Monday, May 13, 2013

How to Make Fir Needle Tea

New growth on Douglas Fir tree Schenck Tree Farm, 2013
I was tagging along behind while my brother - our tree farm manager - led an informal walking tour of our property, recently. The group was extended family, and the day was beautiful - mid-70's, sunny and clear with flowers blooming. Suddenly, my brother stepped off the path, broke off the new, mint green tip of a fir branch and popped it in his mouth. He then explained to the chuckling group that the new growth on fir branches is edible - one of many wild foods in Pacific Northwest forests.

That reminded me: I wanted to try fir needle tea again. While the rest followed my brother, I hopped from tree to tree plucking a few tips here and there and stuffing them in my pocket. No one questioned my actions, so no idea what my relatives might have thought. They humor me - I may well be the odd cousin they make allowances for.

Back at my house, I pulled the handful of light green tips out of my pocket and placed them in a saucer. I didn't have more than a third of a cup, and I thought that would be right for one cup of tea.

Instructions for fir or pine needle tea vary. As I recall, the last time I tried it, we boiled mature fir needles in water for several minutes. The result was strongly flavored tea and tasted too much like pitch for my liking. I thought the young, tender needles might yield a more delicate tea.

You can boil the needles in hot water for several minutes, or you can pour hot water over the needles and steep as you would any tea. The boiled needles are said to yield a stronger, more turpentine-flavored drink. That may be what happened with my initial experience.

I put the handful of young needles in a mug, filled it with water and put it in the microwave for two minutes. Then I let it sit for another five minutes or so. I strained out the needles - the most difficult step in the process. I just spooned them out. It would be more effective to pour the tea through a strainer, as I still had the odd fir needle in my drink. Another solution would be to put the needles in a tea ball and steep for several minutes. I plan to use the tea ball my next try.

In spite of all that, and the cavalier way I went about brewing my tea, the result was surprisingly good. It was a much milder tea than I remember, but still strong enough to be pleasant and refreshing.
New growth on fir trees, Schenck Tree Farm, 2013

Why drink fir tea?

  • Cost: here in the Northwest fir needles are cheap and plentiful. Collecting them is also a simple matter, although the only caveat is to be careful to not remove too many from the same tree or branch. I was careful to only take two or three new tips from our trees, since that is the year's new growth.

  • Vitamins: There just isn't a lot of research on the health benefits of fir or pine needle tea. There are stories: Native Americans used it to treat colds and prevent scurvy. Fir needles have a higher amount of Vitamin C than fresh orange juice, and they also contain Vitamin A. The essential oils released in the tea also have some benefit, especially when treating colds or congestion. Maybe not as strong as eucalyptus as an inhalant, but along the same lines. The essential oils also have some antiseptic properties.

  • Variety: The flavor of the mild, light version I brewed is very refreshing. It makes a nice change from my usual peppermint or apple cinnamon teas.
Tips on harvesting fir needles

  • Don't strip branches and take new growth sparingly
  • Rinse the needles and chop the mature needles. Fir needles are relatively short, but cutting them in half makes them more manageable.
  • Remove bits of bark and the brown, papery casings from the tree.
Enjoy! Anyone drink fir tea on a regular basis? Please share your methods and insight.

Margaret Mills

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