4 Wild Winter Teas and a Chocolate Drink

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Wild winter teas

Make wild winter tea with black birch twigs, white spruce needles, white pine needles, or spicebush twigs

I love plants, especially wild plants. I love them in all seasons, but in winter, there are no lush greens, no sweet berries, and no rich nuts, so we foragers are in much the same boat as wild herbivores, like rabbits and deer. With a few exceptions, we’re limited to browsing the buds, twigs, and evergreen leaves of trees and shrubs. Fortunately, some of these are good for making tea. Each of these 4 wild winter teas is of excellent value, whether for health benefits, flavor, or both.

Not a dedicated tea drinker? Nor am I. For me, it’s more about the fun of finding and harvesting edible plants from the frozen landscape. It helps me relate to the lean times that wildlife face during winter, and it also hones my plant identification skills.

Note: Be sure to double and triple check the identity of any plant before eating it. It’s best to consult authoritative texts and confirm with a wild plants expert.


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Four Wild Winter Teas

There’s nothing set in stone about the quantities used in these recipes. For safety’s sake, I tend use less plant matter than I’ve seen in other recipes for wild tea, and the quantities I used for one cup of tea caused me no untoward side effects. Your mileage may vary, however, so use common sense and try a little at a time, as you would with any new food.

Pine needle tea

It’s all over the internet that pine needles contain several times more vitamin C than oranges and lemons, and some sites describe pine needle tea as delicious. Healthful, maybe, but the flavor isn’t exactly a hit at our house. Honey improved it somewhat. But go ahead and try it. Pine needles are free, and it takes just a few minutes to make the tea.

If pine needle tea really is high in vitamin C, it’s something to file away in your brain, should the world as we know it suddenly cease to exist. But as a skeptic of just about everything, I had to ask how true that is. The answer is that it depends . The vitamin C content of conifer leaves depends on the species of conifer, and varies by season. And, the amount of vitamin C you can extract from the needles depends on the method of extraction. I’ve not been able to find a study showing exactly how much vitamin C is in a cup of tea made with a given quantity of leaves of any conifer, using the ordinary home method of steeping the leaves in hot water. So, I really don’t know how the vitamin C content of pine needle tea compares to that of a cup of orange juice.

However, the famous story about pine needle tea curing scurvy (vitamin C deficiency), suggests that it must contain a substantial amount of vitamin C.  This took place in the 1500’s among the crew of French explorer Jacques Cartier in Canada. The men became seriously ill with symptoms of what is now known to be scurvy. Upon recommendation by the Iroquois, they were successfully treated with a tea made from the bark and leaves of a conifer the Iroquois  called “Annedda”. We don’t know the true identity of this tree, but white pine (Pinus strobus) and white spruce (Picea glauca) are both possibilities. Both are now known to be high in vitamin C.

So here’s how I made my tea with needles from white pine:

  • 1/2 inch wad of pine needles from white pine, Pinus strobus (enough needles to hold in a bunch that’s 1/2 inch thick)
  • 1 cup water
  • honey or sugar to taste
  1. Bring water to a boil, and pour it into a mug containing the needles.
  2. Let steep at room temperature for 10-15 minutes.
  3. Strain out the needles, and stir in sugar or honey to taste.

I imagine you would get more vitamin C if you crushed or chopped the needles, or if you used more of them, but then the flavor would be a lot stronger.

Spruce tea

White spruce, Picea glauca, might have been the tree, or one of the trees, used by the Iroquois for its vitamin C content (see above). Spruce needle tea tastes better than pine needle, as long as you don’t let it steep for too long, and don’t boil the water while it steeps. Doing either of those things makes it taste the way cat urine smells. Not pleasant. However, a brief steep gives a somewhat pleasant tea, greatly improved by a bit of honey.

I have read that the pale, young spruce tips of spring make a better tea. That may be true, but, quite frankly, I have no interest in making it in spring, when far better wild and local foods are in season. For me, spruce tea shall remain an occasional winter beverage. And, if I’m ever hopelessly lost in the Northwoods, I’ll make this tea if I can find white spruce, for it tastes much better than white pine tea.

  • 1 tbsp needles from white spruce, Picea glauca
  • 1 cup water
  • About 1 tsp sugar or honey, or more, if desired
  1. Bring water to a boil, and pour it into a mug containing the needles.
  2. Let steep at room temperature for 10-15 minutes.
  3. Strain out the needles, and stir in sugar or honey to taste.

