Posts Tagged ‘Wild Foods’

“During the Spanish Flu, those who ate pine needles didn’t get sick.” I came across this in one of my notebooks recently. I had jotted it down several months ago when I watched a webinar on herbal remedies. Unfortunately, I’d failed to record my source, but the webinar had touted the benefits of various parts of the pine tree. As I recall, the 1918 patients were being treated with pine needles for scurvy.

I already knew pine trees are edible, if rather hard to chew. Years earlier, I had read one of Euell Gibbons’ books in which he queried, “Did you ever eat a pine tree?” Then he proceeded to tell how to prepare and dine on the various parts.

More recently, I bought a book at a Garden Club event, I Eat Weeds by Priscilla G. Bowers. She devotes 68 pages to wild edible plants and the rest of the book to recipes. I’ve tied many of them and one of my favorites is Pine Needle Tea. I have pine trees on my property and occasionally a storm will blow down a few branches. I’ll salvage a generous handful and make tea. You can drink it hot or iced. It’s delicious, but I didn’t know it could protect you from the Spanish flu. I needed more information.

Iced Pine Tea with Mint

I Googled “pine needles/Spanish flu” hoping to find my source. I couldn’t, nor could I find any evidence of pine being used as a treatment during the 1918 pandemic. However, I did find information on pine in regards to modern influenzas.

Pine is rich in vitamins C and A, but it is also rich in shikimic acid, which is an ingredient in Tamiflu (Oseltamivir)! This ingredient is imported from China where it’s extracted from the star anise tree, but we grow our own source of shikimic acid right here in the US. You may have it growing in your backyard.

I found two newspaper articles on the subject, from the Bangor Daily News in Maine and the Pocono Record in Pennsylvania. Both discussed how timber companies could gather pine needles from harvested trees and extract shikimic acid to supply pharmaceutical companies.

In 2006, CNN.com published an article about a Canadian company, Biolyse, that collects discarded Christmas trees to extract shikimic acid. Chemist Brigitte Kiecken, CEO of Biolyse, expressed concern about the inevitability of a viral pandemic. “It’s an urgent matter, and we should be starting production—not once the pandemic hits, but before that. On a personal level, I’m scared, and on a professional level, I’m terribly frustrated,” she said. “Government and industry have to work together now. We’ve been warned for ample time, and it [a pandemic] is bound to happen.”

This was 14 years ago! Yikes!

I wondered, if pine can protect you from the flu, what about Covid 19? I kept digging and was surprised by the research that’s been done on the medical uses of pine.

There are 80 to 90 species of pine around the world, and most are edible. In fact, other conifers are also edible. That includes trees such as fir, spruce, larch, cedar, and hemlock. This is not the hemlock that killed Socrates. Poison hemlock is a member of the carrot family. Beware of wild carrots. Also beware of these poisonous trees: ponderosa pine, yew, and Norfolk or Australian pine. And remember, not all evergreens are conifers.

Another caution: pregnant women and those who could become pregnant should not drink pine needle tea as it could cause abortion.

Besides Vitamins A and C and shikimic acid, pine contains protein, fat, phosphorus, iron, and a long list of other compounds. The composition of nutrients varies with the species and season, which is why you won’t see a Nutrition Facts chart attached to your pine tree. Oils from pine needles could potentially treat heart disease, diabetes, senile dementia, and hypertension. And the list goes on: obesity, depression, and anxiety. Pine is anti-microbial and boosts your immune system, so it’s good for colds, sore throat, sinus and chest congestion. To relieve upper respiratory illness, you can inhale the vapor.

But what about our current scourge? Doctors are scrambling to find treatments for Covid. Maybe all they need to do is look out the window. If pine indeed worked during the pandemic 100 years ago and contains an ingredient used today to treat influenza, would it be effective for coronavirus?

To my knowledge, no studies have been done yet on pine and Covid 19, but there have been studies involving other coronaviruses, including SARS, which reared its ugly head in 2003, so it makes sense it would be good for Covid 19, too.

Priscilla Bowers’ recipe for Pine Needle Tea is simple:

Green pine needles, cut into 3” or 4” lengths

Water to cover

Sugar to taste

Bring to a boil in a sauce pan and hold 5 minutes, then let steep for 10. Strain and sweeten. Including some of the stems gives it more flavor.

I like to make it by the half-gallon and serve it iced. I take a generous handful of pine needles and twigs, cover them with water, bring it to a boil, simmer five minutes, then let it cool before I sweeten and dilute it.  You may not need to sweeten the tea, depending on your taste. Honey will make it more healthful. Warning: pine rosin will stick to the pan. Use an old pan or one that’s easy to clean.

