Tea, the antidote to winter's blues

By Tom Seymour | Jan 19, 2018
Photo by: Tom Seymour Chopped pine needles are ready for tea.

We’re well into winter and gardening, except for indoor container gardening and maintaining houseplants, seems so very far off.

It’s true we can’t go out and pick flowers or harvest vegetables. Most of my foraging now falls under the category of “freezer foraging,” or rummaging through the freezer for those carefully preserved wild and domestic goodies put up last year.

What with the recent bouts of arctic cold, there’s not much we can do, except to sit by the fire or heater and sip on hot tea. And believe it or not, despite snow and cold, we can still go outside and harvest fresh tea-making material. Here’s how.

First, the word “tea” does not mean just China tea, the caffeinated kind. "Tea" is a generic word for any hot drink made from plant material. The general recipe for any tea is one tablespoon of dried material or two tablespoons of fresh material to one cup of boiling water. This is adjustable according to taste. Fortunately, we here in Maine have several year-round sources of delicious and nutritious teas.

Evergreen tea

Conifers: pine, hemlock and spruce, all offer pungent and vitamin-filled sources of tea. Let’s consider pine first.

The pine we use to make tea is white pine, the Maine state tree. White pine, Pinus strobus, being ubiquitous, is available to almost everyone anywhere in Maine. White pine is easily identified by its groups of five needles. Five needles correspond to the five letters in the word “white.”

The late, great Euell Gibbons wrote about white pine tea. Gibbons begrudgingly said the stuff didn’t taste too bad. Rarely do I take issue with the master, but here I do. To me, white pine-needle tea has a satisfying, pleasant taste. And people I’ve introduced to the stuff feel likewise.

Besides that, white pine-needle tea contains a high amount of vitamin A, plus five times more vitamin C than is found in lemons. That alone should make the tea more appealing.

Note that on evergreens what we call “needles” are actually leaves and they perform the same function as leaves on deciduous trees. But that’s a fine distinction and makes little difference one way or the other. To gather needles, just grab a handful in one hand and with a jackknife, cut them off at the base. It’s easy to gather a large quantity with little effort.

My favorite recipe for white pine-needle tea dispenses with anything like close measurement. I suggest using a teacup or coffee mug one-third full of fresh needles and then fill with hot water. The needles should be chopped into small pieces first. I use a rounded cutting device called a “slaw cutter.” One of my cutters is from Alaska, where it is used for chopping salmon.

You could also use a knife. Anything to get the needles reduced to small pieces. The reason for this is to expose the greatest amount of plant matter to the water and in so doing, extract the greatest amount of goodness.

Let the tea steep until the water becomes cool enough to sip. I usually don’t remove the spent needles, since they sink to the bottom of the cup anyway.

Try the tea first without any additional ingredients. I enjoy it just plain, but some people like it sweetened with sugar or honey or with a touch of lemon. Either way, pine-needle tea is a tasty and healthful winter treat. I consider it comfort food.

Red spruce

Red spruce, Picea rubens, formerly a natural source of chewing gum, makes a delicious and nutritious tea, with properties similar to white pine.

Harvesting the needles is different from harvesting white pine needles. Red spruce needles are about half an inch long, stiff and prickly. For that reason, I simply snip off branch tips and leave the needles intact. The recipe for this is the same as per white pine needles.

Instead of having a turpentine flavor as some might expect, red spruce-needle tea has a comforting, inviting aroma and flavor, and I can drink many cups of it. For large gatherings it is possible to put a good amount of branch tips in a stock pot, fill with water and simmer on the stove. The taste and aroma will have people coming back for more.

Eastern hemlock

Eastern hemlock, Tsuga Canadensis, a statuesque tree, grows to 70 feet tall. Eastern hemlock is symmetrical in form, and the wood is heavy but strong. Note that eastern hemlock is not related to the hemlock that killed Socrates. His fatal brew was made from a small perennial plant belonging to the carrot family.

Hemlock needles are short and flat; picking them singly is just too tedious. So as with red spruce, just snip or break off the end tips. Hemlock tea was once highly regarded by woodsmen. It was common practice for woodcutters and others who worked in the outdoors to carry a small kettle and a tin cup or two for break time. But instead of coffee, the beverage of choice was hemlock tea. And like the other tree teas, hemlock tea contains lots of vitamins.

The mints

While not something we can go out and pick in winter, many of us save and dry mint for winter use. I enjoy mint so much that in addition to my cultivated spearmint I go out each summer and pick wild mint. This native mint has a higher menthol content than any domestic mint, and as such it is pungent to an extreme.

But either mint will do for a cup of mint tea. And by mint tea I mean just that … plain mint, no caffeinated tea, just straight mint.

Again, some may opt to use a tea ball or other device to contain the loose mint, but since the mint sinks to the bottom of the cup after steeping, it’s easy just to sip the tea down to the dregs and then discard them.

For a queasy stomach, there’s nothing like a cup of steaming mint tea. Also, for me, there is a certain feeling of satisfaction in knowing my mint came from the land, rather than the lab. Too many people have never tasted real mint. All they ever had was mint-flavored offerings, not the real deal at all.

For those who like mint but feel that a little goes a long way, adding some dried mint to a cup of ordinary tea might be the way to go. A few drops of lemon juice takes this concoction from the mundane to the exquisite.

And here you thought that winter was such a dull time. Try adding some tree teas, or perhaps some mint tea, to your daily routine and just maybe you will even look forward to winter in the future. Or maybe not. But at least these wild treats will brighten up the dark times, and that’s important.

Tom’s tips

For those who enjoy wildlife viewing, with the exception of certain songbirds and sea birds, pickings are scarce right now. But anyone with access to trees has a chance to view some interesting creatures just outside the door.

Springtails are minute creatures that swarm on top of the snow at the base of trees on above-freezing, sunny days. Good eyesight is needed and a hand magnifier will help to watch these tiny creatures bouncing and jumping on the snow. Being black, springtails contrast well with the white snow.

Eastern hemlock has short, flat needles. (Photo by: Tom Seymour)
Comments (1)
Posted by: Lynette Walther | Jan 25, 2018 15:13

Enjoyed this column as a long-time fan of pine-needle tea. Now I learn I can make tea from other evergreens. Such a comforting brew for this time of year and a timely piece.



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