Yes, you can eat your Christmas tree needles (assuming it’s a spruce, fir, or pine). In fact, once you know how to unwrap the delicious flavors of your Christmas tree in the kitchen, you might just want to start eating edible conifer trees year round. You’ll find out how in this Edible Christmas Tree Guide!
Each December, we want you to gather with family to sing: “O Christmas tree, o Christmas tree, how tasty are your needles!” That’s right: the decapitated conifer tree you’ve drug into your home actually has delicious culinary uses.
No, you don’t want to slice up your Christmas tree with a chainsaw and serve it next to gramma’s roast at Christmas dinner. Instead, think of the needles on your Christmas tree as an intense but nuanced flavoring, like a spice or an herb, that will add unique flavor characteristics to food and drink creations of your choosing.
And as you’ll also learn in this Edible Christmas Tree Guide, your Christmas tree can be used to flavor both sweet and savory dishes alike.
Table of Content:
Read the whole article or use this table of contents to scroll right to the section(s) you’re interested in:
- Safety warnings
- What are the most popular Christmas trees?
- Quick guide to identifying EDIBLE conifers (including your Christmas tree)
- Three fir tree lookalikes, from edible to poisonous
- Five sustainable harvesting tips for conifer foragers
- How to eat your Christmas tree – with recipes
Part I. Safety warnings
Not to be a Grinch, but there are some safety warnings we need to share with you before you start eating your Christmas tree:
Safety Warning #1. There are poisonous (even deadly poisonous) evergreen trees.
When we say “your Christmas tree is edible,” we want to make crystal clear we’re specifically referencing the needles of *fir, spruce, and pine trees only. (*This includes edible Douglas fir needles, even though it’s not a true fir species.)
There are evergreen trees that can kill you or make you sick. For example, eating yew needles (Taxus spp.) can be a deadly mistake since yews contains high concentrations of taxine alkaloids that can cause cardiac arrest or respiratory failure.
Yew cuttings are often used as indoor holiday decorations in Germany and other European countries. However, even though there are also yew species native to the US, they’re not typically used for holiday decorations.
Here in the US, Eastern red cedar trees (Juniperus virginiana) — which is a juniper not a true cedar — are sometimes used as Christmas trees. Reliable sources offer varying statements about the edibility of needles from this species. Some say the needles are edible in small quantities; others say they’re mildly toxic.
When in doubt, we don’t eat, and advise you to do the same. (Not to go too far into the weeds, but the ripe purple-blue “berries” — which are technically modified cones — of Eastern red cedar are edible and have broad culinary applications.)
Similar to our recommendation NOT to eat cedar needles, we’d also advise you to avoid eating the needles of two other increasingly popular types of US Christmas trees: Leland cypress and Arizona cypress.
Need help remembering which types of Christmas tree NEEDLES are safe to eat?
Here’s a jingle to help:
Spruce, Fir, and Pine are fine to dine. (Safely Find Plenty!)
Yew, Cypress, and Cedars are not for eaters. (You Can’t Cook!)
Safety Warning #2. Your Christmas tree may have pesticide residues on it.
Christmas tree farmers don’t grow their trees with the expectation that people are going to eat them. They just want to make sure their trees are as pretty as possible when it comes time to sell them.
Depending on where your tree was grown, what pests and diseases the farmer had to contend with, and what farming practices were utilized, it’s entirely possible that your otherwise lovely Christmas tree has fairly high concentrations of synthetic fungicides, insecticides, or other biocides on it.
Likewise, if you plan to forage edible conifers in the wild, avoid busy roadways (car exhaust residues) or spots where pesticides have been sprayed (example: under utility lines).
Cleaning and cooking helps remove and degrade these compounds, but isn’t a 100% effective solution.
If you want to safely eat a Christmas tree, consider one of these three options:
- Get a certified organic Christmas tree. (Yes, that’s a thing now.) If you do find an organic Christmas tree vendor, ask for clippings from other trees when buying your own tree. That way, you can keep your tree intact and still eat a Christmas tree.
- Grow your own potted living Christmas tree that you bring indoors each holiday season until it needs to be transplanted and replaced by a younger/smaller living Christmas tree. (Growing your own also allows you to harvest young spring growth tips.)
