Some years ago, I started what might be called a cottage industry. I made pinecone wreaths and sold them by the dozen to local florists and places like Adams. It was my answer to the then-popular Christmas Club Check. This came about with the advent of the electric glue gun; tedious and time-consuming wiring of each and every pinecone now a thing of the past.
Gathering the cones was easy, as I had a grove of pines in my backyard and local parks and even neighbors welcomed my endeavors to clear their yards of those pesky cones which dot their lawns and clog the drains in village streets after a heavy rain.
The first year after this enterprise, I flew to Florida soon after Christmas. I was thrilled to see my parents’ new home in St. Augustine, ringed with pine trees, sprouting the largest pinecones I had ever seen. I was going to harvest as many of these prize fruits as I could and store them for the following year. The day before I was to leave, it rained. Undaunted, my children and I stuffed several boxes and took them to the post office to be mailed home. Choosing the cheapest mail rate, as I was certainly not in any hurry to use them, off they went to the North. You can imagine my amazement when they arrived looking like they had been puffed up with air. Each box was straining at the seams, one had broken open, cones sticking out. They had dried out in transit and had expanded to twice their size.
Pinecones have more value than one might think. They not only efficiently propagate the species, their seeds can be eaten. Squirrels, chipmunks, deer and ever bear have been known to include pinecones on the menu.
All pines contain edible seeds in the late-season cones. The quality and size of those seeds depends on the species. Pines in the Northeast do not offer up big enough seeds to gather easily, unlike the pine nuts produced by the conifers of the west. But if you want to give it a try, September and October is the time to gather them. Dry them, shake out the seeds, heat them gently in a frying pan with a little butter and salt. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Cones are made up of a central stalk with scales radiating out from the center. At the base of those scales you will find the seed or nuts. The cones will start out green and immature, but eventually will ripen and release their seeds. Most people don’t realize a pine tree could sustain you in a survival situation, if the need were to arise. Indians cut out the bark, scraped off the inner white core and heated it over the fire. Sometimes that was the best available source of food during a hard winter.
The needles of the Northeast Pine make an excellent mild tea, loaded with vitamin C and not at all pitchy tasting, as you might expect. To make the tea, simply gather a handful of fresh green pine needles, finely chop them and drop into a cup of boiling water and let it boil for a minute or two until the water turns a light yellow color. Add honey and enjoy.
Like other coniferous trees, pines have needles instead of leaves. Grab a branch and take a look; the needles grow out in clusters of two, three and five needles. The eastern pine grows in clusters of five — no way can you mistake them for the poisonous Hemlock, chosen by Socrates as his farewell drink.
Check out your backyard conifer, count the needles, make some tea, gather and dry the pinecones, shake out the seeds and try them. This is truly going green.