You’ve Got Soil Questions, and We’ve Got Answers

If you want to know how to access soil information for your property, work with multiple soils, or learn how to adapt your forest management for the soils you have, the USDA has online resources available to all that can help guide you through those processes.

Q: How can I access soil information for my property?

A: The U.S. Department of Agriculture publishes soil survey data online through a platform called Web Soil Survey. Although some areas are still undergoing initial mapping, the vast majority of private lands in the Pacific Northwest have soil survey data available. The data is available to the public, and best of all, it’s free! The following steps will help you obtain soils information for your property:

Step 1: Start Web Soil Survey by going to websoilsurvey.sc.egov.usda.gov/App/HomePage.htm. Click the large green “START WSS” button.

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Step 2: Define your area of interest (AOI). This is the area for which you will be obtaining soil survey data. You can simply enter an address or select a state/county, click “view”, and then zoom to your desired location on the map. Other navigation options are also available, although these methods are the most common and user-friendly.

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Once you are zoomed to your property or desired location, click the rectangular AOI tool to drag a box or use the polygon AOI tool to click around your select your AOI.

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The rectangle or polygon you select should then look like this:

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Step 3: View your soil map. Click the “Soil Map” tab at the top of your screen to see the soil survey map for your AOI. The map unit legend will appear on the left side of your screen. Clicking on the name of a map unit in the legend will open a window containing a description of that map unit and its individual soil components.

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Q: The soil map unit covering my property has multiple soils in it. How do I know which one I am working with?

A: In order to answer this question effectively I first need to clarify what exactly a “map unit” is, as well as explain the different types of map units used in soil surveys.

A map unit is a collection of areas defined and named the same in terms of their soil components (unique soil types) and/or miscellaneous (“non-soil”) areas. Each polygon delineated on a soil map is assigned a label or symbol that corresponds to a map unit. There are four general types of map units, however, for the purpose of this discussion I will focus on the three most commonly seen in soil survey products.

Consociations are map units dominated by a single soil component. A consociation may include minor components that occupy a relatively small (< 15%) percentage of the map unit area, but the map unit name will contain only the name of the dominant soil. Complexes and associations are map units consisting of two or more dissimilar components that occur in a consistent repeating pattern. The soil components comprising a complex cannot be separated at the mapping scale, while the components of an association can be; however, due to land use or user needs, they are not. Both of these map unit types may also include minor components. The map unit names for complexes and associations will contain the names of multiple soils.

Now to answer the original question: The map unit description (accessible by following step 3 above) will provide descriptions of typical site the soil characteristics for each component in the map unit. The type of map unit covering your property can be inferred from the map unit name. If the map unit is a consociation, the soil component that you are most likely working with is going to be the single dominant component for that map unit. However, if the specific area on your property is not representative of the map unit’s typical landscape/landform, you may be working with a minor component.

If the map unit covering your property is a complex or association, you will have to look at the map unit description to determine the component(s) you are working with. Soils tend to correlate strongly with topography, so focusing on the “setting” category for each component’s description is recommended. If the setting details alone don’t allow you to confidently determine your soil, the “properties and qualities” category under each component’s description would be the next best place to look. The goal is to find the component that has both a setting and soil characteristics that best match the point on your property that you are interested in. If that area on your property is rather large and not uniform, there is a high probability that multiple soils will exist in that area, especially if the map unit is a complex.

Q: How can soil information help me make management decisions?

A: Having a basic understanding of the distribution and characteristics of your soils can be extremely beneficial to you as a landowner. Knowledge of soil properties such as texture, drainage class, depth to a restrictive layer, and flooding or ponding frequency can influence management decisions including road and structure placement, as well as species selection and planting density strategies.

The summary information found in the map unit description provides a great overview of site and soil properties. However, the Web Soil Survey platform also contains hundreds of interpretations and thematic maps specifically designed to aid in the making of management decisions. Again, these tools are free and available to the public! The following steps will walk you through how to access and use these valuable tools.

Step 1: Define your AOI and access your soil map, as shown in steps 1-3 above. Click on the “Soil Data Explorer” tab. Then click either the “Suitabilities and Limitations for Use” or “Soil Reports” tab.

