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Goodness Starts With P

Today I’ll be talking about pines and plantains (not the bananas), both of which have medicinal and edible qualities.  I’m going to focus on the edible but will list, or briefly mention, the other qualities of the plant.  Remember to correctly identify the plant, and to consume small amounts when eating a new plant. This will help determine how your body will react to this new food.  Please refer to the January post to see all cautions concerning wild edibles.

Plantain – Plantago sp.

The two most common species of plantain in the US are broad-leaved plantain (Plantago major) and narrow-leaved plantain (Plantago lanceolata).  While both can be used for the same purposes, broad-leaved plantain offers a more palatable taste.  For the purpose of this article, when I mention plantain, I’ll be referring to the two aforementioned plantains.  There are other species that are less common, but I don’t know whether they are edible or not.  These two are easy to identify, so let’s dive right in. Broad-leaved plantain (below left) is a low-growing perennial that grows in lawns, fields, roadsides, and disturbed areas. 

The broadly oval-shaped leaves grow in a rosette around the base of the plant.  The major veins of the leaf start at the base and continue to the tip of the leaf without branching.  If you carefully pull apart the leaf towards the base, you will often see little rubber band-like strings coming from the veins. 

Where mowed, the leaves can be fairly small (2-3”), but in light shade and unmowed can get hand sized or larger.  The green flower stalk grows up from the center of the plant and is not very noticeable.  The top part of the stem will appear thicker which is where the flowers (and later on, the seeds) are.  Narrow-leaved plantain (below) is very similar in all respects except the leaves are very narrow, appear to grow in bunches, and are more upright. 

The flower stem is very slim and has a very distinct “knob” on top where the flowers are.  The leaves can be eaten raw, or cooked.  The young, tender leaves are the best raw, while the older leaves could be boiled or dried and powdered for soup thickener.  You could also try the fresh or powdered leaves in smoothies!  The flower stems of both can be eaten raw when young (when you bend them, they seem very pliable and “rubbery”), or you can pick a bunch of them from broad-leaf plantain and sauté them like asparagus. 

Other uses for plantains are medicinal and are worth looking at.  For bug bites and stings, crush or chew the leaves and apply to the area to draw out the poison and reduce the swelling.  The leaves are also good for wounds and can be used as band-aids. 

Pine – Pinus sp. 

Pines are trees often called evergreens (they stay green all year), or conifers (meaning that they have cones).  There are other evergreens that have cones that aren’t pines, so let’s get more specific.  Pines are trees that have needles instead of flat leaves.  These needles come in bunches of 2, 3, or 5 depending on the species.   These bunches are wrapped at the base with a paper-thin layer of bark.  The white pine is the exception, as the wrapping falls off after the first growing season, but the needles are still in a bunch.  Pines need a lot of sun, so you will find them singly in fields, at the edge of woods, or in concentrations of other pines.  They will also be in mixed woods where they will be very tall, or growing where openings in the canopy have been caused by fire or falling trees.  Pines have male cones which are very small and produce pollen, as well as female cones which are much larger and produce seeds.  While most people don’t look at a pine tree and think “I could eat that”, there are edible parts.  The inner bark and cambium are edible.  Inner bark is the lighter colored thin bark that is on the underside of the outer bark, while the cambium is the layer that sticks to the wood when the bark is peeled off.  I have never tried these as it seemed a sticky mess, but it’s there if I need it. 