A windstorm last week blew down several pine branches. I gathered twigs, cut them into useable lengths, and put portion amounts into freezer bags. Now I have a supply to last me until the next windstorm.

Of course, I’m no doctor and can’t guarantee that Pine Tea will protect you from or cure Covid 19, but when you have something that won’t hurt you, is pleasant to drink, and might help, why not try it?

Here’s a handy article with additional information: https://www.arborpronw.com/pine-needle-tea/

If you haven’t already, check out my YA novel, Trials by Fire, which is a semi-finalist for the 2020 Royal Palm Literary Award. Available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.


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Spring caught me by surprise again. It does this every year. Winter in Florida is predictably unpredictable. It can be 80 degrees in the morning and plunge into the 20’s by midnight. Although the blooming of the Dog Fennel last fall predicted frost before Thanksgiving (and Dog Fennel’s predictions are more accurate than the almanac), Jack didn’t show his hoary head until January. Fruit trees that know no better began to bloom and set fruit. Then Winter skated in. Not a hard winter, as winters go, but enough frosts and freezes to nip those sassy buds and precocious peaches. Plants that know better, Yellow Jasmine and Wild Azaleas, knew to wait.

A thousand miles to the north, Punxsutawney Phil, that famous groundhog, predicted an early spring. I had my hopes, but didn’t bank on it. My misgivings were correct. I won’t be surprised if they fire that groundhog and replace him with another who can predict more accurately. But maybe it’s not his fault. Remember, my Dog Fennel was wrong, too.

Fortunately, we didn’t suffer the backlash of winter that hit our northern neighbors. No blizzards, but we did get a little snow, a few flurries that only the more adventurous caught before they melted to nothing. I missed the snowfall because it’s warmer in the woods where I live. If a few flakes drifted as far as the tree canopy, they never hit the ground.

Plants that hadn’t been fooled by our fickle weather stayed huddled in winter dormancy. When I gave my talk on Wild Eating to a neighboring garden club, the only thing I could find to eat was a pine tree. The usual weeds prudently remained in hibernation. At least we were able to enjoy a delicious pine needle tea.

Among leafless gray trunks of the woods and swamps, the Red Maples ignored warm days, cold nights, and the predictions of other species and blazed deep scarlet at their usual time. They’ve lived in Florida long enough not to be influenced by the uncertainties of what we call winter. You see, in Florida, seasons are backwards. Here, maple trees turn colorful in spring, not so much in fall. Soon their little helicopter seeds rained down into yard and flower pot alike and I have little maple trees coming up everywhere.

Then came March. Warm days of sunshine and short sleeved shirts, pollen from oaks and pines coating everything yellow, sending sensitive people to the doctor. I entered my best houseplants in the county fair. When I brought them home afterward, they begged to be left outdoors. They love the heat and humidity of summer. It reminds them of their jungle origins. In summer, they thrive on fresh rainwater and ask for no fertilizer. But they complain about the cool dry air of the winter house and need much coaxing to keep up appearances until fair time. It was the Ides of March. Was winter over? Against my better judgement, I left my tropical babies outside. Guess what—another cold front, nights in the 30’s. I brought the most vulnerable into the house and left the more hardy out. They weren’t happy, but they survived.

When I heard the first Whippoorwill, I knew spring had finally arrived. These aren’t really whippoorwills but that’s what we call them. They are actually Chuck-wills-widow, a cousin of the whippoorwill. Their song is not musical (Marjorie Rawlings described it as, “Chip hell out of the red oak”) but it’s unique and most welcome in March.

I love the light the sun sends in late winter—bright, unencumbered by foliage and haze, intense, almost silvery. It surrounds everything, leaving no shadows. Maybe that’s the cue. Buds began to plump. My Wild Azaleas bloomed, filling the woods with their sweet bouquet.

Then literally overnight, everything burst with color. A few trees tentatively put out green leaves. When no harm came to the early bloomers, other trees followed suit. Wildflowers have began to blossom. Yellow Primrose now decorates the dirt road from evening till noon. Phlox carpets the sunny roadsides and Lyre Leaf sage has turned the shady areas blue.  Before I knew what happened, my sunny yard transformed into a shady forest. Birds of more species than I can describe wake me with their morning songs.

I don’t know why Spring surprises me with its arrival. It happens this way every year. One day the oaks are bare, the next they are attired in spring green. Soon, the green will darken, the shade in my yard deepen, and heat and humidity will come home to stay. My tropical house plants will flourish, as will mosquitoes, and my human neighbors will wilt and hibernate in their air conditioning.

