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Living in a northerly climate, I have often speculated about how aboriginal people avoided diseases caused by vitamin deficiencies like scurvy (no imported citrus in those days.)

According to wikipedia, the French explorer Jacques Cartier and his men were saved by the natives showing them how to

boil the needles of the arbor vitae tree (Eastern White Cedar) to make a tea that was later shown to contain 50 mg of vitamin C per 100 grams.

Has any one ever made this concoction? The instructions at eHow seem pretty straight forward, but I am still a bit nervous about the whole thing. After reading a passage like

If you have access to fresh, bright-green pine needles, you too can enjoy this unusual tea

questions that occur to me like "will any kind of pine's needles do, or are some poisonous" have prevented me from experimenting.

Inquiring minds need to know!

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As a partial answer to your speculation, vitamin C isn't unique to citrus. Pretty much all fresh fruit & vegetables contain vitamin C. E.g., broccoli is nearly 0.9mg/g. Scurvy on ships has a lot to do with vitamin C being very easy to destroy. –  derobert Aug 10 '11 at 16:54
I would really not trust eHow when it comes to food/herbal safety, even though in this case they might be right; good call being nervous enough to still ask. –  Jefromi Aug 10 '11 at 21:19
Eastern White Cedar, arborvitae, Thuja occidentalis doesn't really have needles, it has scaly leaves: Link does say that tea made from bark and leaves does cure scurvy (1536), and hence the name arborvitae. –  Wayfaring Stranger Feb 9 '14 at 12:17
Many of the answers below are based on personal experience or "things they read somewhere". Unless those claims are backed by research and facts, i would highly suggest that you are careful. A substance can be poisonous even if it's effects aren't easily detectable. –  Fermi paradox Sep 22 at 18:00

7 Answers 7

up vote 3 down vote accepted

I have been told that cedar, white and yellow pine, and many other variaties are safe in normal quantities and have high vitamin content. Some have supposed medicinal effect for headaches, such as cedar. My advice is to look up "tea" or "infusion" with each type of needle you want to try so you can avoid a poisonous concoction. As for white pine, I have made delicious tea for breakfast and for the canteen with it while camping and have survived so far. It goes quite well with wild mint.

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The fact that it didn't cause any (apparent) harm to you, does not mean that it is safe. It might be safe, or it might be that you have been lucky. –  Fermi paradox Sep 22 at 18:03

The most obvious and significant conifer species to be concerned about is Yew. Most yew is shrubby but I'm familiar with at least a couple individuals that are large enough to resemble a small hemlock tree if you're less familiar. Yew is extremely toxic. If you wish to forage conifer needles it's worth learning its characteristics, as it's not hard to identify once you do. Useful reference:

All the hemlocks (the tree kind, not the flowers) are safe. Further information- Link mostly discusses Western Hemlock but Eastern Hemlock is functionally identical aside from having a different set of folklore and somewhat thinner cambium.

The junipers and cedars are safe for most people in moderate amounts; that said, many of them do contain relatively powerful compounds. Eastern White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis) for example is one of the richest sources of thujone, which is a stimulant at low doses but at higher doses toxic to the nervous system and liver. Consequently some sources state that it is toxic, but this is not the whole story. Thujone is also found in culinary herbs like sage and rosemary and brewing herbs like wormwood. The dose is the question. Essential oil of wormwood contains more than enough thujone to kill you, but liqueurs made with wormwood benefit from their much lower dose. The levels available from White Cedar may indeed be risky for those pregnant or nursing, for example. For myself, on the other hand, there's no reason not to enjoy some cedar tea from time to time. Or to brew mead with it, as I like to do. This site contains a good discussion of thujone: More here: More on junipers: More on Thuja genus cedars:

For regular consumption across a range of constitutions the true pines are the best, though. Almost all of them are quite benign, except perhaps (again) if you're pregnant, as they are reputed to be able to induce miscarriage (also probably dose-dependent, but who would want to mess around with a risk like that?) Ponderosa Pine, also called yellow pine, is the only one that I am aware of being potentially harmful, and this seems to be usually connected with pregnancy risks as well, but to a much greater degree, at least based on its well-known toxicity to cattle. Clearly there are plenty who use it, but if you have multiple pine species around it may be best to concentrate on the others. Couldn't hurt. White Pine in particular is pretty much unimpeachable. It's easy to positively identify by the needles, which are attached in clusters of 5. White pine is the only pine with this characteristic. A good primer on pine tea: Anyone further interested in the ethnobotany and chemistry of human use of pine products for nutrition will find this paper a treat:

Pine-needle tea is measured to have several times the vitamin C content of citrus fruits. Well worth it in my opinion!

