Spruce – Surprisingly Edible Abundant Evergreen Tree

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Norway Spruce (Picea abies)
Norway Spruce (Picea abies). (Photo By: UnreifeKirsche / Wikimedia Commons)

Spruce Trees (Genus:Picea) are a very abundant tree across the globe, especially in northern areas.

In the united states a common non-native species is the Norway Spruce(Picea Abies), and two of our native American species are White Spruce(Picea glauca) and Colorado Spruce(Picea pungens).  Spruce Trees are a needled evergreen tree that range in mature height from only a few feet to over 100′.  The edibility of spruce trees is often unknown and their importance as a food source  often underestimated.   Spruce was a staple food for many Native American tribes.

Edibility and Culinary Use

Spruce has many similarities to Eastern White Pine.  I refer to these as hidden wild edibles because they are so large in size and common, but their edible components are not.  Spruce has no berries, or tubers, or large leaves, so why is it such and important edible plant?  Because it gives foragers something to harvest in the winter.  The needles are edible and most commonly used to make a hot tea. The tea has a surprisingly good flavor, it is bitter, resinous, and slightly sweet but most people end up adding additional sweetener. Don’t boil but steep the tea to retain it’s nutritional value.  Spruce also has edible inner bark, as unpleasant as this sounds a number of Native American tribes ate this inner bark throughout the winter to prevent starvation.  In fact all parts of the tree are non-toxic.  Native Americans were creative in their use of Spruce, eating any parts of the tree that they could prepare to be palatable including young green or reddish pine cones.  I have been eating the young cones, at first the taste was overwhelmingly strong and bitter, but I have been eating a little at a time, my taste buds have changed and now i enjoy and look forward to that time of year.  I also enjoy chewing on the new growth in the spring, it is not too resinous, and it is soft enough to chew.   The male pollen cones can be eaten in the spring, they have a mild taste and texture ranges from dense and moist to light and fluffy depending on what stage of development they are harvested in.

Health Benefits

Spruce and Pine have very high amounts of vitamin C.  That’s one of the primary reasons it’s so important in the Native American diet.  Spruce can be an effective medicinal plant acting especially well on the respiratory system. The reason you don’t boil the needle tea is because the vitamin C is sensitive to heat and may break down into other components.  It is a good idea to boil the water and pour it on top of the needles.

Key ID Features

Notice the non-flat pointed needles coming out of the branch in all directions
Norway Spruce (Picea abies) Notice the non-flat pointed needles coming out of the branch in all directions (Photo By: Greg Hume)

Way too often the word “pine” is used to refer to all needled evergreen trees or all conifers.  The fact is that Pines are a certain genus and Spruce is a different genus, there are a number of other genuses of needled evergreens.  Spruce are a little difficult to distinguish from Fir Trees but neither is toxic.  First of all, all Spruce are conifers, meaning that they produce cones, but not all conifers are Spruce. Pine, fir and others are also conifers. Spruce cones are very visible throughout the growing season but primarily in the fall and range in size from about 3″-6″ in length.  Young Spruce cones can be green or reddish.  The primary way to tell Spruce trees apart from Pines is that they lack fascicles bunching the  spruce needles together, spruce needles grow directly from the small branches.  The photo shows a close up of the spruce needles, and you will need to look really closely because firs and douglasfirs(not a true fir) have the same conical shape and look very similar. The following features of the spruce needles will distinguish spruce from other conifers: the needles are not flat, they are 3-dimensional and usually pretty stiff, the needles have a point at the end which is painfully sharp on some species like Colorado Spruce (Picea pungens), the spruce needles grow directly from the small new stems, they are not grouped together like pines and true cedars are,  the base of each spruce needle has a very small brown connection to the stem, needle colors range from bluish to dark green.

Cautions

The highly toxic Yew(Genus: Taxus) plant could potentially look like a spruce to the untrained eye and grows side by side in many environments, but in reality it is quite different and is not commonly mistaken for a spruce.  These  are some of the features of the yew plant that can distinguish it from spruce: Needles are flat and bendable with a dark top and a lighter colored bottom side, no cones present(yews produce  red fruit with a single seed), needles grow primarily laterally from the stem(concentrated on the sides of the stem, not top or bottom), mature height of a yew is around 20′ but usually they are less than 10′, overall shape of tree/shrub may or may not be conical naturally and is sometimes pruned into a conical shape. The yew is a common landscape shrub, so ask around and see if you can find one then learn its features. Make sure you are 100% possitive that you are not foraging from a yew thinking it is a spruce.

Colorado Spruce (Picea pungens) young female and mature male cones. also edible young shoots
Colorado Spruce (Picea pungens) young female and mature male cones, also edible young shoots (Photo By: Jrosenberry1)

Conclusion

Just learning to identify spruce trees was very interesting to me because many people don’t know the difference between spruce, pine, and fir.  When I found out about its edible and medicinal properties I started viewing the plant as a much more versatile wild edible.  I often wondered how Native Americans got their vitamin C. Many people believe vitamin C primarily comes from citrus fruits, and most Native Americans did not have citrus fruit. Spruce Tea is delicious and the needles can be harvested any time of year. The soft edible shoots, male and female cones are a great treat to nibble on in the spring.  As your taste buds slowly adjust you’ll enjoy this plant raw or cooked and realize how important it was for Native Americans.


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