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Wild Winter Eating

While most of the country is shivering under a blanket of snow, we in North Florida alternately shiver on frosty days and sweat when the mercury hits 80. You may think we’re wimpy to complain about our winters, but our summers are truly brutal. While folks in most parts of the country grow vegetables in summer, little will grow here then. Even heat-loving tomatoes will not bear fruit when the temperatures stay in the 90’s around the clock. Here, we garden from September to May. Right now, our lettuces, cabbages, and carrots are happy, until an arctic air mass moves in and it plunges into the 20’s. Then even they threaten to move south.   

Winter is the time to enjoy home grown salads in Florida. I pick a few lettuce leaves and look for something else to add without going to the grocery store. I don’t like radishes, so I didn’t plant any. My carrots aren’t mature enough yet, so I take a stroll around my yard to see what I can find.

My grandmother had a plant she called “shamrocks” and I inherited her love for them. The leaves look like clover and they have cute little pink blossoms. They are not true shamrocks, but an oxalis. “Shamrock” is derived from the Irish word for “clover” which is what true shamrocks are. Oxalis is a member of the wood sorrel family. They grow all over the world, and they grow in my yard.

I don’t remember when I acquired my first oxalis but they do not like to stay contained. They reproduce by seeds and bulbils and I find them all over my yard, in my garden, and even in my potted plants. Since they are so plentiful, it’s fortunate they are edible. They have a tangy flavor and are high in Vitamin C. As their name suggests, they also contain oxalic acid which is toxic in large quantities. But spinach and many other vegetables also have oxalic acid. Spinach didn’t kill Popeye. Unless you eat rhubarb leaves (which is not advisable) you are not going to consume enough to harm you, so don’t worry.

I find three varieties of oxalis in my yard. One has rounded leaves that look like clover and another has triangular leaves. Both have pink flowers. Then there is a native called wood sorrel with yellow blossoms and seed pods that will explode in 1000 directions. You don’t want to encourage this one too much. It will take over. I have another that I bought at a nursery a few years ago. This one has purple leaves and white flowers. They assured me it would not escape and so far it has stayed nicely in its pot.

I pick oxalis leaves and scatter them on my salad. I chop the stems and cook them in soups and with mixed greens. One day I realized I was out of pickle relish and added some to egg salad, which they flavored nicely. You can also make a refreshing tea from this plant. The flowers are also edible. They may not make it as far as the kitchen as they are so tempting.

Wandering about my yard, I find a winter resident that is found all over the world, probably spread by European explorers. Chickweed (Stellaria media) makes a soft, spreading carpet no more than six inches high. The leaves are pointed ovals and it has tiny white flowers. The taste is as delicate as the plant appears to be, reminiscent of raw corn. This makes a sweet addition to my salad and can also be put in soup and cooked greens.

Ralph Wald Emerson wrote, “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” One much maligned plant is Florida Betony (Stachys floridana). If you Google it you will find 101 ways to eradicate it. Why not just eat it? I actually planted some in my yard for the pinkish-purplish spring flowers that honeybees love. This wildflower is a member of the mint family. The leaves are edible but not very tasty. Other names for Florida Betony are rattlesnake weed and wild radish. Dig down and you will find a small white tuber shaped like a snake’s rattle which tastes like a mild radish. This is the part to eat and it goes nicely on my salad. Unfortunately for some of you, it grows only in the southeast. Like most snowbirds, you won’t encounter it when summer comes, because it doesn’t like the heat.

Wild onion and wild garlic grow as far north as Canada and as far west as Arkansas. You can smell them when they mow the roadsides. They taste like their cultivated cousins, can be used the same way, and don’t cost anything. I’ve planted some of these in my garden. With chopped wild onions, wild radish, and oxalis leaves, my salad needs no further flavoring.

Emerging from the ground are the wild violets. They’re not blooming yet and the leaves are too small to harvest but they too will soon dress my salads. The blossoms are higher in Vitamin C than oranges. The leaves can thicken soups, the flowers can be made into candy, and the whole plant will make a nice tea. There should be some growing near you, maybe in your lawn. They, too, can be found around the world.   

Some words of caution: don’t eat anything unless you know what it is, don’t pick plants that have been sprayed with chemicals, and be sure to wash anything an animal may have watered. If you don’t live in Florida and your landscape is still buried under snow or brown from frost, don’t despair. As winter begins to recede north, you, too, will be able to enjoy these, and other, culinary delights. Bon appétit!

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