Some foods are difficult to forage for in the winter, but there are plenty of white pine needles still available for tea. Photo by Michael Ploujnikov/Wikimedia.
Winter must have been hard for the first human inhabitants of the Northeast as long months passed with few fresh plant foods.
Foraging is difficult in the winter, but it is not impossible. Occasional fruits still cling to vines and branches. Snow-free spots may make it possible to find nuts. Patches of thawed ground or ice-free water allow access to roots or rhizomes. But one certainly couldn’t live on such a meager harvest. Winter meals in earlier centuries and millennia must have included hunted meats and stored foods that were gathered and dried during the warmer months.
Also likely on the menu was a selection of winter teas. How important these teas must have been – a vital source of nutrients and a hand- and heart-warming solace on winter nights.
A number of tree species can be harvested to brew into tea; this article will discuss two of the most accessible. Between them, a winter tea can be found in nearly any patch of woods.
The first – and the best-tasting – is a tea brewed from the fresh twigs of either black birch (Betula lenta) or yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis). Brewing this tea requires a large number of twigs, a long steeping time, and water that is well below boiling temperature. Boiling water vaporizes the volatile chemicals that impart the characteristic odor and flavor. Those wintergreen odors are a helpful aid to identification: just scratch and sniff. (Further details about brewing these teas can be found in the Winter 2014 issue.)
Second, teas can be made all year from the needles of any of our native pines. The easiest to find in most of our region is the familiar white pine (Pinus strobus). Needles should be stripped from the twigs, and I prefer to chop off the papery sheaths at the bottom. The piney flavor is strong, and I recommend steeping only a teaspoon or two of fresh needles in about a pint of water. Unlike with the birches, I use boiling water, and I steep for only about two to three minutes before removing the needles. A tea ball is helpful, but needles can also be strained in a colander. Alternatively, most of the tea can be decanted from the top of the container, as the needles will sink after several minutes of steeping.
Pine-needle tea is not as beloved as that of the birches. The renowned forager Euell Gibbons, a man with an adventurous palate, quipped wryly that pine-needle tea left him with “a feeling of great virtue.” While this tea may be strongly flavored, I don’t find it distasteful. I like to brew it with sweet-tasting herbs like anise.
There are claims on the Internet that pine-needle tea is everything from an “immune booster” to a cancer preventive. They are likely overblown. But for our predecessors, it was almost certainly an essential nutritional tonic during the winter months. High in vitamin A and extraordinarily high in vitamin C, this tea must have kept scurvy away from many a mountain camp.
Blessed as I am to live in a time when I can get fresh greens and oranges in the depths of January, I’m in no danger of scurvy. But I still drink wild winter teas. They remind me that even in the darkest times and most desolate places, nourishment can be found by those who look.