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Very, very interesting. Do you have sources for this? –  razumny Feb 10 '14 at 8:10
I will go through an add sources for my various statements. –  Erik Feb 10 '14 at 16:22

I have chewed on pine, fir, spruce, and juniper needles including Ponderosa pine since I was a child. I am 62 now. You can make tea from pine, spruce, juniper, and probably fir. You use the fresh, new tips in the spring. I used to dry the spruce tips for later use. It makes a mildly sour tea with a slight piney flavor. It is good with a little honey. As to any toxicity, I do not know. A lot of foods we normally use have certain levels of toxicity. If there is toxicity, I suspect it would be in the mature needles which have higher levels of aromatics. I was taught when I was young that you use only the new growth, the bright green tips in the spring. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, the son of an itinerant logger and learned what I know mostly from my family. As a matter of note, currently living in New Mexico, I have Navajo friends who do use juniper and western cedars for tea. They also use juniper berries as a seasoning in things like stews and red chili, as well as use juniper ash as a leavening for quick breads, both of which I've used to good effect. Don't be afraid of the tea. I'm still alive and quite healthy.

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Juniper berries are really quite widely used as a spice and to make gin. –  millimoose Dec 24 '13 at 3:25
@CareyGregory People don't have to explain downvotes, and upvoting to balance is a pretty bad reason to upvote - I hope you mean that you found the answer useful. Personally, I think this is an iffy answer because it attempts to answer the question by saying (1) it hasn't hurt me, so it's safe, and (2) I don't know if there's any toxicity; it's borderline not an answer. –  Jefromi Dec 24 '13 at 17:57
@Jefromi I didn't say anyone had to explain downvotes, and yes, I found the answer useful. Nevertheless, comment deleted since you found it bothersome. –  Carey Gregory Dec 29 '13 at 22:32
The fact that it didn't hurt you does not necessarily mean it is safe. It could be safe. Or it could have caused you some damage that you are not aware of. Even deadly poisons don't necessarily kill whoever consumes them. See LD-50 for more info. –  Fermi paradox Sep 22 at 17:58

Stay away from the ponderosa pine! It is poisonous.

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Yes. All pines have toxic qualities, the Ponderosa more so than most. –  Jolenealaska Dec 21 '13 at 1:02

I read on on a survival website that you boil the white cedar needles or bark to make the tea. But it will leave an oily surface on top of the water when you are done. The site says to simply pour off the top portion to remove the oil and you will be fine. The oil has painful side effects if you drink it because it is toxic.

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A "survival website" doesn't sound like a very reliable source. It could simply state the opinion of someone that "tried it once and didnt die", which does not mean it is safe. Check what LD-50 is. –  Fermi paradox Sep 22 at 17:53

I am having trouble finding any record of any sort of evergreen tree being harmful to consume sparingly as tea. obviously overdoing anything has harmful consequences.

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I disagree. Some poisons are harmful even on tiny amounts. Also the fact that you did not find anything suggesting evergreen trees are harmful, does not mean they are safe. –  Fermi paradox Sep 22 at 18:07

I've made white pine bark soup, which is made from the inner bark of the eastern white pine (Pinus Strobus). I did it for a wilderness survival course, years ago. Tasted like paint thinner, though I'm told that in a non-survival situation, you're supposed to keep changing out the water until it's nearly clear (obviously the water would be rich in leached nutrients, so don't do that if you're starving).

Here is a link to a guy who's pretty enthusiastic about the stuff. I don't know where you'd get the bark to experiment with that sort of soup (or chips??! I suppose he'd make cereal out of it if given the opportunity), but the needles should be reasonably easy to gather for tea. I'm afraid my experience with it has stuck with me, so you'll pardon me if I don't try it myself.

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