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Step 2: Both the “Land Management” and “Vegetative Productivity” categories have several interpretations concerning various aspects of forestry operations. Click the downward facing arrow for these categories and then click the downward facing arrow for any interpretation you would like to run. Look through the options and customize them to best apply to your situation. For example:

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Step 3: Once you have your options selected, click the “View Rating” button to see your customized interpretive map. Click the yellow “Legend” tab on the upper-left side of the map to see the map legend. Below the map will be tables containing more detailed results for the selected interpretation.

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Step 4: Explore the many reports and interpretations available under the “Suitabilities and Limitations for Use” and “Soil Reports” tabs. You may save the results of any report or interpretation by clicking the “Add to Shopping Cart” button located in the upper-right of the screen.  You can save numerous interpretations and reports by adding them to your cart. When you are finished, simply click on the “Shopping Cart (Free)” tab, review the table contents, and then click “Check Out” to download a PDF copy of your comprehensive report.

Max Ross, Soil Scientist, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, max.ross@wa.usda.gov

Landowner Questions:  What’s a tool that “saved your bacon”?  

Restoring riparian ecosystems at Wild Thyme Farms with the help of a lawnmower.

Garrard Creek is a large salmon-bearing tributary of the Chehalis River in southwest Washington State. Wild Thyme Farm sits astride the creek, less than a mile before its confluence with the river. For most of the past century, this reach of the creek has been free of trees, utilized by cattle grazing up to its banks without fences or buffers. In the mid-1990’s, we coordinated with the Chehalis Indian Tribe as they installed fencing on both sides of the creek, 35’ from the bank. They also installed “nose pumps” for the cattle to access creek water without entering the buffer zone, and finally planted native trees within the buffer. Unclear as to our role in the maintenance of the buffer, we did no follow-up tending of the newly planted trees and were rewarded with a mortality rate exceeding 95%. Thick brush and canary reed grass ensured that there would be no easy transition to a forested riparian buffer.

In 2000, we enrolled in a 10-year contract with the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), administered by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). A detailed plan was drawn up to plant 3,000 trees and shrubs in approximately 6 acres on the north side of the creek, nearly all of which was in the flood plain. In the fall of 2000, we hired a Hygro-Tiller to drill several thousand planting holes: 3 feet wide, 3 feet deep and 10 feet on center. The Hygro-Tiller is an attachment at the end of an excavator arm that breaks the sod and loosens the soil without removing it. The following winter and spring (2001), we enlisted family and friends for repeated work parties to get the trees and shrubs in the ground. Eight plots were defined, containing a mixture of native species in patchy groves. Red Alder was the most dominant species at around 30%, followed by Oregon Ash, other hardwoods and conifers.

The first two years passed without incident, as we continued the old pattern of sitting back and watching the trees grow without much intervention. By the third year, it was clear that the resurgent grass was starting to take a heavy toll on our seedlings, and mortality began to increase. Voles discovered new habitat and cover from their predators in the tall grass, and their population exploded as they girdled hundreds of our young trees. The prospect of constantly weed-whacking six acres of thick grass seemed unbearable, and we were not willing to use herbicides at that time. Nevertheless, we were contractually obligated to keep the trees alive, maintaining an 80% or greater survival rate. NRCS/CRP paid in full for the planting costs in addition to an annual $85 per acre lease fee, and it was our job to ensure success.

A new Kubota tractor with a belly-mounted mower deck was the tool that turned the tide. With up to five times a year and ten hours per mowing session, the ground re-appeared, and the voles were vanquished. After about five years of intensive mowing, most of the trees were free to grow, and the mowing became lighter and more intermittent, ceasing completely by year ten. But by then, a much larger rodent had discovered our project and moved in to feast on our trees. “Build it and they will come” speaks to the ideal habitat we created for the flat-tailed beaver, and they were here to stay. Hundreds of small trees were felled annually by the beaver, but we noticed that their most preferred targets were “coppice” style trees that regrow easily, like cottonwood, willow and ash. Our solution was to mass-plant those species to saturate their demand, and it appears to have worked, eighteen years into the project. Beavers remain permanent residents, but their population has stabilized, and they take far fewer of the now larger trees.

Flooding of the site is routine during the winter, and it appears to have minimal effect on the trees. In the early years, an annual task was to remove flood debris and straighten up small trees that were pushed over by the rushing floodwater.  Re-planting dead holes was another annual task to maintain the required stocking levels. Nearly all trees are planted with protective plastic collars and cedar trees are permanently caged against beaver. Over the years, we have increasingly planted conifers for a longer-term trajectory towards the Desired Future Condition outlined in state forest practice regulations.

