Alaska Native people have been eating traditional foods and harvesting medicines sustainably for more than 10,000 years. That includes the harvesting of spruce tips for food and for medicinal purposes. For Vivian Mork Yéilk who grew up in Wrangell and whose T’akdeintaan clan comes from Hoonah and has lived all over Southeast Alaska, harvesting spruce tips is a way of life.
“Most conifers do have medicinal qualities – hemlock, bull pine, spruce pitch, bark, and tips have more Vitamin C than an orange and many anti-viral, anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties,” says Yéilk, who is a writer and a Tlingit traditional foods and medicine educator and ethnobotanist. “What I love about spruce is the diversity of things you can make from spruce tips.”
Yéilk and her mother, Vivian Faith Prescott of Wrangell, are writing a cookbook called “Eat Your Trees” that focuses on eating and cooking spruce tips. You can follow their Planet Alaska blog which includes a great article on spruce tips, and they post often about spruce tip gathering and recipes on their Facebook page. They hope the book will be finished sometime in 2021.
What Are Spruce Tips?
Spruce tips are found at the tips of Alaskan spruce branches in May and early June, often right around Mother’s Day. You can identify a spruce by its sharp, pointy branches and the evergreen look. The tips first appear like they are wrapped in a brown paper skin. Once the tips pop through the paper, they are ready to pick. If you pick them too early, getting the “paper” off is a lot of extra work. If you pick too late, the tips’ flavor will have transformed from fruity and floral to tart and medicinal. Once the tips darken and start to become spruce branches, they are too tough and fibrous to eat. As it gets later into June, move up higher on the mountainsides to find trees that are ready for picking.
How Do You Harvest Them?
General rules for proper spruce tip harvesting include finding trees that are at least 100 yards from a roadway (car and ground pollution can play a role in taste). Don’t pick too many tips from one tree or even from the same branch, because each tip that you pick is pruning the tree so it won’t grow back. It’s advisable to only pick 1/3 of the tips on any one tree.
Ann Biddle, Mat-Su/Copper River District 4-H Program Coordinator, a gatherer, and botanist, says she finds good spots to pick spruce tips while hiking.
“I don’t believe there are masses of people in Southcentral Alaska that harvest spruce tips, not like berries for sure,” says Biddle. “But for those who are ‘in the know’ and love the taste, you will find spruce tip harvesters wherever the trees grow.
What Can You Do With Spruce Tips?
Spruce tips can be dried, made into sugar, salt, or vinaigrette. You can use spruce tips to make an aioli sauce or add them to your favorite baked goods like breads and muffins. Yéilk says one of the easiest things to do with spruce tips is make spruce water, or what she calls traditional Gatorade. Just add water to a bunch of young tips and it will develop a sweet and refreshing flavor. The more tips you add, the sweeter it gets. Spruce tips also can be eaten raw. Add spruce tips to smoothies or salads, or season soups and stews with them.
Another approach is to make spruce tips into syrup or jelly. The syrup also can be used for a variety of drinks – alcoholic or non-alcoholic. It’s best to use spruce tips fresh, but if you want to save them for later use, just chop them into bits and freeze them in baggies. They’ll last for a year or two. Don’t use them when they get dull or yellow in color. On her Facebook page, Prescott says that one of her favorite ways to use spruce tips is just to sprinkle them on top of a warm bowl of oatmeal. Traditionally, dried tips have been used for making tea and are known to soothe a sore throat or cough.
Using spruce trips as an ingredient in spruce tip beer is growing in popularity. Skagway Brewing Co. has a signature Spruce Tip Ale that incorporates hand-picked Sitka Spruce tree tips. Juneau’s Alaska Brewing Co. has been using spruce tips in its signature beers and hard seltzers since the 1990s. The company’s Spruce IPA has gained international recognition in the last few years including taking gold in the Herb and Spice category at the 2019 U.S. Open Beer Championship.
For Alaska’s indigenous people, harvesting spruce tips isn’t just an activity, it’s an intimate connection. Yéilk explains that in her Tlingit culture, Raven made the people from the trees. “So, the trees are our grandmothers,” says Yéilk. “We would never disrespect our grandmothers, so we harvest respectfully and allow the trees to take care of us.” For non-Native Alaskans, her words are important. If too many newcomers decide to harvest spruce tips, we need to consider how the local impact of harvesting methods and how much we are taking must be considered, before we head to the forest.
For Anchorage hiker and foodie Sezy Gerow-Hanson, a fascination with spruce tips started when she ordered a cheesecake at Southside Bistro in south Anchorage. Chef Travis Haugen put together a candied spruce tip and rhubard compote on top of the cheesecake. She was so intrigued, she asked the chef about it. A few months later, she read a book, “Drinking French,” that mentioned spruce tip infused liquor. Gerow-Hanson is an avid hiker anyway, so the next spring she and her hiking buddies agreed to bring some baggies to pick spruce tips along the way.
“We found some perfect spruce tips at the Twin Peaks Trails near Eklutna Lake and just popped them in our mouths,” says Gerow-Hanson. “They were delicious. I’m now pretty much hooked and have even made some spruce tip salt and a liqueur with spruce tips.”
Hanson says she has continued to gather spruce tips on other hikes near the Service High trails, at Beluga Point and in Prospect Heights. The funniest thing was that she and a friend spent a whole day looking for spruce tips and were only marginally successful. A few hours later, her friend called laughing. She had gone out in her backyard with her dog, only to notice that the spruce tree in her yard was covered with spruce tips! Keep your eyes open this spring, and you may be surprised at how those bright green spruce tips pop out at you.