The mighty pine tree. The symbol of Maine, our official state tree, a major driver of our economy, and a constant companion in our landscapes and vistas.
When I think of my favorite images and memories of Maine, their backdrop typically features pine trees. If I had to pick just one thing that for me most perfectly captures the essence of Maine it would be floating in a Maine lake or pond, looking up at the ever-present towering pine trees close to the shore. After the winter we just had I’m sure I’m not the only one eager for warm summer days at camp, surrounded by pine trees. This is, after all, the Pine Tree State.
Pine is an excellent source of vitamin C, something we could all probably use after our never-ending winter. Because my husband and I moved to our farm late last summer, we didn’t have time to do much gardening. Although we have no early spring greens to harvest or overwintered parsnips to dig up, we do have many acres of woods with ample trees and plants to forage, including white pine, and with spring finally arriving this week I decided to go out and harvest some pine needles.
(A note of caution: If you do this, be sure you’re harvesting white pine or another safe-to-consume pine species as not all pines or evergreens are edible!)
I feel fortunate to live surrounded by pines in the woods of Palermo. My husband and I grew up in the nearby towns of Windsor and China, respectively; we moved here to Ridge Pond Farm last year after being away more than 20 years. College and careers led us away, but our love for this part of rural Maine brought us back, eager to live lives more connected to this land we know so well.
We found the property we live on by chance and fell for the 1830 farmhouse and barn, farm pond and woods. This will be our first year farming, focusing first on growing medicinal herbs of many kinds, which will go into a line of herbal products, Ridge Pond Herbals.
There are few things I enjoy more than learning about herbs and the many ways to incorporate them into daily life, not so much as medicine for a specific ailment — though many herbs are very good at that — but as health-enhancing members of a huge swath of the plant world we tend to leave out of our diet (with the exception of a handful of culinary herbs).
This is a good time of year to pick pine needles as spring spurs sap movement within the tree. I find that spring-picked needles have the best aroma, but you can harvest them anytime during the year. Infusing the needles with hot water in a tea is the simplest way to enjoy them, particularly if you relish the piney taste.
I had something besides tea in mind, however. I wanted to make an herbal concoction called an oxymel — a rare word for sure, but just a traditional method of combining vinegar and honey with herbs. (Oxymel comes from the Latin oxymeli which means acid and honey).
Both the vinegar and the honey can be infused with the same or different herbs for additional benefit and interesting taste combinations. I decided to make an oxymel from pine-infused honey and pine-infused raw apple cider vinegar.
I picked about a pint jar worth of loosely packed pine needles. When harvesting I don’t want to take too much from any one tree, so I hiked around the woods closest to the house, selectively pinching off young needles from multiple trees.
I already had pine-infused apple cider vinegar on hand, so I used all the needles I collected for a batch of pine-infused honey. This is as simple as putting the needles in the top of a double boiler and covering with honey. I used about a cup and a half of honey from Clover Hill Farm in Smyrna. (Though I generally use the more-local-to-me Swan’s honey from Albion.)
The honey can infuse as long as you want, provided it’s over very low heat; otherwise you’ll end up with pine and honey caramel. I slowly warmed the needles in the honey for several hours in the double boiler to extract maximum goodness.
Once the needles had enough of their honey bath I strained the warm liquid honey from the sticky sweet pine needles. If I didn’t already have pine vinegar on hand I would pick the same amount again of needles and cover with apple cider vinegar for a few weeks. You could speed things along by carefully heating vinegar with the needles, but the fumes can be intense, and I prefer the health benefits of keeping the vinegar raw.
Proportions of honey to vinegar in an oxymel can be whatever suits you. My mix this time was two parts honey to one part vinegar, which makes a tasty, sweet-tart syrup, delicious by the spoonful or mixed with various liquids.
I usually enjoy it by combining a few tablespoons of oxymel in a glass of sparkling or still water, but it can also make a great cocktail mixer if you’re so inclined. This pine oxymel is a delicious, homemade way to boost vitamin C intake and you can’t get any more local than eating from the pine trees in your own woods!
Cari Balbo runs Ridge Pond Farm and Herbals in Palermo with her husband. She writes about their life in an 1830 farmhouse and starting a new farm business at www.ridgepond.com. As a longtime student of herbs and their many benefits, Cari’s mission is to inspire others to integrate more herbs into their daily lives. While she hasn’t yet figured out what her spirit animal is, she’s pretty sure her spirit tree is the white pine.