Starting with 3,000 plantings, we estimate that we have ultimately planted twice that to keep up with mortality. The site is now fully stocked, but with fewer trees than originally planned due to the wider spacing required by larger trees. Some natural thinning occurred, especially among the species planted between the aggressive red alder.  Beaver depredation provides small openings for a shrub layer to develop and is great habitat for birds. The most successful stands now have trees at 15 to 20 feet spacing, growing vigorously at year eighteen.

An ecological regime change from grassland to forest (afforestation) is much more difficult to implement than the natural cycle of re-forestation after a clear-cut. Grasses and their allies such as voles actively resist and suppress tree growth, so intensive tree care early and often is the key to success. As with conventional forestry, once the trees get established, there is not much more to do except for the occasional thinning.

After our CRP contract expired at year ten, we re-enrolled in the more extensive Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP). Along with initial funding for some replanting closer to the creek amongst the canary reed grass, the annual lease fee is much higher, at approximately $300 per acre. When the CREP contract expires in 2020, we will have a fully established forest ecosystem in the riparian zone. Although the termination of our contract with this federal agency technically allows us to mow it all down and return it to pasture, it is unlikely that the state Department of Natural Resources will allow this new forest to be harvested at any time in the future, as it is nearly entirely within the boundaries of the Riparian Management Zone buffer.  Although the income from the CREP program might be enticing, the landowner needs to be aware of future land use implications at the end of the program.

For more information about our riparian project, please visit this page on our website: http://wildthymefarm.com/ripcrprogram.html

Tree Profile: Red Alder

Red alder (Alnus rubra) is the most common hardwood species in the Pacific Northwest.  For a long time, in fact, many people might have said that it was a little too common.  Having little monetary value, growing where nobody particularly wanted it, and often times out-competing more commercially viable species, red alder has had a long-standing reputation among tree farmers as an opportunity for chainsaw practice.

However, things have changed over the last few decades and alder wood can now be worth nearly as much as Douglas-fir.  Not to mention it can be managed on shorter rotations, adds nitrogen to the soil, and can tolerate wet sites where many other species grow poorly.  Coming from the Midwest, where alder only grows as a shrub, it has been very interesting to learn about the ecological and economic potential of alder for forest owners.  With this potential in mind, I thought it might be worthwhile to give a detailed profile of this tree and clear up some common misconceptions.

Distribution and Ecology

Red alder ranges in a long stretch along the Pacific coast from as far south as southern California to its northern extent in southeast Alaska.  Some patches of it can be found on north-facing slopes in northern Idaho and western Montana, but for the most part it enjoys low elevations west of the Cascade Mountains.  The best tree development occurs below 1500 feet in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia (Harrington, 2006).

Under natural conditions, alder moves in first after a stand-clearing disturbance (fire, flood, large wind event, etc.), whichmakes it what forest ecologists call a “pioneer species”.  In unmanaged settings, it requires bare soil to establish and plenty of light to grow, so it’s rarely seen growing underneath an existing canopy.  It’s a fast grower, and achieves the majority of its height growth in the first two decades after establishment.  Additionally, alder is part of unique group of plants known as “nitrogen-fixers” that create symbiotic relationships with soil bacteria to transform atmospheric nitrogen for the plants use.  This allows it to establish on sites with limited nitrogen, such as new or highly disturbed soils.  Over time as natural succession continues, alder often gives way to shade tolerant species like western hemlock, red cedar, and Sitka spruce.  Typically living less than 100 years, alder has a relatively short lifespan.  So compared to other pioneer species like Douglas fir, which can often live to be 600 years old or more, alder is the “live fast, die young” tree of Pacific Northwest forests.

Silviculture and Management

It’s commonly known that red alder enjoys wetter soils.  Most forest owners can attest to this, as they’ve seen it take over their stream sides, ditches, and any other perennially moist sites.  While it’s true it is rarely found on drought-prone soils, it’s very important to recognize that it is also not a fan of overly wet, poorly drained soils like some species (i.e. ash, cottonwood).  For this reason, choosing a site where alder will grow into a valuable product can be difficult but is possibly the most important management step towards producing high quality logs.

A common phrase to hear among some foresters and tree farmers is that “anywhere Doug-fir will grow, alder will grow too”.  While there is truth to this, it’s not the entire story.  Just because alder will grow on a site, doesn’t mean it will grow well.  Table 1 shows some basic characteristics of a good alder site.

