In this article, you’ll find out how to identify, harvest, and eat the tender young growth tips and immature cones of spruce trees during spring.
Quick safety warning
Before detailing how to eat the tender needle buds/tips and immature cones of a spruce tree, we’ll sound the same warning here as in our beginner’s guide to foraging… Always make sure you’re 100% confident in your plant identification AND its edibility BEFORE you eat it.
Spruce trees are edible and safe. However, a novice forager might make the mistake of eating the needles of a deadly yew species, another type of conifer that’s quite easy to identify once you’re familiar with them.
How to identify a spruce tree
As we detail in our complete guide to eating conifer trees, here’s how to identify a spruce tree:
- Mature cones hang down, rather than being upright.
- 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).
*Note: Not all spruce species produce sharp needles.
Which species of spruce are edible?
All spruce tree species produce edible parts. Flavor and culinary quality may vary rather dramatically between spruce species, season, and region.
Spruce trees have a long history of use as both a nutrient-rich food source and for medicinal purposes. Our personal favorite edible spruce species of the ones we’ve tried over the years are Blue spruce (Picea pungens) and Norway spruce (Picea abies).
Unfortunately for us, spruce trees are quite rare in our warm southern Zone 7b climate since they are not native to our area. Thus, the only spruce trees around us are ones people have planted in landscapes. Fortunately for us, we know the location of multiple spruce trees within a one mile radius of our home.
Since The Tyrant isn’t thrilled about me foraging plants in other people’s front yards (hey, they’re not eating them!) we’ve arrived at a happy compromise: we’re now growing our own Blue spruce tree in a pot which we’ll be able to use for food once it grows larger. Grow, baby, grow!
We also plan to bring our potted spruce tree indoors during December for our family’s holiday festivities.
What parts of a spruce tree are edible?
Edible conifers (including spruce trees) have different edible parts depending on: a) the exact species, and b) the time of year. Thus, you have to get to know your local edible conifer species during each season.
Edible parts of a spruce tree include:
- inner bark / cambium layer
- mature needles (more fibrous and strongly flavored)
- immature needle buds/tips (tender and milder in flavor)
- immature cones
Eating the inner bark of the tree requires you to kill it, so that’s something you should only do if you’re clearing land or have to take down a spruce tree anyway. For recipes and ideas for using the mature needles, see our article about how to eat your Christmas tree.
Below, we’ll focus on harvesting and using a spruce tree’s immature needle tips and cones, which can be found in abundance at this point in the year (spring).
Harvesting & eating immature spruce needle tips
Spruces are evergreen but they don’t actively put on new growth in the winter. As they begin to break dormancy in late winter to early spring (depending on climate region), their needle buds open at the end of their branches, producing tender vibrant-green tips.
Amongst the species we’ve sampled, spruce tips are culinary gold. They’re tender with flavors resembling citrus and rosemary.
To harvest them, simply pinch off the tips, no tools required. Don’t denude the tree(s) you’re harvesting from. Instead only harvest a small fraction of what’s on the tree and only harvest from the lower branches, not the top of the tree.
When do you harvest spruce tips?
Harvest spruce tips from late winter through spring, depending on your climate zone. For us here in Zone 7b the best harvesting window for spruce tips is during the month of April.
How do you eat spruce tips?
Spruce tips can be eaten raw, cooked, or dried and powdered like a spice/flavoring. We add them raw to salads, use them to flavor desserts, and use the powder to bring unique color and flavor to dishes.
However, despite their intense flavors when raw, the compounds that give spruce tips their unique taste are fairly volatile, so they can all but disappear if you cook them for too long. That’s why spruce tip tea is made by pouring hot water over the needles, not boiling them for a long time.
Spruce tips also go beautifully in dairy desserts, especially in no-bake or short cook time desserts. Good example: try Alan Bergo’s spruce tip ice cream.
Harvesting & eating immature spruce cones
Spruce trees are monoecious, producing both male and female reproductive organs on the same plant. Some spruce species produce distinct, but smaller male cones along with the larger female cones. (Only pick male cones in these spruce species so the tree can still produce as many seeds as possible.)
However, some spruce species like Norway spruce produce male cones that look more like catkins than cones. The pollen they produce might be edible, but the cones aren’t. While the male organs of a Norway spruce aren’t visually impressive or edible, the immature female cones are strikingly beautiful and a choice edible.
Female Norway spruce cones are the largest cone produced by any spruce species. They start off in an upright position on the branch and feature a vibrant pink-purple color. As they begin to mature and take on a green hue, they begin to transition into their final *downward-facing position. (*Note: Downward facing mature cones is one way to help identify spruce trees.) Eventually, the mature brown cones open to release their seeds.
Generally, the younger the immature spruce cone is, the better it is from an edibility standpoint (especially if you’re using a recipe where the whole cone is consumed rather than just used as a flavoring before being discarded). However, you can still harvest and use the cones after they’ve started to take on some green coloration.
When do you harvest spruce cones?
Depending on your climate region, immature spruce cones may be harvested from February through May.
How do you eat immature spruce cones?
While you can technically eat young tender spruce cones raw, they’re pretty intensely flavored. Thus, they’re best cooked or fermented with the aim of either tenderizing them to be eaten whole or releasing their flavors into another medium like sugar or syrup.
For example, just before writing this article, I thin-sliced an immature female Norway spruce cone, sauteed it in butter with a bit of salt until lightly browned on both sides, then added a splash of maple syrup before immediately removing the pan from heat.
The spruce cones were rendered tender, delicious, and sweet. I poured the mixture over yogurt as a lunch treat. Even The Tyrant was impressed by the flavor, despite me having sourced the cones from someone else’s front yard!
Cleaning tip: You can remove any sticky resin from your knife or hands by wiping them with a towel or paper towel coated in cooking oil.
Spruce cone recipes
Some of our favorite foragers have created great recipes that you can make, substituting spruce cones 1:1 for pine cones. Check out:
These are foundational recipes which you can use on/in everything from pancakes, to meat glazes, to desserts, to drinks.
We hope the information in this article helps you get started on your journey to using the immature cones and tips of spruce trees each spring. Let us know how you spruce up your meals with this tasty food!
Other coniferous articles you’ll want to sink your teeth into:
- How to eat your Christmas tree
- Christmas tree crème brûlée
- Christmas tree sugar cookies
- Christmas tree cured egg yolks
- Chestnut spread or mash infused with spruce or other edible conifer needles
- Eastern hemlock tips + recipe