Invariably, without fail, right on time: early spring in the Colorado Rockies brings on unbearable cabin fever! Before I know it, I’m outside, snow up to my knees, in a tee-shirt, chewing on pine needles. “Aaaahhh…blessed green-ness!” In fact, early spring – when the sap begins to rise – is the best time to harvest pine needles. They are younger, brighter, more tender and truly sweeter. Do it now if you have a friendly pine tree in your midst.
Because of the long winters and short growing season where I live, and also due to the great abundance of healthy Lodgepole Pines on my property, much of my herbal experimentation involves the aromatic and nutritious qualities of Pinus. Before proceeding, I’d like to share a “word of caution” regarding inedible varieties of Pine: Ponderosa, Norfolk Pine and Yew. As a general rule, highly aromatic herbs including Pine are not recommended for women who are pregnant or breast-feeding. (I am indebted to the excellent research and presentation on “The Surprising Health Benefits of Pine” at Medicinal Food News.) Today I am proud to share with you my first successful batch of Pine Needle Vinegar, and my “Evergreen” Vinaigrette a la Provence.
Why make Pine Needle Vinegar?
Infused vinegars are beautiful, aromatic, and unique. Anything and everything made with pine needles (please note, we’re not talking about the essential oil here) is high in Vitamins A and C – five times the amount in a lemon! Pine Needle Tea is the quickest way to internalize the vitamins and minerals readily available in a pine needle (as well as chewing on a fresh one) – but I find the infused vinegar to be far more delightful.
One more thing about Pine Needle Vinegar – many folks claim it tastes just like Balsamic Vinegar. Maybe this depends on the type of base vinegar? Cooking or not cooking? If I really wanted the syrupy-sweetness of Balsamic I would use that as my base or try adding sugar to the mix. My recipe gives you a green-orange vinegar that does have a hint of sugar (this could be my mind expecting sweetness, too) behind a brightening tang.
Ingredients & Equipment
The ingredients are amazingly simple: Pine needles and Bragg’s Apple Cider Vinegar. The ORIGINAL ACV “with the mother” – nothing less will do. Many Pine Needle Vinegar recipes require cooking the cider vinegar before pouring it on top of the pine needles…I see absolutely no benefit in this. Heat kills “the mother” in raw, unfiltered, organic Apple Cider Vinegar like only Bragg’s makes. Just like sourdough needs it’s starter, and yogurt needs it’s cultures, real Apple Cider Vinegar needs the “mother” enzymes to “activate”. Without it, you’ve just got sour apple juice.
Another note on adding heat – when you pour hot liquid over any highly aromatic herb such as pine, sage, or rosemary – you immediately smell the delightful essential oils releasing and dissipating into the air around you. While this makes for a good air freshener, the essential oils are highly unstable and will disintegrate within minutes. Instead, I prefer to “capture” the anti-bacterial-fungal-microbial goodness hidden deep within the pine needle within this amazing homemade vinegar. Follow my instructions carefully, and you can’t go wrong.
As far as your equipment goes, make sure everything is absolutely sterile and dry:
- Mortar and pestle
- Glass jar with plastic lid (or cheese-cloth and a rubber band for covering)
- Strainer and more cheese cloth
- Another clean jar with a plastic lid (for the finished product)
Step 1: Ask the tree for permission
“May I use your needles for my vinegar?”
“Oh, no, darling. My needles are too old and dry. Go ask the younger Lodgepole down the hill – her branches sway low to the ground, easy for you to reach, and her sap sparkles in the early morning sun against the Spring snow.”
“Thank you, Grandmother Pine.”
Do you know a sacred tree nearby? Grandmother Pine is the largest and oldest Lodgepole on our five-acre North-facing hillside in the Colorado Rockies. She protects us, and watches over us. I feel my Mother’s spirit in her roots. She pointed me to some branches that were soft and pliable, with bright green needles radiating out on every side. Abundant, accessible, “yes” she said. Have my branches for your medicine.
Step 2: Collect young branches
Branches that are young and supple are easier to tear off (gently, please!). I take only what I need to fill one quart-jar with pine needles. Please don’t decimate a whole branch or tree while you are harvesting. Sing to her while you pluck,
“Now I walk in beauty. Beauty is before me. Beauty is behind me. Above and below me.” (From the album Fire Within by Libana)
Step 3: Remove pine needles
Sometimes you can get all the needles off with a quick pull against the grain of the branch. Other times, you’ll have to pluck them off one-by-one. Enjoy the process, take your time. Place needles into a large colander, wash the needles with snow and give them a good shake. Leave empty branches reverently at the foot of the tree.
Step 4: Wash needles and pat dry
I already washed my pine needles with fresh snow, but if you don’t happen to have fresh snow where you’re harvesting it’s a good idea to run them under some cold water, brushing off bark, dirt, and debris. Lay the needles out on paper towels (or clean dish towels) and gently pat them dry.
Here’s where I add an extra step: working with Pine Needles is not as easy as it looks. It takes a little coaxing to get the flavor from deep within the needles to the surface where they can mix well in a vinegar, or even when making tea or tinctures for that matter. Take a pinch of pine needles and grind them in your mortar and pestle just until you can smell the essential pine oils on your hands. Now we’re working with pine!
Step 5: Fill the jar
Transfer the fragrant, gently bruised needles directly into the jar. Pack them as tightly as possible, and feel free to laugh at yourself when a whole bunch springs out of the jar and onto the floor. “An offering for Grandmother Pine – she’ll have a good laugh at this one!” Top off with Bragg’s cool, raw, unfiltered, organic Apple Cider Vinegar. Poke out the air bubbles by sliding a chopstick down the inside of the jar and top off with ACV again.
Step 6: Cover Jar
This time I used wax paper and a rubber band for want of a proper plastic lid for my mason jar. Cheese cloth is too permeable for my tastes…unless you then also cover the cheese cloth with a plastic lid or a board. (You’ll notice in the pictures I closed a metal lid over the wax paper which did give me a negligible amount of corrosion.)
Step 7: Label and store
Always put the name and date of your project on the jar! Store in a dark, cool, dry and level place four to six weeks. Some hard-core herbalists insist on putting tinctures and vinegars up at the new moon to engage the increasing energy, the energy of potential and of alchemy. While I always harvest in the morning, some projects can’t wait for the next moon cycle. Just an added bit-o-magik for my witchy friends.