Spruce tips (Picea spp.) are an awesome spring-time treat! The new growth of the tree, they are tender, bright green, and pack a citrusy punch. The flavor is really surprising; it seems more like something you would find in a tropical climate than in the cold north. However, it doesn't last long— as the needles grow older, they harden and develop their characteristic resinous taste. They are probably out of season in most areas right now, but if you live in a colder climate (like me!), chances are you can still find tips that are young enough to pick.
Harvesting Spruce Tips
First of all, the species you harvest doesn't necessarily need to be a spruce. Pines (Pinus spp.), firs (Abies spp.), Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), and eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) also work. Just make sure you're not picking any yew (Taxus spp), which is deadly poisonous! (For more information on identifying yew, see my previous blog post.)
However, that is not to say that they all taste equally good! I recommend picking a couple tips first and nibbling on them to test their flavor. I have read that white spruce (Picea glauca) is the tastiest of the spruces, and I can say from personal experience that they are very delicious indeed! But I haven't harvested all the available species, so I can't say for certain which is the best. Regardless, if it tastes bad, there's obviously no point to picking more.
When you do decide to harvest, make sure it's from a healthy tree. The tips represent the entire growth for the season, so once you pick them, those twigs won't grow any more until the next year. This can add harmful stress to a tree that is unwell. If the tree is healthy, be sure to pick in moderation, so you don't stunt its growth too much. And never pick the leading tip (the vertical stem at the top of the tree) because that will deform the tree.
The citrusy flavor of spruce tips lends itself well to infusions. These could be maple syrup, honey, vinegar, or hard alcohol (80 to 90 proof). Whatever medium you choose, follow these simple steps to make your infusion!
To start, gently wash and dry your tips. Make sure they are completely dry, as moisture can cause the infusion to mold. You will need equal parts clean, dry tips to maple syrup (or other medium.) Place the tips in a sterilized glass jar, then pour in the syrup. Make sure that it completely covers the needles. Run a clean, sterile, non-metal utensil through the mixture to dislodge any air bubbles. Screw on the sterilized lid and add a label with the contents of the jar and the date. Store in the refrigerator if using maple syrup; honey, vinegar, and hard alcohol can be kept in a cool, dark cabinet. Let sit four to six weeks, tasting periodically to test the flavor. When it's ready, strain into another sterilized glass jar and put a new label on it. For best flavor, use within 6 to 12 months.
*Note: if using vinegar and a metal lid, make sure to put plastic wrap or wax paper between the lid and the jar. Otherwise the acid from the vinegar will corrode the metal.
How you use your spruce tip infusion will depend on the medium you chose. However, it is generally delicious in cocktails, sauces, and dressings. Sweet infusions are delicious on ice cream, Belgium waffles, yogurt, and many other foods! And of course you can bake with them as well. The internet is chock-full of spruce tip recipes, and— as always— I encourage you to experiment!