Tina Weikert: Beyond holidays, pine needles have many uses

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Candles and the winter months go hand in hand. What better time is there than when cold temperatures and nasty weather drive us indoors is there to bring light and comforting scents into our living space?

Currently on my mantle is a half-burnt "Peppermint Holiday" candle, a remnant of the Christmas season. If I remember to continue lighting it, then once it melts to nothing, it will be replaced with the most authentic evergreen smelling candle I can get my hands on. I swoon at the scent of forest.

There is a stand of balsam pines along the wooded path my boys and I walk to school. I know because the perfume of spiced vanilla forest is intoxicating to smell. It bothers me that even by following my nose, I've yet to locate the precise living quarters of these trees. This olfactory game of hide and seek has been going on since warmer autumn, when the trees' resin overwhelmingly filled the air with that magical Christmasy scent. One whiff and I attach not only my childhood memories to it, but my newly developing ones too; balsam has always smelled like summer camp to me, but now it also reminds me of my son's first year of middle school.

I've been dabbling in how to identify the perpetually green trees. I'm getting there — navigating through the pines, spruces, and firs,

and considering avoiding

the yews.

There is much to learn in a world where all the trees I'm observing seem (at first glance anyway) to be the same: green, hearty, and with leaves that look like needles. We call those trees evergreens, but we can't call all those evergreens conifers. Why? Because all conifers have cones, but not all evergreens do. Conifer speaks to the reproductive methods of trees, and evergreen to the type of tree that retains green needles all year long. The balsam pine I am seeking a long-term relationship with is an evergreen conifer with the most fragrant needles of them all.

I might not have found the balsams on our school walk yet, but I know where others are in my neighborhood. I hug their blistered bark trunks and scoop handfuls of their fallen, dried needles into a glass jar. The needles hold their fragrance well. I'm sure you've encountered the scented balsam stuffed pillows hung in cabins and souvenir shops across New England; this is the same concept. Any time I need my version of smelling salts, I unscrew the lid. One inhale, and my concerns begin to fall away. Nature, even the jarred version, is amazing in that way.

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Recognizing that I need more evergreen in my life, I've instituted a few new techniques. If you too are looking for ways to spruce up your relationship with the forest (like what I did there?), read on:

The most straightforward suggestion is to gather evergreen cuttings and place them in a vase as you would a flower bouquet. The branches add a pop of color, and as expected, a pine scent, too. Floral design and aromatherapy give the winter blues a one-two punch!

Many pine needle varieties are classically known as a natural source of vitamin C. In our area, the Eastern white pine makes for a great resource. Fresh needles contain the best source of vitamin C, but dried needles taste great in tea too. Use two tablespoons of Eastern white pine needles to a cup of boiled water, steep for five minutes. As with any foraged item, be sure to have identified it correctly and that it meets with your health requirements, such as if you are pregnant or taking certain medications.

An alternative to harvesting pine needles is to purchase teas. A friend of mine recently gave me a box of Douglas fir tea made by a company called Juniper Ridge, and it is heavenly! While on the topic of drinks, a simple syrup made from evergreen needles is the main ingredient in some creative cocktails of late. The site Wide Open Eats has an article entitled "Drink Your Tree Instead: 12 Pine Drinks You Need to Try this Winter" to get you started.

Winter is the season of achy muscles from all the skiing, skating and snowshoeing we do. Evergreen needles make for a therapeutic soak to reinvigorate the body. Secure a handful of needles in a muslin bag and place that, and a cup full of Epsom salts into your nightly bath. Breathe deeply.

In the kitchen, I use evergreen needles in my brines. Most recently, this past Thanksgiving, I made a basic salt brine of four quarts water to one cup of kosher salt and then added in what I call "forest floor aromatics"— a handful of evergreen needles, along with some juniper berries, and hunks of ginger. Everything went into the pot, along with the turkey. Days later, when all was said and done, and I plunked down the cooked bird onto our holiday table, no one said, "You weirdo, why did you use pine needles in your brine?" Instead, they all said "Yum!"

Here in our treasured Green Mountains, evergreens and conifers surround us. Frankly, I think it would be weird if we didn't use the nature made resources available to us. The forest is a fragrant, generous place.

Tina Weikert writes for Southern Vermont Landscapes from Bondville.


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