"Let's drink some pine tea," my partner Jim said, at our camp along the Metolious River. "Uh, Ok," I murmur, trusting that this man with a botany degree knows what he's talking about. "I've never thought about drinking the trees." He grabs the new growth off of a young Douglas fir—the bright green, tender new leaves. Jim crushes a few needles in his hands and says, "smell this." I take a deep breath. It smells like the forest is alive. The aroma is surprisingly sweet with hints of citrus.
Jim washes the pine needles as I put on a pot of water to boil. When the water is ready, I remove it from our scratched and weathered camp stove, add a handful of pine needles and let it steep for 10 minutes.
This is the first time I've foraged for anything and the experience of finding my own food is satisfying. I pour the fresh steeped tea into two individual Light My Fire camp mugs, the ones with the lids like sippy cups. The child-like protection is appreciated, because we walk along the spines of downed trees around camp with the mugs in our hands while we wait for the tea to cool—with no worry of spilling.
When the tea is ready I take my first sip. The flavor is so gentle. I can taste the sweet citrus I smelled earlier. It's quite nice, like a warm hug from the forest.
With this positive experience, we're ready to taste more. We decide cedar tip tea is next. The cedar doesn't have as sweet of a smell as the Douglas fir, but it still has a lovely forest aroma. We make the tea, let it steep and cool, then take our first sips. This tea tastes dry and medicinal, nowhere near the warm hug of the Douglas fir. The cedar is more like tripping on a root in the forest.
I decide I'm hooked on Doug and start dreaming about other tasty beverages I can make from the sweet conifer. On our hike out from our campsite I forage a full bag of Douglas fir tips to take home.
Back in my home kitchen I discover that besides the tea, Douglas fir makes a great simple syrup and an absolutely delightful liquor. Both recipes are really simple. The simple syrup is ready in 10 minutes. The hardest part of making the liquor is waiting a few months for it to be ready.
There are also a few health benefits from drinking this tree. Douglas fir has a high content of Vitamin C and has been used for colds and inflammatory conditions such as rheumatism and arthritis. The most magical property of using the Douglas fir tips is that it transports you back to the forest whenever you want. If you've ever left Central Oregon and then returned, you realize this place is covered with the sweet, intoxicating scent of pine and other conifers. When you live here, you get so used to the smell you no longer notice it. All you need to revive that scent memory is a delicious tree beverage. Here are a few to try:
A few Douglas fir tips
1 ½ cups water
Directions: Add Douglas fir tips to a French press and cover with boiled water (you can also use a saucepan). Let steep for 10-15 minutes, strain and serve. The color of the tea may be clear to light brown.
Douglas Fir Simple Syrup
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1 cup Douglas fir tips
Directions: Roughly chop the tips and add all ingredients to a small saucepan. Turn the stove to medium and bring the mixture to a boil. When the sugar is dissolved, usually 8-10 minutes, remove from heat. Once the mixture cools, strain it through a fine sieve. For stronger syrup, let it steep for a few hours before straining. The simple syrup will keep for up to a month in the fridge. Mix with sparkling water to make a soda, add to a cocktail, or use it as a sweetener in desserts.
The Bend Julep Cocktail
1.5 oz. bourbon
1 oz. Douglas fir simple syrup
A few lime wedges
2-3 dashes grapefruit bitters
Directions: Muddle lime and mint. If you don't have a muddler you can use the end of a wooden spoon. Add bourbon (I recommend the Cascade Alchemy brand), simple syrup, bitters (I like the Bitter Housewife brand) and ice. Shake for 20 seconds and pour over crushed ice in a highball glass, if you're fancy, or a mason jar if you're feeling rustic. Garnish with mint.