Table 1.  Characteristics of good and bad alder sites
Traits of Good Alder Sites Sites to Avoid Planting Alder
Elevation less than 1500ft Bogs or marshes
Lower slopes, flood plains, benches Upper slopes
West to east slopes South to southwest aspects
10-30% slope Frost pockets
Moderately well to well-drained soil Sandy, excessively drained soils
Silt loam, silty clay loam, clay loam, silty , clay Poorly drained soils
Soil depth greater than 30″ Sites with excessive weed competition
Depth to summer water table <10′ Exposed or windy sites
Source:  Dobkowski, 2006

If you’re interested in the financial return of growing alder, the best prices come from trees with large-diameter boles and few lower branches.  Getting alder to grow this way requires planting densely.  The competition with nearby trees forces alder to grow upwards quickly rather than growing laterally and creating a thicket of branches.  Recommended planting density is between 540 – 680 trees per acre (or a spacing of 9’ x 9’ or 8’ x 8’), although some plant lower where natural regeneration is likely.  And while you don’t need bare soil to plant alder trees, you will likely have to control competing vegetation.  A critical metric for successful alder management is the first year of growth.  Alder can reach 50% of its maximum height within 15 years, with the fastest growth rates occurring in the first 5-7 years (Harrington, 2006).  So if your trees aren’t shooting up out of the ground something is wrong, and it’s likely your site.  This early growth is critical to get out from under other competing vegetation (i.e. Scotch broom), which can stunt growth and kill seedlings.

How you manage your alder after it is established is going to depend a little on your goals.  Are you in it for timber?  Are you interested in its wildlife benefits? Are you looking for smaller logs to fuel your mushroom growing operation?  Heck, maybe you’re just growing it just because you like the look of it.

Alder requires a live crown ratio (the proportion of the stem with living foliage) of about 50% to maintain vigorous growth, where trees like Douglas fir can get away with 40% or even 30% at times.  Since it grows so fast, alder crowns in a densely planted stand can get below 50% as early as 7-10 years, depending on the site quality.  This is where your management goals come in.  If you’re not cash-driven and want to take a more hands-off approach, thin heavily and leave it be.  You can remove about 70% of the stems (down to around 150 trees per acre).  This will keep you from having to do another thinning down the road and you will still produce a fair amount of volume at the time of final harvest.  If you want more volume, thin lighter to about 250 trees per acre (or about 50% of the stems).  This will give you a little more volume to play with for a final harvest and possibly a commercial thinning before then.  The basic gist here is to plant alder densely to minimize the retention of lower branches and thin hard to maintain crown ratios.  The main difference between managing alder and managing conifer species is that you have to do it earlier and more frequently, which requires actively monitoring your stands.  If you play your cards right, choose the right site, and don’t miss your thinning windows, you could have an alder harvest as early as 30 years on really productive ground.  A quick, but important, note: don’t leave valuable alder logs on the ground after cutting.  Alder decays quickly.  So if you’re going to harvest, make sure you have a plan to get them to the mill quickly.

This is a short, sweet, and fairly rosy summary of even-age alder management, so I encourage you to check out the sources at the end of this article to get more in-depth information on alder silviculture and potential pitfalls.  Additionally, I know it is likely that the majority of landowners reading this are not sitting on an empty plot waiting to be planted.  Instead many are dealing with existing, and likely decadent, stands of alder.  These stands are common throughout western Washington and are a result of intense logging without replanting in the mid-20th century.  Intervening at this point is complicated and depends largely on your goals as the landowner.  If you are purely cash-driven, it can often be the most efficient choice to simply cut down the decaying alder and start over.  Thinning in these older stands provides little benefit to tree growth since crown ratios are typically small and trees are reaching the end of their lifespan.  However, many landowners aren’t motivated by income and instead are driven by a love of wildlife, aesthetic appearance, or recreation and consequently may be interested in developing more complex forest systems.  Your options for management can range from light-intensity thinning of the alder overstory to underplanting shade-tolerant species, or even doing nothing at all.

However, it is important to note the risk of doing nothing.  On occasion, the dense shrub layer that often exists in pure alder stands can inhibit regeneration of shade-tolerant conifers below and leave you with a thicket of shrubs after the alder dies.  To learn more about options for existing alder stands, try the WSU publication Management Options for Declining Red Alder Forests (PDF) by Kevin Zobrist.

