5 Edible Trees and Some of Their Medicinal Qualities

Edible Trees

My previous post on the edible qualities of maple trees surprised and interested a few people. This post discusses 5 more trees that have edible and medicinal qualities. These include birch, spruce, pine, oak, and tamarack.

Always consult a healthcare practitioner before trying to self-medicate using any kind of plant. This is especially true if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. Pine needles, for example, may induce a miscarriage.

It’s also important that you forage sustainably and correctly identify tree species. You can consult a reputable field guide or local expert. I have a post about foraging safely and sustainably.

Trees are more of a survival food than something to fill your plate with. Eating too much of their leaves and bark could cause an upset stomach. Unless you are in a survival situation, I recommend using trees to make teas and syrups. Spring buds are also easy to digest and are great candied. The pollen from catkins is also easy to digest and full of nutrients.

A lot of the information for this post was gathered from Robbie Hanna Anderman’s book The Healing Trees: The Edible and Herbal Qualities of Northeastern Woodland Trees. The book contains a lot of information about the traditional use of trees. Also check out the Peterson Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants by Lee Peterson and the Peterson Guide to Eastern Trees by George Petrides and Janet Wehr.

1. White Birch / Paper Birch

White birch is a common tree throughout most of Canada. It is easily identifiable from its white papery bark that peels easily from mature trees.

Birch Catkins: You can eat birch catkins fresh from the tree but many find raw catkins too bitter. To cut the bitter taste, you can add them to foods like soups and stews. You can also use them to make tea. Try drying catkins and making them into a powder to add to smoothies and yogurt. They contain protein, vitamin A, and trace minerals.

Leaves: Birch leaves should be foraged when they are young and tender. You can eat them raw or cooked. According to Anderman, “birch leaves have been actively used to ease bronchial mucosa during the winter. This impairment in breathing is often cause by too much wood smoke, too much dry air, etc. A tincture of the fresh leaves made in early summer would likely be the best effort toward planning ahead…Or leaves could be gathered, dried, and stored for winter’s challenges.”

Bark: The inner bark/cambium layer of birch trees is edible. Traditionally, First Nations ground the bark into flour to bake bread and thicken soups. I’ve also read that you can cut the inner bark into thin strips and boil it to make noodles to add to soup. 

Sap: There is a lot of hype around birch sap in the health industry right now. I’ve seen it marketed alongside coconut water with many of the same health claims. While a lot of these health claims are questionable, birch sap is edible. Historically, First Nations and French Canadians drank the sap and boiled it to make syrup. It takes a 100 gallons of sap to produce 1 gallon of birch syrup. In comparison, it takes 40 gallons of maple sap to produce a gallon of maple syrup. This is why birch syrup isn’t as popular as maple syrup. Survival Lilly has a video demonstrating how to harvest birch sap.

2. White Spruce

White spruce grows in cold climates. The Government of British Columbia’s website describes the needles as “four-sided, sharp, and stiff” and “arranged spirally on twigs.”

Buds: I like the taste of spruce buds fresh off the tree. When you are harvesting them, make sure you are gathering the new growth. In the springtime, new growth will look bright green in contrast to the darker older needles. Spruce buds are tender and high in vitamin C, potassium, and magnesium. I wrote a previous post about using spruce buds to make a strawberry, spruce, and lime iced tea.

Needles: You can also use spruce needles to make tea. According to Anderman, spruce needle tea could have beneficial anti-cold and flu properties.

Bark: Like the birch, spruce cambium can be dried and ground into a flour. It is high in vitamin C.

Resin: You can use spruce resin as chewing gum. It’s more difficult than it sounds. It takes practice to find the right consistency of resin and you have to learn to form it into gum in your mouth. The resin has to be hard and it will initially break apart as you chew. If you continue chewing it, it will eventually form into a piece of gum.

3. White Pine

When people are first learning to identify trees, they sometimes confuse pine and spruce. They are actually quite different in outward appearance but they share a lot of the same edible and medicinal qualities.

Buds: You can eat pine buds. They are very similar in taste to spruce buds. I find them a bit more bitter. Again, make sure you are collecting them when they are tender and bright green.

Needles: Pine needles can be eaten in the spring as buds, but you can use them year-round for tea. They contain vitamins A, C, K, and B. They actually have more vitamin C than an orange! Do not drink pine needle tea if you are pregnant. It has been known to induce miscarriage in some animals.

Catkins: Male pine cones, catkins, are also edible. They are easy to recognize once you know what you are looking for. You can find them on the lower branches of pine trees.

Pollen: Catkins are full of pollen in the spring. This pollen contains vitamins, minerals, and essential amino acids. Anderman describes how to harvest the pollen, “you can go out when the pollen is about to fall, likely around mid-April. Place a bag over the ends of pine branches containing the male cones / catkins and gently tap the branch so the pine pollen falls into the bag.” Pollen can be a severe allergen so do be cautious.

Seeds: Female pine cones contain seeds that are sweet and edible. They ripen in and are rich in potassium, vitamin K, iron, and magnesium.

4. White Oak

White oaks are tall trees. Their leaves are lobed and their bark ranges in colour from white to light grey. Birds and squirrels often depend on their acorns for a high-calorie food source during the fall and winter.

Acorns: White oak acorns are edible, but take some effort to process. Harvest them after they’ve turned brown. You have to shell them and do multiple soakings in boiling water. Soaking helps to reduce the tannin content. That makes them easier to digest and taste less bitter. After soaking, roast them to further cut bitterness and bring out their nutty flavour. Acorns contain B vitamins, manganese, potassium, and zinc.

Acorn shells: Don’t discard those acorn shells! They have useful medicinal properties. According to Anderman, “the shells of acorns are quite full of tannin and can be boiled to a strong tea to make a wash or compress for poison ivy, foot fungus, insect stings, acne, boils and irritated skin. It can also be useful to gargle for cold sores, sore throat, and gum problems.”

Bark: You can also make tea from oak bark. It’s best to do this in the springtime.

5. Tamarack

Tamarack trees are beautiful and easy to identify. They are one of the few deciduous conifers in North America. In the fall, their needles turn a bright yellow colour. They are quite spectacular.

Needles: Like spruce and pine, tamarack needles can be made into a tea. It’s also rich in vitamin C. According to Native Tech, “for headaches, Ojibwe crushed the leaves and bark” of tamarack “and either applied as a poultice or placed on hot stones and the fumes inhaled.”

Bark: You can use tamarack bark for tea.

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