- Learn to sustainably forage living, edible evergreen species growing in your area without harming or killing the trees.
Safety Warning #3.
For every food on the earth, there is a person who is allergic to it. The same is true for whatever species of edible conifer tree you’re considering eating.
Especially if you’re prone to food allergies, nibble lightly before going all-in on eating your Christmas tree. If you have no averse reaction, carry on! Also, share this safety measure with anyone you intend to serve a Christmas tree recipe to.
Part II. What are the most popular Christmas tree species in the US?
The relative popularity of certain Christmas tree species in the US is somewhat variable by region. That’s because certain species of trees grow better in different regions, making them less expensive and more accessible for local consumers.
Here are six types of Christmas tree species that are highly popular in the United States and/or in specific regions:
- Fraser fir (Abies fraseri) – Native to the southern Appalachians and the dominant Christmas tree in our region (comprising 96% of Christmas trees produced in North Carolina). It’s actually an endangered species due to climate change and balsam woolly adelgids, an invasive pest insect from Europe.
- Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) – Not a true fir, despite its common name. Douglas firs are native to western North America.
- Balsam fir (Abies balsamea) – Popular in the northeastern US and Great Lakes region, which overlaps with its native range.
- Blue spruce (Picea pungens) – Quite popular due to its wide growing range (Zones 1-7), perfect form, and beautiful blue-green needle color.
- Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) – An eastern pine species that’s shorn into a Christmas tree shape and popular with people who have allergies or sensitivities to smells.
Other popular US Christmas tree contenders include:
- Eastern red cedar (which is actually a juniper, not a cedar – and whose needles we do NOT recommend eating),
- Norway spruce,
- Scotch pine, and
- Noble fir.
Part III. Quick guide to identifying edible conifers (including your Christmas tree)
Now let’s take a quick sleigh ride through an edible conifer identification guide so you know what type of Christmas tree you have AND how to quickly identify other edible conifers in the wild.
Here, our goal is to help you quickly distinguish between fir, spruce, and pine trees (even if you can’t narrow down to the exact species) simply by:
- looking at the needles on the tree, and
- rolling the needles between your fingers (if necessary).
A. How to quickly identify pine tree needles (Pinus spp.)
There are 49 species of pine trees native to the United States. As Cornell University Small Farms program details, the fastest way to tell you’re looking at a pine needle is:
- whether the needles are clustered in *twos, threes, or fives;
- pine needles always emerge from a single point/bud on the branch (a cluster of pine needles is called a fascicle).
(*A couple of notable exceptions to this rule: 1) In rare circumstances, some pine species can produce four-needle fascicles; and 2) The southwest US is home to the world’s only one-needled pine species, pignon pine (Pinus monophylla), which also happens to produce wonderful pine nuts. However, since 2, 3, and 5-needled pine fascicles are what you’ll encounter the vast majority of the time, this is still a useful rule.)
Nope, needle length doesn’t help you distinguish pine from other conifers. We’ve seen pines with needles less than 2″ long and others with needles well over 8″.
Are needles from all pine species edible? Yes.
B. How to quickly identify spruce tree needles (Picea spp.)
There are 7 species of spruce trees native to the United States. Spruce needles can quickly be identified as follows:
- each needle is short, around 1″ in length or less;
- each needle is attached to the stem individually, not in bundles like pines;
- needles attach to the stem/branch via small brown woody pegs, aka sterigmata (when needles drop, this leaves the branches with a rough texture, unlike fir branches which are smooth);
- the needles are dense/firm and *typically terminate in sharp points; (Ouch! is one of the ways you can usually identify a spruce, unlike firs which don’t poke back when touched.)
- needles have a square, four-sided shape which allows you to easily roll them between your thumb and index finger (unlike flat fir needles, which don’t roll).
*Exceptions to every rule: a few spruce species (or hybrids) have blunt-tipped needles. For instance, we found what we believe to be a blunt-needled Sakhalin spruce (Picea glehnii) growing in a Japanese garden at Furman University here in Greenville, SC.
Are needles from all spruce species edible? Yes.
