Yule, is when the dark half of the year relinquishes to the light half. Starting the next morning at sunrise, the sun climbs just a little higher and stays a little longer in the sky each day. Known as Solstice Night, or the longest night of the year, much celebration was to be had as the ancestors awaited the rebirth of the Oak King, the Sun King, the Giver of Life that warmed the frozen Earth and made her to bear forth from seeds protected through the fall and winter in her womb. Bonfires were lit in the fields, and crops and trees were “wassailed” with toasts of spiced cider. – Yule Lore
A waft of cold air enters the room and I stomp the snow off my boots and hurry into the kitchen.
I’ve brought back a basket filled with evergreen boughs, pine cones, birch bark, usnea, all lovingly gathered from the woods. My numb fingers soon begin to tingle in the warmth of the cabin. Shaking the snow from my hood, I happily wrap my hands around a warm mug of cocoa and smile.
I am happy. We are preparing for our annual Homestead Yuletide festivities by decorating our cabin. The Winter Solstice marks the shortest day of the year and the official first day of winter. This might not sound like something celebrate but there is an upside. The days are going to gradually become lighter again. I take great comfort in knowing this. Dark days can be heavy on ones soul. We welcome the sunlight for how it rejuvenates us with more energy and vibrancy.
Celebrating old Yuletide traditions and marking the winter solstice is my way of bringing the energy of the forest into the cabin. Sprigs of evergreens, moss, twigs and other things will adorn wreaths, a symbol of the wheel of life. A tree will be brought into the cabin and decorated. Old lore tells tales of wood spirits being kept warm and fed in the winter time through the tradition of the yule tree.
Like our ancient ancestors, we recognize the importance of the mighty forest. Around here, there isn’t a lot to gather in the wintertime and so we look upward to the beautiful giants of the forest. Woven in the ancient tales of hardship and survival is a deep respect and knowledge of the forest. In Pagan history evergreen trees were seen as a symbol of continual life. When cared for, they will stand strong for centuries offering valuable food and medicine to all who seek it.
The coniferous giants of our forests possess powerful healing properties. I am simply enthralled by these evergreens. The more I learn about them, the deeper in love I fall. Evergreen needles, resin, bark, and cones are all beneficial and can be used for both culinary and medicinal uses. Not only does everything you make smell gorgeous, they contain the power of this mighty tree!
In the kitchen we look to a wide variety of conifers, including the pine tree (genus Pinaceae). They are an ideal tree to work with in the dead of winter. Pine trees (as well as most evergreens) contain high levels of vitamin C, vitamin A, polyphenolic compounds, various B family vitamins, calcium, iron, potassium and phosphorous, as well as sterols and carotenoids.
In the spring we’ll be more inclined to use the tender tips of the spruce trees but today I gathered from the stand of Red Pine (Pinus Resinosa) that grow along our driveway. These trees are massive and command you attention as you make your way to the cabin. This is a long living species with stands known to be older than 200 years. A red Pine that was cut down in Ontario in the 90’s was dated 500 years old.
Pine species can be differentiated by various methods, one being the number of pine needles per cluster. The other identifying features include the pine cones and bark. Being able to tell which pine tree you are looking at is really quite cool. The Arbour Day Foundation has a great tool that I rely on often when figuring out which tree I am looking at.
Selecting Conifers for Use In The Kitchen Apothecary
Here are some species that are listed as generally safe for use, excepting people with allergic sensitivities.
- Cypress (Cupressus spp.)
- Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga spp.)
- Fir (Abies spp.)
- Pine (Pinus spp.)
- Spruce (Picea spp.)
- Hemlock (Tsuga spp.)
Warnings: Avoid Yew and Stinking Juniper (Juniperus sabina), they contain potentially toxic or irritating ingredients. Also avoid any trees that have been sprayed with pesticides.
Kitchen Creations Using Conifers
With their bright citrusy flavour, conifers are incredibly diverse. There are edible recipes for shortbread cookies, throat lozenges, syrups, vinegars, honey infusions and so much more. Topically you can whip up soaps, salves, creams and toners just to name a few.
Pine Infused Apple Cider Vinegar (Forest Balsamic Vinegar)
Some say that this pine infused apple cider vinegar tastes a lot like balsamic vinegar. This vinegar extracts the benefits of the pine needles which include high levels of vitamin C! You can make your own apple cider vinegar as well.
- Nibble on some pine needles to sample them. They should taste good. If they are incredibly potent and bitter, you can infuse less material and for a shorter time but you do run the risk of it being a bit more of a cleaning product than enjoyable.
- Gather some pine needles (not from a commercial Christmas tree – there could be chemicals). Remove the needles from the woody stem and discard any brown needles.
- Chop the needles up, bruise them with a mortar and pestle (or bash them a little bit with a rolling pin) and fill a jar 3/4 full with the needles.
- Pour raw apple cider vinegar over the needles and cover well. Add a plastic cap (or something that won’t corrode). Shake well and store in a dark cupboard for about six weeks. Shake occasionally. Once ready strain and re bottle.
Products To Help You Connect With & Embrace Midwinter
Of all the herbs and botanicals that I work with, evergreens are my favorite. I always feel uplifted and relaxed while mixing, blending and creating products with the essence of fir, cedar and pine wafting around me. They are often overlooked when it comes to natural skincare which is a shame. Perhaps it’s because people think “pine cleaner” and “astringent” when they think of these botanicals but honestly, they are powerful allies for our skin and our senses. When I need to calm myself and can’t get outside for a walk, I’ll pop open a jar of our Woodland salts and just breathe that scent in. The fragrance that you can achieve with conifers is complex, beautiful and grounding.
Conifers Can help with
– soothe irritation, inflammation, redness, and dryness
– guard the skin against environmental pollutants
– reduce the appearance of the signs of aging
– protect minor abrasions from developing infections
– enhance circulation
We sustainably harvest and use a variety of conifers in our natural products. Red pine is one of my favorite trees and you’ll find it in Woodland Canadian Glacial Bath Salts, Cedar & Fir Soap Set, Red Pine + Fir Body Balm, Wild Man Beard Balm
More Conifer Recipes
Balsam Fir Hot Chocolate – Two Ways ~ from Fern & Fungi
Balsam Fir Syrup ~ from Fern & Fungi
Pine Needle Cookies ~ Edible Wild Food
Conifer & Wild Berry Tonic ~ Gather Victoria
- My own personal experience
- Baba’s Kitchen Medicines: Folk Remedies of Ukrainian Settlers in Western Canada By Michael Mucz
- Conifers: The Illustrated Encyclopedia (2 Volumes) Updated, Subsequent Edition by