Everybody seems so into spruce tips—those soft, light-green new tips that grow on spruce (Picea spp.) in spring. I’m still sleuthing about trying to find out where that idea on the culinary use of spruce tips came from. Maybe the cookbook Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine by Chef Rene Redzepi, from the restaurant that all the chefs are raving about? Or, I just read in Ava Chin’s article—an informative read, BTW—that there is a chapter on conifer tips in The Wild Table: Seasonal Foraged Food and Recipes (2010) by Connie Green, so that book is now on my wild edible wish list too.
I couldn’t find many references as to the edibility of spruce tips aside from tea in my own book collection, but in Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Rockies (2000), Kershaw warns: “Always use evergreen teas in moderation. Do not eat the needles or drink the teas in high concentrations or with great frequency,” though she does not say why. Also she indicates that as an emergency food, “tender young shoots, stripped of their needles, can be boiled.” Later she writes that evergreen needle teas are not advised for pregnant women.
I emailed Sam Thayer for his thoughts and he said that as a kid he used to nibble evergreen tips but does not eat them now, though that’s more about not caring for them than any safety concerns. “I don’t know why there’d be a warning,” he wrote. “I suppose a half pound would make you feel icky, but I don’t think anyone eats them in big quantity.”
It was enough for me. Especially as I am not expecting, and I’d already been eating them. Besides, spruce tip beer is a big thing, and spruce is high enough in vitamin C that it is supposedly good for preventing scurvy. So that’s a bonus.
In any case, my friend Butter introduced me to spruce tips last year, and true to her promise they were citrusy, bright lime green, and totally neat. We collected them while they were new and very soft. I dried my first batch and made it into spruce tip salt, per her recipe. That salt is still in use in our kitchen. I’ve used it on homemade potato skins and on some curly dock chips I made a few weeks ago too. It’s a nice twist on normal salt.
At The Wild Garden, Amber Westfall notes that it is best to harvest the tips on the two sides of the three-pronged end of the spruce branch, leaving the center tip—which she explains is the apical meristem—alone so as not to stunt the tree’s growth.
Westfall, who writes that she can usually be found during the growing season “leaning over or kneeling in a big patch of weeds, wearing a silly, floppy hat, often with a big, silly grin on my face” because “Weeds make me happy!,” has a cool recipe for spruce tip dip that involves blending spruce tips, oil, apple cider vinegar, and dandelion flowers. She served it to a class with endive leaves and Romaine hearts for dipping, but also recommends its use as salad dressing or a sauce on fish. I was inspired!
I started to daydream about a creamy dilled yogurt sauce on salmon, so I decided to take the recipe in that direction instead. Of course then we didn’t have any yogurt, so I wound up using some thick kefir instead. The kefir is made from home-fermented milk, a process I’ve been obsessing over these last few months, though I imagine the original idea of thinned, plain yogurt would work well too.
1 big handful spruce tips
1-1.5 cup kefir or plain yogurt, thinned
Approx. 1 tbsp pickled ginger
1 wild onion (Allium spp.) or green onion, bulb and greens, chopped fine
Approx 1 tsp dill (I used dried dill)
Blend spruce tips, kefir/yogurt, ginger, and onion until smooth. Add dill and serve.
A Sauce of Many Uses
We tried the sauce a couple different ways. On the spiced salmon, it was divine. Gregg made noise about it all through dinner. Asparagus spears dipped in the dregs on my plate tasted great too.
The next day for lunch we tried it on a mild wild salad—which consisted of prickly lettuce (Lactuca seriola), orache (Atriplex sp.), raw corn kernels, and cabbage. However, it was quite citrusy and a tad astringent in that context. You should have seen Gregg. He pretended to enjoy the salad, but then shyly surrendered the bowl to me when I said I would eat it and he could use a different dressing on his. (Here’s the recipe for that other dressing, which he loves.)
The morning after that I served eggs—mine over-easy, his over-hard—on toast with steamed asparagus on top, finished with the creamy green yogurt sauce on top of that. That was delicious! A hit by both our estimations.
Last but not least, I went way out on a wild edible tangent last night with a rotini pasta sprinkled with leftover salmon bits and kochia tips (Kochia scoparia, pre-boiled, 30-40 minutes, and this is the first time I’ve ever eaten that invasive wild edible, so more on that at a later date) with the creamy green yogurt sauce mixed through it. Crazy as it sounds, it didn’t taste bad at all! Gregg actually followed me into the kitchen from his room (where he had been sucked deep into his computer for hours) to chase down a few extra bites.
Don’t Say No
This batch of spruce tips came from my most recent trip down to the Denver area. Butter was so excited that the spruce tips were out, she took me to “her tree” and we gathered a small bag full. At the end of our day of foraging, when I was divvying up the veggies and she was cooking up a fabulous meal of wild pizza on her countertop Pizza Pizzazz, I volunteered all the spruce tips for her to keep. She was shocked. “You don’t want them?” she asked, incredulous.
“Okay, I’ll take a few,” I said, in part so as not to offend my friend.
Well, thank goodness I did! We got a lot of great meals out of that crazy green sauce. And now I’m plenty fueled to keep chasing information around my books and that wily internet.
NOTE: Don’t confuse edible conifer tips with yew (Taxus sp.). Though the red fleshy berries are said to be edible, other plant parts are extremely poisonous (Kershaw, 2000). Yew is an evergreen shrub or small tree with needles. Kershaw warns that “Drinking yew tea or eating as few as 50 leaves can cause death.”