as well. Pine, spruce, and hemlock are more easily accessible to most people in the lower 48 and can be used in a similar way. If you’ve wanted to bring home the taste of evergreens, but tried a needle and were put off by the stiff texture and turpentine flavor, it was probably just your timing that wasn’t right. Spring tips are what you’ve been waiting for and now is the time to get them.
The term “tip” refers to the meristematic part of the tree, which means the new, actively growing parts. In conifers, such as pine, balsam, and fir, this will happen at the top of the tree and at the ends of all branches. If you look around coniferous forests in the middle of spring, the trees are all a deep forest green, but over a period of a few weeks in May and June, you will notice that the ends of all the branches are illuminated. top with a 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 them, and if you pop one into your mouth, it’ll taste somewhere between citrusy, hoppy, and summery. in Maine. This is when you want to choose them. As the season progresses, this new spring growth will harden, both in texture and flavor, and become much more resinous.
Flavor between species, and even within a species from tree to tree, can vary quite a bit, so it’s best to try it yourself before committing to picking from a tree. I favor balsam fir for eating fresh because of its milder, more approachable flavor, pickling fir for its bright flavor and snappy texture, pine is the perfect candy with its solid, cylindrical shape, and hemlock is my favorite for nibbling. walking trails. because they are bite-sized and too delicate to do much more with.
There are many different species of pines, spruces, and firs in North America, and lucky for us, our native evergreens are a pretty safe group to collect, except for a few. You should 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 sort of basket or jug that can be tied around your waist so you can scoop with both hands, though if you come across a tree laden with stubby tips while walking, unprepared, scooping with one hand and filling your cap isn’t the end. of the world. I do it all the time, and a full hat is enough to make some goodies.
I like to go for tips in early to mid successional growth forests so that the trees are young enough that I can reach their branches. When collecting tips, especially with younger trees, don’t take the tips from the top of the tree, called the apical meristem, because this is the only vertical growth on the tree during the year and you don’t want to stunt it. Similarly, when you gather from the branches, distribute your harvest, taking a little here, a little there, and without removing all the tips of any branch or tree. Gathering tips can be addictively fun, and it’s easy to be tempted to keep picking because there are so many at your fingertips, 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 put them in a cooler or fridge as soon as possible, as the weather during picking season can be quite warm and they will start to ferment very quickly, especially in a plastic bag or jug. If you can’t cool them down soon, try spreading them on something clean in a shallow layer so they don’t clump together, or if they need to stay in their collection container, turn and toss them periodically with your hands to disperse the heat. Once you get them home, you can store them in the fridge for quite a while if you’re not going to use them right away, and even better, they freeze really well without any preparation.
Once you’ve checked yourself for ticks and taken care of all mosquito and black fly bites, as they all seem to peak around tip time, it’s time to decide how to use them. I usually divide my harvest into a handful of treats to enjoy all year long. I’ll use a few handfuls a year to eat fresh, separating 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 plus a lot of pantry liquids. .
I’ll chop up some spruce and fir and infuse them into vodka along with other spring aromatics for a seasonal variation on gin. I will coat a jar of pine tips (usually called candlesticks or buds) with honey and let it ferment on a dark shelf for a couple of weeks and then put it in the fridge to use as a sore throat wrap to take by the tablespoon . , in my tea, or to make the dreamiest festive baklava you can imagine. I’ll fill a half gallon jar ¼ of the way with tips and fill it with rice, cider, white wine or champagne vinegar and let it infuse for a few weeks or a few months, testing 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 bud syrup.”
I will pat dry and grind them with salt to finish savory meals or grind them in sugar to sprinkle on sweets. I’ll cold brew it in sugar water for a few days and then use it as a base for the most refreshing sherbet or popsicles. I’ll mix with some type of dairy product, like milk, cream, yogurt, or a soft, sweet cheese, for the creamiest, dreamiest desserts like ice cream, posset, custard, cakes, and icings. At the very least, try tossing a handful into your water bottle and then see if you don’t want any more.