By the time you read this, it may already be too late.
Spruce tip season is upon us, and will be gone again in the blink of an eye.
In the spring, spruce trees (Picea spp.) grow in every direction by tufts at the end of each branch. These tufts are encased in papery covers while they develop, and many foragers like this at this especially tender stage.
Personally, I’m lazy and like to collect the tips when they are already de-papered. Besides, finding the husks all over my garden tells me the trees behind it are ready!
Spruce tips are best for actual eating when they are still light yellow in color, and soft and flexible when you bend them. They will harden and darken as they age, at which point they can still be used for tea or infusions. But right now, they are so tender you can pinch them off the branch with your fingernails.
In my region (central Maryland), most spruce trees are introduced through professional landscaping or planted Christmas trees: Colorado blue (Picea pungens) (which is only blue when planted in very alkaline soil), Norway spruce (P. abies), and white spruce (P. glauca). A Maryland native red spruce (P. rubens) grows in the far west of the state, in the mountains.
Spruce trees can be distinguished from other conifers by their needles, which attach individually to the branches via short stiff stems. Pines, by contrast, have multiple needles growing from the same location on the branch. Mature spruce needles are short, squared off, stiff and pointed. These characteristics help distinguish it from fir (although fir trees, Abies spp., are apparently edible as well) and yew (Taxus spp., which are toxic). If you are still skeptical about eating can find one of my favorite guides to eating Christmas trees online here.
Harvesting spruce tips requires planning and forethought to avoid hurting the tree, since the tips represent the year’s new growth upward and outward. If you remove tips from the tree’s top, or the tips at the outermost edge of the branches, you can stunt the tree’s growth. Always harvest as close as possible to the trunk, and on the lower branches. Never pluck too many tips from a single location; rather select from various locations around the tree.
Full grown spruces stretch from 80 to 120 feet tall, so often the tips at the top will tower out of your reach anyway!
Because many spruce trees in central Maryland are planted for landscaping, it’s important to know if they have been sprayed. “Blue spruce decline” is a generic term for multiple diseases that cause P. pungens to lose its needles starting from the bottom of the tree and working its way up, leaving unsightly bare branches. Blue spruce decline is often treated with copper-based fungicides which can be toxic to humans.
Now that you know how to forage spruce tips…. do you want to? At this tender stage, spruce tips can be munched as a vegetable, but you’ll find the taste to be very intense with pine and citrus notes. Like eating a common household cleaner, if you will. But each tree offers varying flavors, so it’s important to sample from several trees if you have the option. Some may be more bitter, and others may be milder. If you’re looking for ideas on how to eat spruce tips whole, there’s a recipe here (no, I haven’t tried it).
More commonly spruce tips are used as a seasoning or flavoring agent. They can be used to infuse dairy products like milk or cream; make syrups or flavored sugar or salt; or sprinkled over dishes like herbs (think rosemary). You can also soak the tips in vodka for cocktails. Many of the recipes for spruce tips fall into the dessert category – unfortunate, for those of us avoiding sugar – but you can find savory dishes too if you look hard enough.
Spruce tips can also be used medicinally, as tea for respiratory ailments, a decoction for washes to treat stiff joints, or infused into oil for massages. The citrusy flavor speaks to the vitamin C content in the needles, which boosts the immune system and helps heal body tissues. As with food uses, the spruce tips are still potent medicine once they mature beyond the “spring vegetable” stage. (Apparently the spruce resin and bark have medical applications as well, according to the author of Northeast Medicinal Plants, but harvesting the sticky resin or spiky twigs doesn’t sound worth the effort to me!)
What are you foraging this spring?