C. How to quickly identify fir tree needles (Abies spp.)
There are 10 species of fir trees native to the United States. Fir needles can be identified based on the following characteristics:
- needles of North American fir trees are typically short, usually around 1″ in length or less;
- each needle attaches individually to the stem/branch (unlike pine) via a green suction cup-like protrusion (when needles drop, this leaves the branches with a smooth bark, unlike spruce);
- fir needles are softer/bendier and more bluntly tipped (not pointy) relative to spruce;
- needles are flat and therefore can NOT easily be rolled between your fingers (unlike spruce needles);
*Even though Douglas fir (one of the most popular Christmas tree species) isn’t a true fir, most of these generalizations apply. Douglas fir needles don’t have a distinct suction cup-like stem attachment, they taper down into a small attachment point. Douglas firs also have edible needles.
Are needles from all fir species edible? Yes.
Need help remembering the simplest way to distinguish between pine, spruce, and fir needles?
Here’s another jingle we coined to help you quickly distinguish between the needles of popular Christmas tree species as well as the most common edible conifers you’ll encounter in the wild:
“Friendly Firs are Flat. Spiky Spruces Slide. Pines group together in twos, threes, or fives.”
Part IV. Three fir tree lookalikes
Beyond spruce, Douglass fir, and pine, there are three other fir tree lookalikes that should be mentioned:
1. Eastern hemlock and Carolina hemlock: EDIBLE fir lookalikes
Both hemlocks species look identical above ground but can be distinguished by root depth. Since we don’t tend to dig up trees in order to ID them, we’re never 100% certain which Tsuga species we’ve encountered. USDA’s Southern Research Station notes that, “Carolina hemlocks are most often found in drier, rockier places than eastern hemlocks. The two species do not typically grow on the same sites…”
Neither Tsuga/hemlock species is grown for commercial Christmas tree production as far as we’re aware. No, hemlock trees are NOT the “poison hemlock” of lore. Poison hemlocks (Conium maculatum) are a small, flowering biennial weed in the carrot family.
To our eyes, hemlock needles look nearly indistinguishable from fir needles. They’re flat and even have the two white stomatal bloom stripes (used for breathing) on the underside of their needles which are also common in fir species.
How do you tell hemlock and fir trees apart? Hemlock tree needles lack the suction cup-like needle attachment characteristic of firs. Hemlocks also have small cones (under 1″) that hang down, whereas fir cones are larger (2-10″) and grow erect/upright on the branches.
2. Deodar cedar (Cedrus deodara): Edibility unknown
Short flat needles; cones erect on the branches… sounds like a fir so far, right? Not upon closer inspection…
Deodar cedars are native to the western Himalayas but are a popular landscaping plant in the US. The low-maintenance trees are quite elegant and can grow to massive heights.
They’re prized for their rot-resistant timber and have a history of use in Ayurvedic medicine. However, we don’t advise using the needles from Deodar cedar in place of conifer species whose needles are known to to be edible.
3. Yew: POISONOUS fir lookalike
A novice forager might confuse yew needles (which are deadly poisonous) for fir needles since they’re both flat, evergreen needles. As mentioned previously, there are different species of yews native to North America. Non-native yews are sometimes planted at parks, churches, and other public locations.
If you plan to forage fir needles, you’ll want to know how to distinguish between the two. Here are three ways to distinguish between yew and fir trees:
A. Reproductive parts
Yews produce bright red arils (often called “berries”) which look like small red cups or bowls. The fleshy part of a ripe yew aril is technically edible (the only part of the plant that’s not poisonous) but the small brown seed inside is very poisonous. We’ve never eaten them and don’t intend to, because yews cause us anxiety.
Fir trees produce distinct cones that stand upright on the branches, unlike pine and spruce cones which tend to hang down from the branches. And if you see cones on an evergreen tree, that’s a sure sign it’s NOT a yew.
B. Needle attachment
Yew needles seem to almost blend straight into the branch, whereas fir needles attach via a characteristic suction cup-like appendage, as mentioned above.
Fir tree needles offer a characteristic Christmas tree odor. Yew tree needles do not.
While you should NEVER EVER use taste to identify a potentially poisonous species, online accounts from people who accidentally nibbled yew needles said they taste terrible and bitter, not piney or Christmas-tree like. Again, never attempt to identify a plant based on taste, or it could be the last thing you ever taste.
