Look up! Do you see those bright green tips forming on the ends of spruce branches in the forest, park or backyard? Busting out into the spring air, sun-warmed, sap-fuelled, looking like tiny joyful affirmations that this tree is alive? Those are spruce tips, the tree’s new growth, eagerly awaited by those who know how they taste, unseen by those who have no idea, which, for many years, was me.
My entry to the magic world of spruce tips was in 2005, when my childhood friend, visiting from Ontario, discovered a jar of spruce tip syrup on a shelf in the Bamboo Room and Pioneer Bar in Haines, Alaska, when we there for the Bald Eagle Festival. I took some home, experimented a bit and came up with a gorgeous pine nut and macadamia baklava, which ended up in my first book, The Boreal Gourmet. I found further inspiration on Laurie Constantino’s great blog, go check out her recipes, some of which also made it into The Boreal Gourmet in slightly altered form. (Every time I mention spruce tips in public I bow to Ms. Constantino; she is the Queen of Spruce Tips and I am a Lady in her court.)
Here’s the thing: once you start experimenting with spruce tips, you can’t stop; their light, citrusy and just slightly resin-y flavour works beautifully in both sweet and savoury dishes. You can dry spruce tips, freeze them in re-sealable baggies (in my house we vacuum-pack them in 2-cup (475 mL) portions); you can pickle them, candy them, turn them into oils, vinegars, jellies and syrups, and use them as a herb in everything from focaccia to pan-cooked grouse. I just counted: in The Boreal Feast there are 13 recipes whose featured flavour is spruce tips, and 7 more where spruce tips show up as one of several herbs or flavours. See what I mean?
Here’s my advice: get to know where and what kind the spruce trees are in your neck of the woods. Watch them in late winter. When you see the first long, spindly shoots sticking out in all directions from the top of the tree, know that in six weeks to two months you should start looking for the tips. In Whitehorse that’s usually the end of May or beginning of June. (When I was visiting Maman in Toronto in 2014 they were starting to appear in the Mount Pleasant Cemetery, where Papa is buried, around May 15th.)
When spruce tips look like the tip of a bright green paintbrush with a small brown husk at the end, they are ready. Assemble your tupperwares and your old yogurt tubs, and off you go into the woods or parkland to collect. Eat some right off the tree to get a sense of their flavour. Start small, collecting just a few cups until you know you like spruce tips and will use them. When you’re picking, remember the tips are the tree’s new growth, so pick sparingly from each branch and from each tree. Knock off the small husk as you pick or when you get back home again. And then, go to, young spruce-tipper, and start your experimenting.
Notes on Species: In the Yukon we’ve got White and Black Spruce; we also have Balsamic Fir, but I’ve never worked with fir tips; something for the future. In Ontario you'll find Black Spruce, White Spruce, Red Spruce, Blue Spruce and Norway Spruce. In BC there's Black, White, Engelman’s, and Sitka spruce, plus several firs: Douglas, Grand, Amabilis, and three hemlocks; note that the poisonous hemlock is not a tree but a plant: water hemlock, the species name is Cicuta