Field Notes: Harvesting Spruce Tips
On our weekend trip out to the logging roads of Wrangell Island, as we drove past rolling evergreen mountainsides, I gaped for a moment in awe of the sheer mass of life in these forests. Massive trees created by nothing more than nutrients, water, and sunlight. We’re talking 300 ft. tall, many hundreds of years old, 10 ft. diameter trees soaring to life from the most basic elements. It’s mind-blowing. And humbling. And perfect reason to spend the day hiking out, breathing in, and communing with these wise old giants.
Windows down, bare arms warmed by spring sunshine radiating from an uncharacteristically bright blue sky, Dan, Togiak, and I cruised out into the forests in search of fresh green fragrant Sitka spruce tips.
Spruce tips are the year’s new growth that spruce trees put out at the end of every single bough. When the season’s rains, sunshine, and warmth align just right, the new tips burst forth from their scaly, papery brown shell. Young spruce tips are edible, tasty, soft and vibrantly green, not yet hardened and spikey like their older counterparts.
Throughout Alaska, spruce tips have been enjoyed as a traditional food source for hundreds of years. Recently spruce tips have gained popularity among regional foodies as they lend a unique bright, citrusy, subtly spruce-y flavor to things like cocktails, jellies, spice mixes, sea salts, ice cream, and beer. The spruce tips we collect today will be dried, mixed with hand-harvested Labrador tea leaves, and blended into our woodsy-smelling Rainforest Bath Soak for your soaking pleasure.
With our recent stretch of warm weather our local spruce tips are popping off FAST. We park the car at a dusty turnout on the logging road and trek toward the trees. I wear rubber-tipped garden gloves, even though my hands are sweltering in the 70 degree heat, to keep painful pokes from the spruce’s spikey needles at bay.
Picking spruce tips is a slow, meditative process as we gather one, two tips at a time. We shake off the remnants of each bud’s shedding ‘tree skin’. We make sure to leave at least one tip at the end of each branch to ensure the tree can keep growing with gusto. And we drop a few tips at a time into our cloth pillowcases we use for gathering bags.
While we pick and chat (about dreams for the summer, the upcoming fishing season, the house we’re building together - board by board, slowly but surely, not unlike this harvest session), Togi tucks himself into the cool shade beneath a bigger spruce, likely wishing he was burrowed beneath a foot of snow instead.
With bags full and bellies rumbling for lunch, we cruise to the bottom of a valley for a pitstop dip in an icy cool creek lined with big mossy boulders and towering yellow cedar trees. Togiak laps it up, swims, and sprints like a maniac through the shady forest. I look up at the massive ancient trees towering overhead, drinking up the golden sunshine and fresh snowmelt to grow even bigger one tip at a time, and lose my mind over the magic of this forest all over again.