However, if you find yourself nibbling an evergreen needle that tastes terrible (rather than Christmas tree-flavored or piney) spit it out and rinse out your mouth immediately. You can then expect Santa to give you coals and a plant identification guidebook for Christmas.
If you have any doubt about whether you’re looking at a yew or fir tree, do NOT eat any part of the plant. Instead, photograph it and try to identify the plant for future reference.
Part V. Sustainable harvesting tips for edible conifer trees
If you plan to forage wild edible conifer needles from living trees, please do so with the health of the tree in mind. That means:
1. If harvesting young conifer buds or growth tips in the spring (which can usually be pinched off by hand), never harvest more than 25% of them so the tree still has more than enough energy to continue developing. The less the better, so if you can collect a lower percentage from more trees, go that route.
2. When harvesting mature conifer needles that require branch cuttings, make a clean branch cut with sharp pruners. Here again, never harvest more than 25% of the branches from a single tree (the less, the better). Rather than removing the entire branch back to the trunk, remove only ~25% of the branch or less, leaving lateral branches/growth to continue growing and filling in.
3. Harvest from the lower portion of trees, and never harvest the top growth section of a tree. Ideally, only harvest from more mature trees, not young trees.
4. Always use clean, sharp pruners and even consider disinfecting your pruners before harvesting from the next tree to reduce the likelihood of spreading diseases/pathogens.
5. Never harvest more of a plant than you’re going to actually use.
Part VI. How to eat your Christmas tree
Pine, spruce, and fir needles all offer similar but unique flavors. In the wild, individual trees of the same species may be variable, perhaps due to soil conditions, hybridization, and other factors. (Not dissimilar from species-specific variability of other wild foods like American persimmons.)
If you find a wild pine, spruce, or fir tree with excellent flavor, remember it and harvest from it each year. If you have a Christmas tree with excellent-flavored needles, use it.
Expect to find flavor notes of citrus, rosemary, pine, and other indescribably unique flavors in edible conifers. Not surprisingly, the smell of the needles generally matches the flavors within – only the flavor is turned up tenfold.
What’s the best edible Christmas tree species?
Choosing the best edible Christmas tree species is like choosing a favorite child. However, if we had to choose a single favorite from among the edible conifer needles we’ve eaten, blue spruce (Picea pungens) would have to be it.
Keep in mind that each type of edible conifer needle truly is unique and has remarkable culinary potential. And for most recipes, you can use different species interchangeably and still get great results.
Just as you wouldn’t eat a handful of rosemary needles, you don’t want to eat a handful of conifer needles (unless you’re starving or dying of scurvy). Regardless of the species, edible conifer needles are a flavoring — to be treated like an intensely flavored spice or herb, not a meal. But boy can they add serious “wow” to food and drink alike!
Advantages of foraging for Christmas tree needles:
- Get them year round, not just when Christmas trees are for sale.
- Enjoy tender young spring growth tips as well as mature needles.
- Use multiple edible native/local coniferous species and start to develop “favorites” for your own unique recipes.
- Be certain your needles aren’t coated in mud, pesticides, and/or car exhaust.
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t eat your commercial Christmas tree, only that some additional cleaning measures may be prudent if you do.
How to process your Christmas tree needles for eating
Step 1: Remove the needles from branches
Fresh needles – It’s pretty well impossible to remove the needles from freshly cut Christmas tree branches by hand. That’s because needle retention is a feature commercial Christmas tree growers select for. (Consumers don’t want a skeleton of a Christmas tree in their living room a week after purchase.)
To harvest your Christmas tree needles, hold a branch steady with one hand, while using a quality pair of sharp kitchen scissors to cut the needles off parallel to the branch with your other hand. (Place a large bowl, plate, or cookie sheet underneath to catch the falling needles.)
You could potentially use this harvesting method to remove the needles from the non-viewable side of your Christmas tree without taking branches off the tree. That way, you can have your Christmas tree and eat it too!
Dry needles (but still green) – Some Christmas trees retain their needles better than others. Generally but not always, firs retain their needles best followed by Douglas fir (not a true fir) followed by spruce.
With some species, the needles may fall right off the branch when you touch them IF the tree/branches have been cut and dried for a week or more (this is the case with hemlock needles). Needles from other species will hold to the branches for weeks after being cut.
