Is your Christmas tree edible?
Technically, yes – if it's fir, spruce or pine and you're confident it wasn't doused with pesticides. But you might want to start by sipping it instead.
"Just sticking needles in your mouth isn't really the most pleasant sensory experience," said Twin Cities forager Maria Wesserle, who's leading several classes on edible evergreens this winter. "But a lot of evergreen species are edible and are often used to make a tea — or to infuse syrup or vinegar."
Burning edible evergreens to make "culinary ash" to use as a substitute for salt is also an option. And in early springtime, Wesserle does like to toss the tender new green tips of spruce into salads.
"Citrusy and delicious," she said, adding that the texture of the new growth needles is a bit like those rubber Koosh balls that became popular in the 1990s.
Wesserle named her company Four Season Foraging because she ventures out to find edible wild plants year-round. She especially delights in sharing her love of the chillier side of foraging. "I really want to get people excited about going out in the winter," she said.
And for good reason.
While spring's mushrooms and ramps get most of the attention, wintertime ingredients like juniper berries and fir needles draw experienced foragers out into snowy swamps and forests. High in vitamin C, evergreens have long been a part of traditional diets in the cold parts of the world where they grow, including the Upper Midwest.
At Owamni, Minneapolis' James Beard Award-winning Indigenous restaurant, chef Sean Sherman's menu often includes edible evergreens — with spruce tips, balsam fir and juniper berries flavoring zero-proof cocktails and dishes like cedar and maple baked beans, which also incorporates hemlock (the edible evergreen, not the poisonous root).
A few years ago, British food writer Julia Georgallis came up with the idea for an annual evergreen supper club, and even turned the recipes into a 2020 book called "How to Eat Your Christmas Tree."
Here in the Twin Cities, Wesserle's evergreen foraging and cooking classes have become quite popular. During a Dec. 7 virtual class hosted by the American Swedish Institute, Wesserle demonstrated how to prepare white pine tea. She's also teaching budding foragers how to source and make juniper butter in an upcoming in-person workshop in ASI's kitchen.
After both classes quickly sold out, Erin Swenson-Klatt, the institute's food and handcraft programs coordinator, decided to add another virtual evergreen class to the calendar in February.
"Foraging for wild foods is an important cultural practice in Sweden, so it was important to ASI that we could cover this topic in our Nordic Table cooking programs," Swenson-Klatt said. "However, trying out foraging for the first time can feel intimidating because the rules and plants are specific to wherever you live. We really appreciate having a local expert like Maria."
During this month's virtual class, Wesserle gave a quick course on how to identify evergreens — sharing tips about where they grow, which ones are native to Minnesota, and her secrets for keeping them straight.
"W-h-i-t-e has five letters, and white pine needles are in bundles of five. White pine is generally safe so it's a good one for you to play around with and experiment with," she said.
Teas and tinctures made with some of the other pine varieties aren't recommended during pregnancy, she explained, and yew is poisonous. She went on to show how to identify yew, with its red berries and pointy-tipped needles.
She also got out a knife and wooden cutting board to demonstrate how to chop and prepare white pine needles for a vinegar infusion and to make a tea that would be ready to sip at the end of the class.
To make the tea, Wesserle simmered chopped needles in water until the color changed to a lighter, olive green before straining.
"We're actually going to bring it to a boil and simmer it for a little bit. That will just help pull out the more camphorous, resinous qualities of the white pine that make it good for cold and flu symptoms, particularly to soothe sore throats," she said.
Wesserle asked the class if anyone following along at home had gathered white pine needles beforehand to cook along with her. Several students had attempted a little urban foraging, but the white pines they found either had branches that were out of reach or were in someone else's yard.
"That's a common problem. White pines are very tall and the branches are often very high," she sympathized. Private yards are an easier problem to tackle.
"You can ask. I've definitely been the weirdo knocking on people's doors and asking about picking their mulberries, or their raspberries, or their apples," Wesserle said. "Almost always, people say yes."