It is also important to note that because it can tolerate wet sites, many existing stands of alder may be in Riparian Management Zones (RMZs).  It goes without saying, but your management choices are much more limited in these areas.  However, some options, such as converting alder to longer-living conifers (AKA a “hardwood conversion”), allow for management in these areas.  Contact the Washington DNR Small Forest Landowner Office to learn more.

Market and Uses

In the first half of 2018, the market value of red alder in the Washington coast market area has averaged around $720 per mbf (1,000 board feet).  Compare that to Doug fir, which has averaged about $745 this year. Clearly the market has changed since the 1990’s when alder was regularly worth less than $250/mbf.  And better yet, it’s showing no signs of slowing.  While the timber market is and always will be volatile and unpredictable in the long run, it seems that prices for quality alder saw logs are going to be competitive for the foreseeable future.

Alder is used for a variety of end products because of its wood characteristics and availability in the marketplace.  It has a reputation for being easy to machine, glue, and finish.  While it ranks low in durability and hardness, it is prized for its grain and appearance.  It’s often used for veneer, furniture, cabinets, paneling, doors, and food dishes.  Lower quality logs are often used in pulp products like tissue and paper.

Alder has many uses beyond traditional wood products.  Small diameter logs serve fantastically for mushroom growing material. The bark contains salicin, which is a chemical similar to aspirin that can be used to cure headaches and other
maladies. Native Americans often used alder for dyes, baskets, medicine, and even used the dried bark as soup thickener.

In terms of wildlife, birds welcome the fact that alder seeds stay on the tree throughout the fall and winter, when food is scarce.  Additionally, the dense shrub layers provide forage and habitat for a multitude of wildlife species.  Deer and elk also love the leaves, twigs, and buds (much to the frustration of tree farmers).

Conclusions

Alder is the best bet for a forest owner interested in hardwood management and its potential is remarkable both because of its vigorous early growth and ability to add nitrogen to the soil between conifer rotations.  If you’re a landowner and you’re hesitant to commit to growing alder, it’s understandable.  It has a long history.  And ultimately red alder is less forgiving than species like Douglas fir, so it may not be the right choice for an absentee landowner.  But many tree farmers have experienced planting conifers in an area, only to have them overtaken by naturally established, faster-growing alder.  In my mind, these are sites predestined for alder production and a great way for all types of forest owners to dip their toes in alder management (provided they are not in RMZs!).  After all, why fight it?  Now that it’s worth as much as other species, why not take advantage of what the site is doing already?

Learn More:
http://cru.cahe.wsu.edu/CEPublications/EM003/em003.pdf
https://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/publications/gtr669/pnw_gtr669b.pdf
https://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/olympia/silv/hardwoods/alder_plantation_establishment.pdf

Works Cited:

Dobkowski, A. (2006). Red Alder Plantation Establishment: Site Selection, Site Preparation, Planting Stock, and Regeneration. In R. Deal, & C. Harrington, Red Alder: A State of Knowledge (pp. 87-94). Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture – Pacific Northwest Research Station.

Harrington, C. A. (2006). Biology and Ecology of Red Alder. In R. Deal, & C. Harrington, Red Alder – A State of Knowledge (pp. 21-54). Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture – Pacific Northwest Research Station.

Patrick Shults, Extension Forester, Washington State University, patrick.shults@wsu.edu

Ask an Expert! Answers to Landowner Management Questions

Question:

I have knapweed and rush skeletonweed on my property (which isn’t huge, 80 acres, and the infestation isn’t enormous, just enough that it’s an issue for me). I spray, re-spray and re-re-spray, using 2,4-D and Milestone at 2 oz and 3/8 oz, respectively, per gallon, the dose the county weed guy recommends. The weeds never seem to die. I don’t think I’m wrong when it seems like I treat the same weeds year after year.

Do I increase the amount of chemical? Use a different chemical? Do something radical like dig up the weed and, with a tiny artist’s brush, paint undiluted 2,4-D directly on the root? Am I doing something wrong? Thanks.

Answer: 

Weeds never seem to die.

Thanks for your question and your determination to manage a couple of troubling noxious weeds.

Do I increase the chemical? A recommendation, that is part of an integrated weed management approach, would be that you monitor your upcoming season spray application closely to observe the impacts of your treatment. The rates and materials you describe should work well on the knapweed and skeletonweed. Treatment timing is also very important for these two perennial weeds. Treatment timings should include both the spring and fall to reduce the amount of new seed production. Timing must also consider periods when soil moisture is adequate and plants are actively growing to get good movement of herbicide into the plants. Both of these weeds are known for their abundance of seed produced and the seed viability in the soil (3 years for rush skeletonweed, 8 years for spotted knapweed).