If the dry needles don’t easily fall off the branch when you rub them, break out the kitchen scissors and cut them off.
Here again, catch the needles by placing a large bowl, plate, or cookie sheet underneath.
Step 2: Remove debris (if necessary)
If you’re simply making infusions with your needles, there’s no reason to worry about small pieces of bark or debris. That’s because they’ll be screened out along with the needles.
However, if you’re making dishes where the needles aren’t strained out, you’ll want to remove as much debris as possible before getting started. Shaking them in a pasta strainer doesn’t work – the smaller needles get stuck or fall through.
The best method we’ve found is putting the needles in a single thin layer on a white plate or cookie sheet and picking out the debris by hand.
Step 3: To wash or not to wash?
We always forage our Christmas tree needles so we don’t bother washing them. However, if you’re using commercial Christmas tree needles of unknown provenance, it may be advisable to wash your needles prior to eating them.
In the book Acorns and Cattails, chef Rob Connoley actually recommends washing the needles with Dawn dish soap, which would certainly help remove any grime on the needles. Having never done this, we can’t attest to whether this cleaning method would impact the taste of the needles – presumably not if they’re well-rinsed afterwards.
If you do wash your Christmas tree needles, be sure to let the excess water completely dry if you’re using them to make things like Christmas tree sugar or salt (see recipes below). Simply spread them out in a thin layer on a cookie sheet under a ceiling fan for 24 hours to dry before using.
Young buds vs mature needles: when and how to use them
The season in which you harvest edible conifer needles is an important factor in determining ideal recipes to make with them…
For instance, young spring buds are so tender and delicately flavored that you can add them straight to salads or dice them and add them to softened butter to make herb butter. However, the flavors are much milder than mature needles and may not show up in recipes where stronger flavor is needed.
Mature needles (like the ones on your Christmas tree) have a more intense flavor but a tougher texture. You wouldn’t add them directly to salad or herb butter, but their flavor intensity makes them far better for making infusions than the relatively mild-flavored spring buds and growth tips.
Measuring and weighing conifer needles
A few quick notes about measuring conifer needles for recipes:
- Each species of conifer needles has a slightly different shape and density, thus 1/4 cup of Douglass fir needles is going to have a slightly different weight than 1/4 cup of blue spruce needles.
- Conifer needles weigh the most when they’re first harvested from a living tree; they lose water and weight each day thereafter.
In our recipes, we do our best to provide both volume and weight measurements using conifer needles that are within a week of being harvested from living trees.
Here are our baseline conifer needle measurements that we use throughout our recipes:
- 1 tablespoon conifer needles = 4 grams
- 1/4 cup conifer needles = 18 grams
- 1/3 cup conifer needles = 24 grams
- 1/2 cup conifer needles = 36 grams
- 1 cup conifer needles = 72 grams
Again, there may be some variability between our measurements and your measurements depending on what species of tree you’re using and the amount of water in your needles. Our suggestion: stick close to the volume measurements (use the weight as a reference IF you have a kitchen scale) and you’ll closely approximate our recipes.
What you’ll need: spice grinder versus multi-bladed blender
For most Christmas tree recipes, you don’t need any kitchen implements you don’t already have. For instance, a pan and a relatively fine-mesh strainer (or a pasta strainer) is all you need for infusions.
For recipes where mature needles are eviscerated, a good multi-bladed blender is adequate. (Small pieces of needle will still be present/visible.) However, a spice grinder produces far superior results for recipes like Christmas tree sugar and salt. (The needles are completely eviscerated.)
When starting out on our edible Christmas tree journey, we used our existing multi-blade Ninja blender. However, we’ve since purchased a quality spice grinder which you can get for as little as $40. (We use a Cuisinart SG-10 spice grinder.)
Recommendation: use a spice grinder if at all possible!
The base recipes you need to know to eat your Christmas tree
Since this is an edible Christmas tree guide, we’re going to primarily focus on recipes that use older mature needles. Once you have your needles harvested, the next step is turning them into easy-to-use ingredients/base recipes you can then add to other recipes to make Christmas tree-flavored magic.
