C is for Conifers
Conifers are gymnosperms, perennial cone-bearing seed plants we mostly know as trees, including (but not limited to) pines, firs, junipers, hemlocks, spruces and redwoods. Their form is distinctive, with downward-drooping limbs that help them shed snow. In the Upper Delaware Valley, we have a number of different species, but Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus), Norway Spruce (Picea abies) and Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) are among the most common. One of the easiest ways to learn to identify conifers is by familiarizing yourself with the needles. Some are flat and spindly (pine), others scaly (hemlock) and still others stiff and spiky (spruce).
All conifers are edible—except the yew, a shrub that is toxic, but not often seen in these parts—and loaded with vitamin C, up to five times more than an orange. The moribund crew of French explorer Jacques Cartier was cured of scurvy when the Iroquois served up a pine needle and bark tea. Each conifer has its own distinct flavor, and needles from older trees can be more pungent (and also contain more vitamin C). Some taste a bit like rosemary—no surprise since both contain a chemical known as pinene that is also present in cannabis.
Generally when extracting plants in water, a gentle approach works best. To make pine needle tea, simmer the needles rather than boiling them. A handful per cup of water should be plenty. Add some lemon or ginger if you like. This tea is very nice sweetened with honey.
You can also make a simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water) and steep pine needles in it overnight to make an aromatic syrup that is wonderful in cocktails. (Or just order this one from Dram Apothecary.) It pairs well with gin and makes even more of a piney statement if you add any of a number of European spirits based on pine. Stateside, Clear Creek Distillery in Portland, Oregon, makes an excellent Douglas Fir brandy inspired by the obscure Alsatian Eau de Vie de Bourgeons de Sapin that is made from pine buds. Which is what you'll instantly become with anyone to whom you serve this cocktail.