Sunday, January 15, 2017

holiday travel, tisanes / herb teas from pine needles

snow-Dad and snow-girl, at my parent's house (and some pine)

Long time no see!  I just returned from an extended trip back to the US, with stops in Western Pennsylvania to visit family, to Washington DC, and New York City, then onto a short stop in Taiwan on the way back.  I'll add a post about making an unusual version of a tisane / herb tea before getting into the more typical travel blog / tea blog hybrid post, since those notes are already basically a post.

The subject of tea did come up in New York City, and of course also in Taiwan, although I didn't have time to do it justice there, since it was just a three day layover to look around.  The tea theme dropped for the vacation, much more so than is typical, since the airline lost my luggage, so the dozen or two samples of different teas I'd packed were off shuttling around wherever, but not making it to me in the first two places we went.

I made herb "teas" from white pine and hemlock (pine, not the plant that killed Socrates), then later using red pine and Norway spruce.  This pine needle "tea" subject has came up a few times, most recently in discussing Christmas tea blends (here and here), some of which contain pine needles.  This summary post of that content for TChing (a different kind of tea blog site) drifted a little further into pine needle tea scope:

Beyond the basic set, other recipes add nuts, fruits, other spices, pine needles, mint, cacoa nibs or chocolate, and even peppermint candies...  A touch of rosemary might bring out that pine aspect to avoid experimenting with using needles from pine trees, which also does sound interesting.  Per my understanding most pine needles work for making a safe and healthy tisane, with more on that here and here, with a great deal of caution in order for preparing any wild plants as tisanes.

Odd quoting myself.  I didn't sweat the risk, I just drank tea made from pine needles, with more to follow on how that went.  One part of the traditional back-story--perhaps just myth--is that Native Americans taught the early settlers to make pine needle tisanes, a drink that provides lots of vitamins and minerals, including plenty of vitamin C.

Tasting notes:

I might first mention since my parents live in rural Western Pennsylvania I just walked outside and picked these needles off trees.  They're organic; no way anyone was adding fertilizer or pesticides to trees that just grow wild (although they had planted the one Norway spruce pine earlier from seedlings, but it was up to them to make it on their own without chemicals).

White pine: of course both diced needles smelled exactly like the pine types, and the brewed versions did too.  Both were really piney.  I brewed both for more than five minutes, in an open mug, perhaps not ideal but workable.   The white pine was a little lighter, although both were light and sweet (unsweetened).  It had a trace of dryness along with the pine - range taste.

White pine top, hemlock bottom

chopped needles

Hemlock:  the teas shared a lot of taste range but this was warmer and fuller, matching the way the trees smell.  They smell a lot stronger if you just break off and twist the needles, like doing a hiker's version of aromatherapy,  versus just smelling the tree or whole needles. 

Both were nice, to me, but it helps being really into teas, tisanes,  and herbs to begin with.  Supposedly both, and any true pines, are safe, and healthy, but at a minimum nothing negative seemed to come of drinking a few cups of it.

the "tea" brewed quite light but with plenty of flavor

I collected two more needle types for a second tasting, red pine and Norway spruce, both from my parent's house (all four). 

one source:  definitely organic

Norway spruce:  close to white pine, piney--they all are--subtle and sweet.  There is a trace of dryness but it feels soft and rich.  The feel has a resinous character,  as one would expect.   Of course it's not remotely close to any tea, to camellia sinensis. 

Besides pine it's hard to describe much, even though it is distinct from the red pine.  The needles are small and delicate, and relatively short, not as stout and thick as blue spruce,  which one would imagine to be a lot less subtle. 

really more the vacation theme, visiting family

Red pine:  this pine has much thicker, longer needles,  the longest of any local pine types.  Scotch pine is the mid length needle tree recognizable as the standard Christmas tree.  As a child I helped my grandparents run a pine tree farm, clipping the trees in the spring to reinforce that typical shape, but they grew lots of types.

Norway spruce left, red pine right

The red pine tisane (herb tea) is stronger, a bit dryer. It's hard to go further with taste aspect parallels; they taste like pine (or maybe a little like rosemary).  My dad said the spruce tasted like a mild turpentine,  and the spruce like a more robust turpentine, and that's actually not so far off.  Another family member that tried the second batch compared them to the juniper in gin, also a pretty good correlation, but none of them like the effect enough to finish those teas.

A first infusion brewed for a standard four or five minutes, coming out light, even though I'd finely diced the needles to let them brew.  For a second infusion I let them brew out, more like ten minutes.  Differences became pronounced, but still hard to describe. 

I used a brand-new infuser to make it, kind of crazy to do that

The spruce is lighter and sweeter still, but complex and aromatic, not so far from sage.  The red pine almost had a saltiness, not necessarily from salt, possibly the effect of other minerals, a rich taste based around that complexity, with a lot more woodiness.  It's definitely resinous, with a thick, unique feel, based on actual resin.  It is definitely not a good idea to use your normal teaware to make this tisane since cleaning that residue back out might take forever, or extreme measures, like boiling steps and chemical treatments.

All the teas were nice, all different but in the same range.  I liked them, the white pine or Norway spruce best, which were close to each other in effect.  I drink a lot of different teas and a fair number of tisanes, just not quite so frequently, so trying something unusual is standard stuff for me.

I wouldn't give up real tea for drinking versions from pine needles but I'd probably keep those in the rotation if I lived where that grows.  I probably should have harvested an extra couple hundred grams since it was all standing outside growing as part of the natural forest but I didn't get to it.  It might work well in blends, mixing ingredients like herbs, berries, dried fruit, and pine needles to create tisane versions one wouldn't normally even consider, or even local edible roots and bark, if someone really knew what they were up to.  It's probably going a little far to mention a family rumor that I might be part Native American (Americans have trouble keeping track of their own blend of family background), so it's nice to think I might just be getting back to my roots.

playing cards, not so interested in pine needle tea


  1. I've had that stuff. Never made my own, though. Fascinating post.

    1. Thanks! Did you like it? I did, but I could relate to people not liking it. It occurred to me in discussing the post later that someone could probably convert their whole Christmas tree to pine needle tea just by collecting dried needles.