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Did You Ever Eat a Pine Tree?

by Euell Gibbons
Yummy. Do I detect a hint of blue spruce?
In the trunk of a large tree the only living part is some layers of live cells outside the wood proper and inside the bark-called the sapwood, the cambium, and the inner bark. All these layers put together may be only a fraction of an inch thick.

The living layers of cambium and inner bark on many kinds of trees have often been used in medicine, in home remedies, and even as a source of food. In 1732, when Linnaeus, the father of modern botany, was tramping through the Lapland, he reported that the Lapps were largely subsisting on "fir bark." This was from the tree known to us as Scotch pine.

The Lapps removed the brown outer layer and hung the strips of white inner bark under the eaves of their barns to dry. If food was plentiful the next winter, this bark was fed to their dogs and cattle, and was reported to be very fattening, but if other foods were scarce, the Lapps would grind this dried bark and make a famine bread of it, which was very nutritious, but, to Linnaeus's taste, not very palatable.

It is not usually realized how much the American Indians formerly depended on tree barks for food. The eastern Indians favored the barks from the pine family, especially that from the white pine, although the inner barks of other trees, such as black birch and slippery elm, were relished.

The eastern white pine is one of the largest forest trees found from Canada south to Georgia and west to Iowa. The bark is greenish and smooth on young trees, becoming brown and furrowed on large, old ones. The needles are a grayish blue-green in color, soft and flexible with no prickles or points, three to five inches long, growing five in a cluster a valuable recognition feature.

Fresh From Your Local Sawmill

I had no trouble finding white pine bark with which to experiment. I simply inquired at a country sawmill where white pine had been recently cut, drove where they directed me, and peeled the bark from the stumps. The inner bark must be separated from the dry, outer bark. I tried boiling this fresh inner bark as the Indians did, and it reduced to a glutinous mass from which the more bothersome wood fibers were easily removed. I'm sure it was wholesome and nutritious, but in the area of palatability it left much to be desired. It is said that the Indians cooked this bark with meat so I tried boiling some with beef, but when I tasted it I felt that instead of making the bark edible I had merely ruined a good piece of beef.

I imagine that one who grew up eating this food, as the Indian children did, would find it good.

I wanted some dried bark for herbal remedies and further food experiments, so I hung some of my strips of white pine bark in a warm attic room until it was thoroughly dry. It still wouldn't grind very well, so I gave it an additional drying in an oven with the door propped slightly open so moisture could escape. The heat caused the bark to swell slightly, and it became a great deal more friable and grindable. The redried bark was cut into small pieces with a hatchet, and ground, about a cupful at a time, in the electric blender. Most recipes for home remedies made of this inner bark call for coarsely ground bark, so I put the pulverized bark through a flour sifter, using the fine part that passed through the sieve for food experiments and the coarser stuff for cough syrup.

The fine powder was a weak yellowish-orange color with a slight odor of turpentine and a taste that was at first very sweet and mucilaginous, but was quickly followed by a disagreeable bitterness and astringency. There is no doubt about this material's being nutritious. It contains sugar and starch, and, according to two U.S. Government sources, it is rich in vitamin C.

I hoped the bitterness and astringency would disappear on cooking but, alas, these tastes are very persistent, and I can't say that the bread I made with it was an unqualified success. I mixed the fine powder half-and-half with wheat flour and followed a recipe for yeast-raised rolls. They were of good texture and perfectly edible, but they also had a disagreeable bitter taste and more than a hint of turpentine flavor about them, and I felt the rolls would have been better without the white pine flour.

Dried white pine bark is still a valuable ingredient in cough remedies. Its medicinal properties are expectorant and diuretic. It is most often prescribed in the title role of Compound White Pine Syrup. This is a real herbal mixture and a good illustration of the fact that modern medicine does not disdain herbal remedies if they are effective.

Candied White Pine

New Englanders formerly candied the peeled new shoots of white pine, gathered before they became woody. I tried some of these peeled tender shoots, boiling them until tender, draining off that cooking water and then boiling them for 20 minutes in a syrup made of equal parts of sugar and water. The syrup was then drained off, and the candied shoots were partly dried, then rolled in granulated sugar.

This tasted a little more civilized than the foods I had been trying, but even this candy was nothing about which I could get very excited. I would have considered it a pretty good tasting cough medicine, and it would probably help control a cough, but I'm sure I have eaten much better confections.

White pine needles have been tested for nutritional benefits, and they have good yields of vitamin A and about 5 times as much vitamin C as found in lemons. Had those old-timers who used to suffer from scurvy every winter when fresh vegetables were unavailable used an infusion of white pine needles instead of tea or coffee, they would never have been touched by scurvy.

Pine Needle Tea
Pine Needle Tea, made by pouring 1 pint of boiling water over 1 ounce of fresh white pine needles chopped fine, is about the most palatable pine product I have tasted. With a squeeze of lemon and a little sugar it is almost enjoyable, and it gives a great feeling of virtue to know that as you drink it you are fortifying your body with two essential vitamins in which most modern diets are deficient.

I have high respect for the medicinal and nutritional properties of white pine products, but you must have gathered by now that I care very little for their taste. Nevertheless, the economic hazards of writing for a living being what they are, I intend to bear in mind that these lordly trees can furnish substantial and nutritious, if somewhat ill-tasting, food in times of need, but the emergency will have to be pretty dire before I consume any large quantity of it. My current taste in food-gathering poses no threat of extinction to the white pine.

Note: The information in this article is intended for entertainment purposes only. Consult your personal doctor or herbalist before consuming any of the preparations mentioned in this article.

Excerpted from Stalking the Healthful Herbs by Euell Gibbons, with permission of the publisher.