Below are the base Christmas tree recipes you need to get started. Under each base recipe, we’ll add other recipes you can make using the base recipe(s). For instance, you’ll need to first make the base recipes Christmas tree cream and Christmas tree sugar before you can make our Christmas tree crème brûlée recipe.
Now let’s get cooking!
1. Christmas tree sugar
Christmas tree sugar is an excellent ingredient for desserts. Substitute it for regular sugar in recipes for ice cream/sorbet, cookies, pies, puddings, etc. to help turn them into the flavor of Christmas. It’s also marvelous coating a glass rim for adult beverages, mocktails, or eggnog.
We first heard about Christmas tree sugar via Marie Viljoen, whose book Forage, Harvest, Feast is packed full of inspiring recipes (including recipes you can make with your Christmas tree).
- Find out how to make Christmas tree sugar
- Recipes that utilize Christmas tree sugar: Christmas tree sugar cookies, Christmas tree cured egg yolks
2. Christmas tree salt
Now to the savory side of things with Christmas tree salt! This salt can be used to cure meats & egg yolks, as meat rubs and coatings, etc.
You can also substitute Christmas tree salt 1:1 for regular salt in vegetable fermentations where the flavors are complimentary (example: lacto-fermented beets) to add a bit of interesting nuance.
- Find out how to make Christmas tree salt
- Recipes that utilize Christmas tree salt: Christmas tree cured egg yolks
3. Spirits: Christmas tree-infused vodka
Want to make Christmas tree-flavored adult beverages? Start by making Christmas tree-infused vodka which can be consumed as-is or used as the base for other mixed drinks.
- 1 cup Christmas tree needles
- slightly less than 1 quart vodka
- Put Christmas tree needles and one cup of vodka in blender and blend for 30-60 seconds to help break down the needles and hasten flavor infusion. Pour needles and vodka into quart jar. Pour in remaining vodka until jar is full. Cover and place on kitchen counter or in cupboard, then wait…
- Christmas tree flavor will begin showing up in one week and be well-flavored by four weeks. Strain whenever using, leaving the needles to continue adding flavor to vodka for up to a year. (You can give the jar a vigorous shake or stir a couple times each day to speed up the process.)
4. Christmas tree dipping oil
Christmas tree dipping oil is subtle and nuanced. Serve it with lightly flavored breads (e.g. you shouldn’t dip an everything bagel into it).
Other uses: use infused oil to coat a pan when making flatbreads to add subtle Christmas tree flavors. Or use in place of regular olive oil to make Christmas tree aioli or Christmas tree mayonnaise.
5. Christmas tree butter
Want to add a smear of subtle Christmas flavor to your morning toast? Make Christmas tree sugar cookies (with the assistance of Christmas tree sugar)? You’ll need to make Christmas tree butter.
- Find out how to make Christmas tree butter
- Recipes that utilize Christmas tree butter: Christmas tree sugar cookies
6. Christmas tree cream or milk
Christmas tree crème brûlée? Christmas tree whipped cream? Yep. First you have to make Christmas tree cream. Christmas tree hot chocolate, pudding, curd, and more can be made with Christmas tree milk.
We created a cold-infusion method for more intense flavored Christmas tree flavor that takes more time (3 days in the fridge). We also have a hot-infusion method with less intense flavor that only takes about 30 minutes to make if you’re in a rush.
- Find out how to make Christmas tree cream or milk
- Recipes that utilize Christmas tree cream: Christmas tree crème brûlée
Other than needles, are there other edible parts of a Christmas tree?
If you want to get even more adventurous with your newfound edible Christmas tree addiction, you may be in luck… Yes, there are other edible parts on certain species of conifers.
- Cones – The immature cones on spruce and pine trees can be made into all sorts of treats, the most popular being cone syrup.
- Pollen – Despite their sneezy reputation, the pollen of some conifer trees is collected and considered a delicacy.
- Inner bark – Some conifer species also have an edible inner bark that can be eaten as-is, used as a flavoring, or dried and ground into flour.
We’ll share more on these edible treats in future posts. Also, we’d like to recommend two books for other Christmas tree eaters and food explorers; each contains delicious recipes you can make with your Christmas tree:
For now, you’re off to the races with your edible Christmas tree needles. Enjoy!