Vitamin C is hiding in white pine needle tea

Bob Dluzen
The Detroit News

Many years ago, when I was in elementary school, I read something about certain Native American communities who would drink tea made out of pine needles.

Even though as a kid I enjoyed unsweetened tea, pine needle tea didn’t sound appetizing to me at all. In my child’s mind it conjured up images of drinking diluted Pine-Sol. I chalked it up as being one of those survival foods that would be consumed only as a last resort. My outlook changed as I got older.

Pine needles contain large amounts of vitamin C, and steeping them in hot water releases the nutrient. The tea provides the complete vitamin C complex, not simply isolated ascorbic acid as you would get in a vitamin C tablet.

Halfway through winter, I felt like I needed a boost of real vitamin C. So, on a gray, blustery day this week, I decided it would be a good time to brew up a batch of white pine needle tea.

I bundled up, went out and trudged through the snow to harvest some pine needles from a white pine growing on the back of our property.

When cutting more than one branch, take them from different parts of the tree to avoid creating a bare spot.

I brought them inside and rinsed them off, then soaked them in a bowl of lukewarm water for an hour or two to loosen up any dust, leftover pollen or other debris that might be adhering to the needles. 

The rinse water was murkier than I expected by the time I poured it off.

A small pile of white pine needles stripped from their twig and ready for chopping.

I dabbed the needles dry, stripped some off from the twigs then chopped them up to give me about a couple of tablespoon’s worth, enough to make two cups. I put it in my tea infusers and poured boiling water over it. 

Coarsely chopping the needles helps release the nutritious compounds.

After five minutes of steeping, some flavor was there. It wasn’t until after 10 minutes that the flavor really developed. To me, the taste has a faint “green'' flavor at first, then it mellows out over time.

When foraging for white pine needles, I suggest you stay away from possible areas of pollution such as roadsides, public parks, parking lots, golf courses, fertilized lawns and other areas that may have pesticides applied to them.

Keep in mind when you make a tea you are making an infusion of the compounds that are present in the  leaves. You don’t want to inadvertently extract toxic chemicals that might be present on the surface of the needles or have been absorbed by the tree’s roots and translocated to the leaves.

I have found that many foraging websites suggest that all species of pines are suitable for making tea and that only the taste is different. However research and university sites point to the fact that, except for white pine, many species of needled evergreen trees contain toxic compounds in lesser or greater amounts.

Some herbalists insist that white pine is the only safe pine to use for tea. Since I like to be on the cautious side, I’m going to stick with just white pine needle tea as I get my daily dose of natural vitamin C.

White pine has five needles growing from a single point.

If you are unsure whether a tree is a white pine, count the number of needles growing out from a single point; five needles in a bunch means its white pine. Here’s a mnemonic to help you remember: five needles in a bunch = five letters in the word “white.”

The plant world that we see around us is hiding more secrets than first meets the eye.