Pine for Food and Prophet

If one pine were placed in a town square, what admiration it would excite! Yet who is conscious of the pine-tree multitudes in the free woods, though open to everybody?

John Muir

Jesus said “a prophet is not without honor save in his own country.” He could have been talking about pines. It means that we take for granted what’s always there. Like air, it becomes invisible. We don’t miss the fungus but the trees.

Out of hundreds of wild foods, pine is one of the most useful and one of the most common. It’s also one of the most neglected, probably because it’s all over the place.

I teach wild foods for a living, and even I rarely use pine. The early explorers used it to prevent scurvy. I use it on winter foraging tours to have something to say. The rest of the year, pine quietly provides a home for many of the mushrooms I focus on, including lobster mushrooms and dozens of different boletes, all symbiotic with pine.

You may have heard of pycnogenol, a powerful antioxidant typically extracted from the bark of a pine tree that grows on the coast of France. As romantic as that may sound, you don’t have to get your medicine in a can from Cannes when the original pine extract came from our very own Eastern White Pine.

If stripping bark is not your cup of tea, just use the needles. They’re high in vitamins A and C. In fact, one cup of pine needle tea can have five times as much vitamin C as a cup of orange juice.

To prepare, pick a handful of needles, remove the papery brown ends, and chop into 1/2-inch pieces. Pour a cup of scalding but not boiling water over a tablespoon of chopped needles. Let it steep for ten minutes, then strain. Sweeten with honey if desired. It’s that easy.

There is one exception to my lack of pine appreciation, and a clue comes from the Latin name, Pinus. One time I was in Costa Rica with my GF at a fruit juice stand. A man in front of us that sounded Dutch was asking for pineapple, which for some reason had been written on the board in the plural, piñas. We got to hear him twice ask for what sounded exactly like “penis.”

I don’t think the Latin word Pinus is actually related to penis. But pine extract, whether from the bark or the pollen, is often touted as “herbal Viagra.” It’s also considered a miraculous superfood. Like so many wild foods, it’s most commonly known as annoying garbage — in this case, to be washed off your car.

I find pine pollen to have a pleasant, mild flavor similar to powdered milk. Whether it is a food, i.e., something that can be eaten several tablespoons at a time, or a medicine, to be consumed only up to a quarter teaspoon a day, is, for me, an open question.

The first time I ate pine pollen, I woke up the next day with a “morning missle.” That only happened a couple times, but it also seemed to “jack me up” like caffeine, so that I now only eat it in the morning. Maybe I just need to get used to it, or this has more to do with my adrenal fatigue than with the pollen.

Given my limited use of pine pollen, I have the same problem with it as I have with most other wild foods: I get too much! Anyone who has ever tried to collect pine pollen — or bought it online — will probably not believe that I can easily collect over a gallon each season. I can’t help getting this much, as it’s such a pleasure to gather. What I lack are friends who appreciate wild food to share it with.

To gather pine pollen, first you need trees with branches you can reach (this branch has a log on it that I put there to weigh it down). You’ll typically find these on edges of fields or parking lots. Of course, a parking lot isn’t the cleanest option, but I doubt pollutants are pulled up into the pollen. Sadly, I can’t say the same about semen.

The pines around me are primarily white and scrub. I don’t know that it matters; I am not aware of any toxic pines in my area as long as they are actually pines to begin with. Just don’t eat the needles; they can get stuck in your throat, and this can be surprisingly dangerous.

The hardest part of gathering pine pollen — and the trick to doing it easily — is simply timing. It grows in the male cones, commonly called catkins, that look, coincidentally, like little pineapples. You need to collect the catkins once they are turning yellow but before they open. Otherwise, the slightest touch results in a small explosion.

You really have to keep an eye on the trees or you will miss this short window of opportunity. Fortunately, different trees fruit at different times, so you usually can catch at least some at the right moment. Then hope it doesn’t rain!

If it does rain, give them time to dry out. Bring a ladder if possible. Attach a large, open-mouth plastic bag to your chest, like a big ziplock. If you attach it any lower, it can get in the way of you leaning against the ladder.

Use scissors to snip off the cones or twist and pinch them off with your fingers. A few needles coming along is ok. They are a bit bothersome later on, however, so it’s better to remove them. You can use them for tea.

Back home, spread the catkins out in wide open containers. If you bite into one, you’ll see that those little balls contain a lot of moisture, like an apple. They lose this moisture as they ripen, and even in an open plastic bag, quite a bit of it will condense on the walls. The ripening also generates heat, and the combination of warmth and moisture is a recipe for dangerous spoilage. Think about how much ventilation they would normally be getting, hanging in the sun on the end of a tree branch in the breeze. That’s the life!

If your catkins are still on the green side, they could take a week or more to ripen. If they are more than one layer deep, just make sure they’re not accumulating any moisture. Once they are ripe (yellow), set them in the sun to dry. You don’t want to do this until then, however, or they may dry out too soon.

Once pollen is clearly falling from the cones, strain it out with a sieve. A firm up and down action works better than side to side. If you find yourself kicking pollen up into the air, cover the strainer and/or hold it higher up from the container. If it’s not windy, you can do this outside.

Depending on what strainers you have, you may need to pour the pollen through a succession of them into increasingly smaller containers. Remove any residual pollen with a rubber spatula. Sometimes there are little worms, but these are caught by a fine strainer. Needles, on the other hand, often slide right through, so check finished pollen for those.

I store my pollen in a sealed jar in the freezer. Usually after the first straining, however, cones still aren’t completely ripe. Let them sit another couple days and strain again.

Cones with little pollen left will look dark orange and “spongy.” Any remaining pollen can be easily rinsed out. Just submerge handfuls in water and squeeze. Pour the liquid into a tall, wide-mouth container and let the pollen settle. Most will form a layer on top. Skim this off and wait a few minutes for more.

When there’s no more left to skim without taking up a lot of water with it, pour off the water until a layer is left on the bottom. This pollen, along with what you skimmed off, can be pressed into ice cube trays, preferably half-ounce ones if you have them (like the round ones in the photo), and frozen.

A few days in the freezer will dry the cubes out. These can be stored in a sealed jar. I don’t know why it has to be sealed; it just feels right. You may be able to grind them back into powder; I haven’t tried.

If you’ve ever read The Alchemist, you know the lesson pine has to teach us. If you haven’t, I won’t give away the ending. Learn to use pine, and you’ll find out for yourself.

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