Spicebush tea

Spicebush, Lindera benzoin, is one of my all time favorites, among both wild and domestic plants. Native to eastern North America, this shrub is found in moist forests. Scratching the twigs helps you confirm its identity, for it releases a very pleasant citrusy scent. It makes a delightful tea that needs no sweetener.

I make the tea from chopped twigs, but crushed or chopped spicebush berries or leaves can also be used. However, I never collect spicebush berries from the wild, because they are a great favorite of wildlife, they are necessary for the plant to reproduce, and I have never seen them produced in abundance. I never harvest what is scarce. (Read my post on responsible foraging behavior here.)

Spicebush tea is said to have a range of health benefits, from alleviation of cold symptoms to relief from intestinal disorders. I do not know how well these medicinal properties have been studied, but this tea is worth drinking even if it has no health benefits.

  • 1 tbsp of 1/4 inch long twigs of spicebush
  • 1 cup water
  1. Bring water to a boil, and pour it into a mug containing the chopped twigs.
  2. Let steep, covered, at room temperature for 10-15 minutes.
  3. Enjoy as is, or add sweetener if desired.

Wintergreen tea made from birch twigs

Both black birch (Betula lenta) and yellow birch (Betula alleghaniesis) contain the same wintergreen flavored substance that the little plant called wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) has: methyl salicylate. This volatile organic compound is sometimes said to evaporate off when the plant parts are steeped in hot water. By the time you drink it, I’ve read, the wintergreen flavor will be nearly gone. However, I’ve found that it retains the wintergreen flavor even if I let the mug sit around for a few hours. And the tea is quite nice without any sweetener at all, but add honey or sugar if you like.

Methyl salicylate is chemically similar to acetyl salicylate, or aspirin. These two compounds have similar medicinal properties. They’re both also toxic in large enough quantities. So don’t go crazy and consume cup after cup of this tea. I have no way of knowing how much methyl salicylate is in one cup, but it’s probably much less than the 7 grams of pure oil of wintergreen that can kill an adult. Don’t use more twigs than stated in the recipe, limit yourself to one cup a day, and drink at your own risk. Read more about methyl salicylate here.

I discussed identification of both black and yellow birch in more depth here.

  • 2-3 tbsp of 1/4 inch lengths (or even smaller) of black birch or yellow birch twigs (thin, wiry twigs work better than thicker twigs)
  • 1 cup water
  • honey or sugar to taste, if desired
  1. Bring water to a boil and pour into mug containing snipped twigs.
  2. Steep, covered, at room temperature for 20-25 minutes.
  3. Rewarm slightly, or enjoy as is. If you rewarm it, some of the wintergreen flavor might evaporate off.

Bonus: Chocolate wintergreen drink with black birch

I had high hopes for this, anticipating a wonderfully minty chocolate drink. However, the wintergreen flavor is very mild. Maybe the chocolate overpowers the wintergreen flavor, or maybe the flavor doesn’t steep as well into chocolate milk as it does into plain water. In any case, what you get is a chocolate drink with just a hint of cool wintergreen. It’s good, but not the out of this world flavor I had hoped for. Next time, I will try using more birch twigs, but for the record, here is what I actually did:

  • 3 tbsp of 1/4 inch lengths of twigs (thin, wiry twigs are best)
  • 8 oz milk
  • 2 tbsp unsweetened cocoa
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  1. Heat milk to hot but not boiling
  2. Add cocoa and sugar and stir till dissolved
  3. Add black birch twigs and steep, covered, for 30 minutes at room temperature
  4. Strain out twigs
  5. Drink as is, or rewarm slightly. Don’t rewarm too much, or you may cause the wintergreen flavor to evaporate out of the tea.
Wild winter teas

Make wild winter tea with black birch twigs, white spruce needles, white pine needles, or spicebush twigs

Sources

  1. Arginine, Scurvy, and Cartier’s “Tree of Life”
  2. Common Spicebush
  3. Seasonal Variation in the Antioxidant System of Eastern White Pine Needles
  4. The Virtual Nature Trail at Penn State New Kensington

What’s your favorite wild tea? Share your experiences and ask your questions in a comment below!


Comments

4 Wild Winter Teas and a Chocolate Drink — 10 Comments

  1. love the Wild Winter Teas blog!!!
    Funnily, in a New England Flora class, I had heard the same ‘scurvey’ story, but the plant was Arborvitae…tree of life!!!
    Keep writing Janet!
    I’m learning so much from you!

  2. Pingback: 4 Wild Winter Tea and A Chocolate Drink | Inspired Manna

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