In Chippewa, cingob’, white spruce is one of the first edible and medicinal plants I enjoy come spring. Its fresh green tips are a popular forage – a top tip!
These next two edible and medicinal wild plants are very similar: white spruce and white pine. They’re named for the white crust that often coats them. The white spruce’s stiff needles are a blueish green. It’s also called skunk or cat spruce, and if you crush the mature needles and sniff you’ll immediately know why.
The ruffed grouse, red squirrel, porcupine, and black bear – as you can see from the title image above – are just a few of the wild ones that frequent spruce trees. Numerous birds as well. I’ll include as many as I can in the tags at the bottom of this article.
Most evergreens have similar edible and medicinal qualities, with varying piney tastes and fragrances. The black spruce (lat. picea mariana) in our area should be interchangeable.
Edible Uses of White Spruce
My most frequent use of spruce is to take a few fresh, bright tips and make a simple hot tea from them. It’s one of the springtimes first foraging offerings.
These edible tips can be used in a multitude of ways. They honestly don’t taste like skunk or cat piss, despite the result of that sniff I encouraged you to take.
Spruce beer was a popular beverage once upon a time, mainly made with black spruce. It tastes nothing like rootbeer despite the claim, and it is an acquired taste. Wealthy settlers mixed brandy and maple syrup with spruce beer to make it more sickly inebriating.
The inner bark can be harvested early spring and eaten fresh or dried, but it is best dried and ground into a flour to use sparingly in baking recipes. Now in my neck of the woods, there is an overabundance of white spruce. And on that note, it’s not wise to have them too close to your home or cottage as it’s like being surrounded by matchsticks. If you’re fireproofing your property by clearing some evergreens, perhaps it’d be best to do it in the spring (but before the birds start nesting) in the name of experimenting with the inner bark.
Tender young shoots stripped of needles have been boiled as a starvation food.
Needles High in Vitamin C
Medicinal Uses of White Spruce
White spruce is primarily said to support these body systems:
Medicinal tags include Antiseptic, Carminative, Diaphoretic, and Expectorant. See Medicinal tag key for more information.
Common usage includes spruce resin (aka pitch, aka gum, and sometimes called sap) as a popular medicinal in salves used for treating a variety of skin conditions. The inner bark has been similarly used as a poultice. Isorhapontin within the white spruce is an antifungal and may come into play here, but I cannot confirm.
The resin is also often used in salves for pain relief of muscles and joints, usually in combination with other evergreens, and popular now in Ontario, pot. For “stiff joints” is also the sole usage mentioned by Densmore in How Indians Use Wild Plants.
Spruce gum was chewed to relieve coughs but beware of its possible laxative effects. Be sure to check on white pine, our next herbal, favored for respiratory usage.
Alternative Uses of “Skunk Spruce”
Spruce gum is also purported to be a natural tooth whitener, primarily due to an explorers word, one Nicolas Denys, attributing First Nations good teeth to it. Though certainly, Weston Price would cue in other primary factors to explain those pearly whites. If you wish to chew it anyway, you may want to add in mint, and black spruce gum was more frequently used this way.
The variety of uses for spruce are innumerable and include every part of the tree. A few examples are the use of the roots in making snowshoes and baskets, and of the pitch for making torches. Of course, there are various building uses including the spruce’s straight and uniform trunk for tepee poles.
I made a staff out of a little trunk.
The rotting wood produces a yellow-brown dye.
Growing Native Spruces
Since white spruce is everywhere in our area, I’m going to take a turn here. Here are a few wild plants that can grow in its understory besides the usual emerald bed of mosses, lichen, and sedges: alder, blueberries, bunchberry, ironwood, horsetails, twinflower.. not a complete list. You can find many more ideas searching Ontario Native Plant Gardening.
One of my ongoing projects is weaving blueberries and ironwood into my white spruce forest wherever there is at least partial shade. Eventually the spruce will die, naturally, and sugar maple will dominate. I might find myself planting a little spruce tree on the edge of this future maple woods someday, decades from now.
If you lack spruce, white, red and black spruce are all native here. (The popular Norway is not! Neither is blue spruce.)
Use evergreen teas in moderation.
Some people develop rashes from spruce resin, sawdust or needles.
And the Usual Cautions:
1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation.
2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk.
3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored. Herbalists do not have an official certification yet, but that may be in the works.
4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.
5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.