Let’s start off with the definition of coniferous, which is a “form of conifer.” Next, conifer, “a tree that bears cones and needle-like or scale-like leaves that are typically evergreen.” Conifers are of major importance as a source of softwood and also supply resins and turpentine. Merriam-Webster dictionary indicates that there are more than 550 species of conifers and that they grow throughout the world except in Antarctica. Interestingly, they include the world’s smallest tree (pygmy pine-under 3.15 inches), tallest tree (Giant Sequoia-over 380 feet) and oldest tree (Bristlecone pine- 5,067 years old – scientifically known as Methuselah). I would be remiss if I didn’t give a little background on Methuselah in this article, especially since we are talking conifers. Discovered in 1957, the Methuselah tree is so well protected as the oldest tree in the world that its location still remains unknown to the public. What we do know is that it is deep in the White Mountains of the Inyo Valley in eastern California. Also of interest is that the dictionary lists uses as timber, pulpwood for paper, veneers, resins, oils, turpentine, tars, and lastly, pharmaceuticals. Nothing is mentioned about as food for humans.
Well, let’s talk about how to capture the medicinal and nutritional benefits of your holiday conifer. Yes, have I been sniffing way too much Frasier fir linen spray? Maybe. In all honesty, this could be the first time in my life that I have discussed eating a holiday decoration, but as you have already figured out, I can be a little eccentric. Doing research for this article opened my eyes to the many ways that we humans can eat coniferous trees. Here are some of the many ways you can eat a pine tree. Most conifers are not only edible, they’re also medicinal. Every part is useful, including the bark, needles, resin, nuts, and cones. We can start out with an obvious that everyone will know, pine nuts (126 species within the pine family). Most commonly used in pesto, but really they’re useful in all manner of recipes, savory or sweet. They have a buttery flavor, which makes them especially good in shortbread cookies. Worldwide there are roughly 20 species with large edible nuts. Many prefer to eat pine nuts as a garnish in a leafy green salad. Pine needles are perhaps the most versatile part of the tree. Believe it or not, even more than pine nuts, as they can be made into a tasty tea, or mixed in just about any recipe savory or sweet for a spicy kick.
Externally, pine needles are added into salves for skin care. Because pine is an astringent, it reduces pore size and fine wrinkles. Pine is also a powerful antioxidant, which means that it may help to prevent premature aging and may even help to reverse skin damage. A pine needle hair rinse can be used to treat dandruff and eczema while adding shine to your hair. Internally, pine is high in vitamin C, which makes it perfect in a nutrient-rich pine tea or pine needle soda. Pine needles are also naturally antibacterial, antifungal and an expectorant (a medicine which promotes the secretion of sputum by the air passages, used to treat coughs), so they make a great pine cough syrup when combined with honey. Before we move on from the pine family of coniferous trees, we must talk about pine pollen. Pine pollen is the golden colored spores produced by the male cone of the pine tree. It has been used as a drug and food for thousands of years. Today it’s being used to treat diseases such as colds, diseases of the prostate, anemia, diabetes, hypertension, asthma, and rhinitis (stuffy nose). As a food source, it can be used to substitute a portion of the flour that any bread recipe requires. Pine flour can also be produced from the inner and outer bark of the tree. Pine flour has ¼ of the calories as wheat flour and has been eaten by the richest of society for centuries. The outer bark is not rich in calories, but contains tannins that science has since shown to support healthy cell function.
Further discussion around conifers and pharmaceuticals would be to mention the benefits of balsam fir to the human body. Its chemical constituents are believed to have anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, and sedative effects. Historically, balsam fir has been known to benefit the human body by its ability to soothe over-worked muscles and joints, reduce cortisol levels, thereby reducing stress, anxiety, tension and depression. Some studies support that it helps in reducing pain for those who suffer from fibromyalgia, back pain, and rheumatic pain.
The most common method for human consumption is through tinctures using oils, teas or vinegar infusions, which can be used for cooking or aromatic room and body sprays. A modern way of using balsam fir needles in cooking is using it in a seasoning grinder mixed with dried lemon peel, peppercorns and course Himalayan pink salt on grilled meats and fish.
The list goes on for what coniferous trees can and do offer us as food and medicine. In this article I only touched on some of the many ways that we can explore our amazing world and better understand what it has to offer. I will say it again, I know, I know and I know, I had a few laughs while writing this article in that it isn’t every day that we talk about eating our holiday decorations. Have I ever eaten any coniferous trees? The answer is yes. Several years ago while in Scotland, I had pine infused shortbread. I thought the cookies were really good; my wife, not so much. I leave it to you to decide if or when you get the chance to use a coniferous product in a dish or dessert, and you can then make your own mind up about if the unique taste works. For now, I thought why not have some fun with a subject matter that we wouldn’t normally discuss. The subject being the transition of the traditional, seasonal coniferous tree from holiday decoration to the dinner table. The Nurse
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