The needles can be made into a tea which I find pleasant with a slight lemony taste.  Pick a couple handfuls of needles from the very tips of the branches, chop them in half or smaller, boil them for 5 minutes, and then cover and steep for another 5-10 minutes.  Strain, sweeten to taste and drink.  Pollen from pines can also be eaten.  In the spring when the male cones release the pollen, take a paper bag (plastic tears too easy), put the branch tip with the cones into the bag and shake or hit the branch to release the pollen.  You can also pick the male cones and shake them in a jar or bag to release the pollen, and then sift.  Sift the pollen to remove unwanted detritus and use with flour in baking, add to drinks or smoothies and enjoy.  I have yet to try this.  I was hoping that this would be the year, but between rain and work it didn’t happen.  Last, but not least, is pine cone jam or syrup.  I only heard of this last year, so I was excited to try it.  New cones should appear in May-June.  Pick the cones when they are green and full of juice.  They should exude sap when you poke them with your fingernail.  You will want very small cones for the jam, 1 ½” at the largest since you will eat them.  I was looking at the trees in my yard which don’t have any, so when I saw some elsewhere, they were 2-3” so I’m making syrup.  Some cones are smooth while others are very prickly depending on the species.  Use gloves if prickly and twist off the cones or use pruning shears.  You may need a stepladder or pruning extension to harvest the cones as they are often higher up in the tree. 

For jam, or to use as flavoring or medicine, wash thoroughly, and weigh.  Place in a pot on the stove and add sugar by weight at a 1:1 ratio.  Add enough water to cover and bring to a boil.  Boil for 20 minutes stirring occasionally.  Let it completely cool and then boil for another 30 minutes.  Let completely cool and then boil for another 20 minutes or until thick enough.  To tell if it’s thick enough, place a clean plate in the fridge to cool when you start your last boil.  When you’re ready to check the thickness, place a few drops of the syrup onto the plate.  If it is runny, keep boiling, but if it gels or stays together, it’s ready.  If you’re making jam (use 1 ½” cones or smaller), pour into clean jars, but if your cones are too large, strain into jars.  This should last 8 months in the fridge, or you can water bath can them for longer storage.  It tastes a lot like a pine smells (but not like pine sol) which I find delicious.  This syrup you can drizzle onto ice cream or other desserts, add to hot or cold drinks, or add to oatmeal etc.  But to make syrup for things like pancakes, wash and weigh the cones.  If you have larger cones like I did, cut them in half or thirds and add them to a clean jar.  Add sugar to the jar in a 1:1 ratio, put the lid on the jar and shake vigorously.  It’s recommended to use brown or raw sugar as white sugar is very dry.  If you use white sugar, a splash of water may be necessary.  Place the jar in a warm place like a windowsill and wait.  This will take at least 30 days, and the longer you wait, the stronger the flavor.  Within the first few days, the sugar will pull the juice from the cones which will then start to ferment (get bubbly).  Release the pressure every couple of days until the bubbles cease.  Shake every so often.  If there are cones sticking above the liquid, shake more often to keep mold from forming.  When the time is up, pour into a pot and bring to a boil, strain into clean jars, seal and turn upside down for 20 minutes which should seal them.  You can also water bath them if you want.  I am at the start of this, and my splash of water was a bit too much which will make the syrup a little more watery, but that’s the learning process!  I think you can also use pine needles or the new growth at the tips of branches for both these methods if you can’t find young cones.  Just remember to chop them into smaller pieces.  CAUTION- Ponderosa pine used in this way has a higher level of a chemical that can cause women who are pregnant to lose the baby, so if you live in its range, learn to identify it.  Also, remember when harvesting to leave some for the animals and reproduction. Pines can be used for other things besides food.  The needles and young cones are high in vitamin C and have antimicrobial properties which means that the tea and syrup can be used to fight sickness.  The sap can be used as a band aid.  The pitch can be used as glue.  For fire starting, use the dead, dry needles in your birds nest; needles, twigs, and dry cones as tinder; and from dead limbs, trees, and stumps, fatwood to use as a flame extender.  Long needles have also been used to make baskets.

I encourage you to look into the many uses of these two plants, and have fun foraging!


About Me:

John Miller loves the outdoors and enjoys learning about all the things the Creator has made.  He enjoys hunting, fishing, backpacking, and finding new moths.  While looking into prepping in 2008, he realized that developing skills such as knowing wild edibles and bushcraft skills were more important than storing food.   Ever since then he has been learning and slowly working on the skills of these two disciplines.  He currently lives in Cleveland, TN with his wife Rachel and six children.

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