Spotted knapweed and rush skeletonweed
Spotted knapweed (left) and rush skeletonweed (right) are aggressive weeds that can easily take over disturbed areas and rangelands. Photos:  Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board.

Taking the time to identify the boundaries of the weed populations and then working through the area in a grid pattern to minimize misses is time well spent. Additional time should also be given to scout outside the area to pick up any outlying plants. After the initial treatment, return to the site in about two weeks, to spot treat any new seedlings or any plants previously missed and beginning to bolt. Treatments in the fall season to target any plant rosettes that survived through the summer is very effective in reducing these perennial weeds.

In addition, always evaluate and consider the planting of competitive native vegetation in the area of the infestation to compete with these invasive weeds. If the weed site is frequently disturbed and can’t be managed differently, the location may require some annual maintenance to keep the weeds from spreading to other areas.

Distribution maps of spotted knapweed and rush skeletonweed.
Distribution maps of spotted knapweed (left) and rush skeletonweed (right) across Washington State.  Photo: Washington State Department of Agriculture.

Given the scale of your acreage and infestation size, individual treatments of digging, cutting and daubing stems with herbicide wouldn’t be very efficient for these fast moving weeds. However digging may be appropriate for those single, outlier weeds that are found elsewhere on your acreage.

By Bill Wamsley, Noxious Weed Control Board Coordinator, Lewis County, bill.wamsley@lewiscountywa.gov

Tastes like Christmas

Engelmann spruce
Engelmann spruce is one of several conifers whose leaves (needles) can be made into tea. Photo: US Forest Service.

We have many ways of identifying our Washington state conifers, from looking at the bark or tree silhouette to examining the needles. As part of a tree ID session at a Forestry Field Day this summer, I challenged participants to sip a variety of conifer needle teas. We had a good time trying to identify the species by flavor, but the comment I heard over and over was “These taste like Christmas!”

So this season is a good time to venture outside and try something new. New to many of us, anyway—various conifer needle teas have a long history of Native American use for both culinary and medicinal purposes. You can purchase Engelmann spruce, Douglas-fir, white pine and other teas packaged up in tea bags for your convenience from internet sites but as forest landowners, we are usually able to harvest them straight from the source. Most authorities recommend gathering the fresh, soft growth on spring branch tips for optimum flavor, however, winter needles can also be used (though you won’t be able to find green larch needles this time of year!) Start with a teaspoon or so of chopped needles per cup of hot water, and if it isn’t strong enough, add more or simmer a few minutes for a slightly different flavor.

Avoid yew or cedar needles which contain toxic compounds, but most other species—including western hemlock (the poisonous association with its name come from an entirely different plant) can be safely brewed. Some authorities caution use of some pine species by pregnant women because they may be abortifacient, but advise that the dose makes the poison. As with all wild foods, its good advice to taste in small quantities until you know how you will react—individuals vary in allergies and digestive tolerances to any new food or drink.  And don’t drink large quantities of a favorite until you have researched the constituents and know they are safe on a daily basis—like most everything else, variety and moderation are key.

Most herbalists agree that there is a lot of nourishment in a cup of needle tea with many species boasting lots of electrolytes, much more Vitamin C than orange juice, and high Vitamin A levels as well. Frontiersmen often drank conifer tea to stave off scurvy. In his book Stalking the Healthful Herbs, naturalist Euell Gibbons said of pine needle tea, “With a squeeze of lemon and a little sugar it was almost enjoyable, and it gives a great feeling of virtue to know that as you drink it you are fortifying your body with two essential vitamins in which most modern diets are deficient.”

While “almost enjoyable” is fairly faint praise, other sources enthusiastically compare the taste of conifer needles to mint, lemon, or even cola flavors—all with an overtone of forest.  So take a hike around your woods this winter, collect some needles, and try a cup. You may be eyeing that Christmas tree for a whole new purpose!

By Carol Mack, WSU Extension Forestry, cmack@wsu.edu

Sources for this story:

  • Stewart, Hilary. Drink in the Wild. Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver, B.C. 2002
  • Parish, Roberta, Ray Coupe and Dennis Lloyd. Plants of Southern Interior British Columbia. Lone Pine Press, 1996