For nearly twenty years the first weekend in December was the time we took the families out into the mountains of Southern Oregon. It was a full day of sledding, snowball fights and a cookout in the snow. The day was wrapped up by finding our Christmas Tree, usually a beautiful, tall, and full Douglas Fir. After moving back to the Interior of Alaska, My son Jake and I decided to continue the tradition. We hopped in the truck and drove out of town, spending the day driving the highway and back roads, wading through waist deep snow looking for that perfect Christmas Tree. We would discover that the sparse boughs of the black spruce of interior Alaska are nothing like those of the Douglas fir. Eventually, we would find a satisfactory tree, cut it down, haul it home, and with the help of lots of ornaments and tinsel, we celebrated a wonderful Christmas. Our spruce trees here may not be the most aesthetically pleasing of the fir trees but the spruce has so many other incredible uses that it more than makes up for its looks.
From cabin logs to firewood to food to medicine, Alaskan natives, for generations, have taken advantage of all the black spruce has to offer. Today, it’s still the wood of choice for log cabins and firewood in the Interior Alaska Native Villages. However, for a variety of reasons, the other uses of the spruce seem to be practiced far less. Instead, a cabinet full of over-the-counter medications alleviate the same conditions as this amazing tree.
The spruce’s tips can be brewed into a relaxing tea that is high in vitamin C. Folks often put honey, cinnamon, orange or lemon slices in their spruce tea. A wonderfully light jelly can also be made from the tips. (see recipe below) Spruce’s inner bark has also been used as a survival food. The inner bark can be eaten raw, boiled, or dried and ground up into a flour.
We recently enjoyed a wonderful spring day out collecting spruce tips for our tincture. We walked among the trees, wading through the rapidly melting snow that comes with the mid 40’s temperatures. A welcome change from this year’s harsh winter. The sun was out and the sky was such a bright blue. We moved from tree to tree taking a few of the fresh green tips. It was easy to tell the new growth from the old by the difference in the shades of green. We picked a few from each tree and moved on, careful not to take too much from any one tree. Along the way I also picked up from spruce pitch to have on hand as well. We filled our bags and enjoyed the changing of the seasons, some fresh air, and each other before heading back to the house to prepare our remedy.
Food uses of the Black Spruce:
Tea – relaxing and high in Vitamin C – add lemon or orange slices, cinnamon, cloves, or honey
Inner bark – traditional survival foot – eaten raw or boiled or dried and ground into flour
Jelly – The spruce tips make a very light jelly that many say pares well with meats, cheeses and crackers.
Medicinal uses of the Black Spruce:
Tea – Spruce tips have an antiseptic property that helps relieve symptoms related to pneumonia, whooping cough, croup (lung congestion). The tea also a wonderful boost to the immune system.
Steam – Boil the needles and inhale the steam for sinus infections and lung issues.
Syrup/Jelly – Spruce Syrup can be taken to relieve a sore throat. (see recipe below)
Tincture – A couple of droppers full of spruce tip tincture dripped under the tongue can support the immune system when the cold season hits. The tincture can also be applied externally to joints and muscles to ease aches and pains. It has also been shown to reduce inflammation. A few drops of spruce tip tincture in a glass of water can be used as a mouthwash to treat gingivitis.
Salves, Creams, Oils and Poultice – Spruce tips prepared in these manners can be used to treat joint and muscle pain, improve blood circulation, reduce inflammation, and when combined with spruce pitch can treat eczema, boils, and acne.
Tea – The tea of the black spruce’s inner bark can be used to treat sore throat, upset stomach, ulcers and mouth sores.
The spruce pitch has been used as a cough lozenger to relieve the discomfort of a sore throat. Because of the trees antiseptic properties, the sap can also be used to protect wounds, cuts, and abrasions.
Below are our recipes for Spruce tip tincture, syrup and jelly.
So what’s the advantage of a tincture over a tea or decoction? The short answer is that a tincture has a very long shelf life, is highly concentrated, easy to apply, and portable.
Several handfuls of Spruce tips
80 Proof (minimum) alcohol such as vodka
Gather several handfuls of fresh spruce tips and rinse them in cold water to remove any debris.
Place the tips in your jar so the jar is full but not crammed. Add approximately 1 tablespoon of honey and fill the jar with alcohol until spruce tips are fully covered. Seal the jar, give it a good shake and place in a location out of direct sunlight for approximately six weeks. You should shake your jars frequently. We try to do this each day.
At the end of the six weeks, open your jars and strain the mixture to remove the solids. Your tincture will now have a dark color to it. While you can leave it in the jar you used to make the tincture in, we have purchased 2 oz green glass bottles with eye droppers for ours. In either case, be sure to label your bottle with date, what’s inside, and the type and proof of the alcohol used.
There are two methods for making spruce syrup. The first is the traditional method uses equal parts spruce tips and sugar. These are layered in a jar and then placed in a sunny location for 2-4 weeks. This process extracts water from the spruce tips and creates a syrup. At the end of this process, simply strain and bottle. This has an approximate 5 month life when refrigerated.
Another method, for those that just can’t wait a month for their jelly, is to cook it up.
Chop up approximately 2 cups of freshly picked and rinsed spruce tips. Add these to a pot with 2 cups of sugar and 2 cups of water. Bring this slowly to a boil and simmer for 30 minutes. Strain out the spruce tips and bring the mixture to a full boil. Pour into sterilized jars and process them in a water bath for 15 minutes for long-term storage. For immediate use, pour into bottles and store in a cool location or your refrigerator.
3 Cups of Spruce Tips
3 Cups of water
4 Cups of Sugar (or to taste)
1 pkg Pectin
6 Tbsp Lemon Juice
Give your spruce tips a quick wash and remove any debris. Roughly chop the spruce tips before adding them and the water to your pan. Bring to a boil and then remove it from the heat. Allow the tea to steep overnight. The longer your tea steeps the stronger the flavor of your jelly will be. Alternatively, you could simmer for 40 minutes and continue making your jelly.
Strain the tea through a fine sieve or cheesecloth and heat the pot on high heat. Stir in the pectin and lemon juice and bring the mixture to a boil. Add the sugar, whisking to prevent clumping, until it reaches a full boil. Let it boil for two minutes and then remove it from the heat. You can use a spoon to skim off any foam that may develop.
Place a small amount of the jelly on the back of a cool spoon to test. It should have a syrup like consistency. If after cooling on the spoon it is still too thin you can bring it to a boil again and then retest.
Once the jelly has reached your desired consistency, pour it into sterilized jars and then process them in a water bath for five minutes.
This is the first in a series of articles on our foraging. Please subscribe to our blog to get all of our updates and information. You can also subscribe to our podcast here or find us in your favorite podcasting app.
We will be sharing more about the wonderful birch tree including all the details of the birch water that we are collecting right now. Additionally, we will be talking about the cottonwood (balsam poplar), willow, old man’s beard (usnea), Labrador tea, and a plenty more so join us as we continue to take advantage of what our amazing state has to offer us.
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