Assiniboine Park White Spruce Harvest Dec. 2021

Posted on Categories:Blog Posts, Harvest Stories

This adventure starts with the onset of Covid-19 into our household. Likely through our son’s school – and – likely the Omicron variant. This of course means, that we are hunkered down for the next couple of weeks. To fight the boredom, I had been doing reading about one of the most abundant forageable goods during a Canadian winter (our beloved spruce trees) and in particular, the white spruce. There are a few really interesting things that can be done with Spruce needles, and I suppose now is the time to give it a try!

White Spruce Trees in Winnipeg, Manitoba Canada.

What is the White Spruce?

Excpert from Wikipedia:

Picea glauca, the white spruce,[3] is a species of spruce native to the northern temperate and boreal forests in North America. Picea glauca was originally native from central Alaska all through the east, across southern/central Canada to the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland. It now has become naturalized southward into the far northern United States border states like Montana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine; there is also an isolated population in the Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming.[4][5][1][6] It is also known as Canadian spruceskunk sprucecat spruceBlack Hills sprucewestern white spruceAlberta white spruce, and Porsild spruce.

Why Forage White Spruce?

Spruce trees are in abundance! Spruce also provides foraging opportunities all year round. The needles are edible and most commonly used to make a hot tea, which is steeped (not boiled) to retain its nutritional quality (we will get into that later). All parts of the tree are non-toxic. Not only can it be used to make hot tea but it can also be used in syrups, as a wild yeast starter, and can be pickled and fermented! Where to start! We will collect, the needles, some tips, bark, and sap! Food and medicine! Not only is the white spruce abundant but it is also an incredible source of Vitamin C, a great medicine for anyone who is fighting off a cold or the flu (although we are fully vaxxed anything we can do to help to fight off Covid-19, we will try!).

Where to Find White Spruce?

As we mentioned before, white spruce is everywhere. It isn’t hard to track down some conifers which make it an awesome foraged good for beginners. The only tree that is poisonous lookalike is the Yew family of evergreens (Taxus baccata). It is pretty easy to tell the difference between the different evergreens and spruce is most easily identified by its shorter four-sided needles. Here is a good guide to identifying conifers!! For our spruce harvest, we walked along the Assiniboine Forest along the edges where some of the surrounding pine trees have been slowly moving into the forest area – which is predominantly aspen.

What’s the Science?

Ok, so what is the science?? There is evidence to suggest that White Spruce was potentially the lifesaving plant known as “Addenna”, a plant that healed Cartier’s critically ill crew.

Several conifers have been considered as candidates for “Annedda”, which was the source for a miraculous cure for scurvy in Jacques Cartier’s critically ill crew in 1536. Vitamin C was responsible for the cure of scurvy and was obtained as an Iroquois decoction from the bark and leaves from this “tree of life”, now commonly referred to as arborvitae. Based on seasonal and diurnal amino acid analyses of candidate “trees of life”, high levels of arginine, proline, and guanidino compounds were also probably present in decoctions prepared in the severe winter.

Arginine, scurvy and Cartier’s “tree of life”
Don J Durzan 

Aside from a healthy dose of Vitamin C, another compound that I found quite interesting was the high levels of shikimic acid, which is a key material used to synthesize Tamiflu!

Shikimic acid is a white crystalline cyclitol, which is a precursor material for industrial synthesis of the important drug, oseltamivir phosphate (Tamiflu), which is an effective drug against the H5N1 influenza virus [1], especially if administered early. According to the in vitro and in vivo studies, shikimic acid and its derivatives possess many pharmacological effects, such as antithrombotic [2], anticoagulant [3], anti-inflammatory [4], analgesic [5], antioxidant [6], anticancer [7], and antibacterial effects [8]. Serious health threats have promoted social development and the concerns over an outbreak of the disease have increased the need for shikimic acid [9]. Shikimic acid (Figure 1) was first isolated from the fruit of Illicium religiosum by Eykman in 1885 [10]. Currently, most of the shikimic acid required by the pharmaceutical industry was obtained from the fruits of Chinese plant star anise (I. verum) [11]. The fruits of this tree were reported that the content of shikimic acid ranged from 2 to 7% [12]; however, only I. verum resource could not satisfy its growing market demand as growing difficulties. Potential alternative resources of shikimic acid are thus urgently required. Shikimic acid is a widely occurring primary plant metabolite, which has been identified in some conifer needles with relative abundance distribution.

Extraction and Chromatographic Determination of Shikimic Acid in Chinese Conifer Needles with 1-Benzyl-3-methylimidazolium Bromide Ionic Liquid Aqueous Solutions

Fengli Chen,1 Kexin Hou,1 Shuangyang Li,1 Yuangang Zu,1 and Lei Yang
White Spruce, Assiniboine Forest, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

How to Prepare White Spruce Tea

Preparing white spruce tea is easy, however, one thing should be considered. It is strong medicine! A small bit goes a long way. The first time we made the tea we made it incredibly too strong. We finished a couple of cups before figuring out the exact ratio to give enough of a citrus pop without being too overwhelming. As a simple rule of thumb, a couple of sprigs the size of your thumbs in 6 cups of water is a rough idea.

This is too much:

This makes VERY strong medicine.

We finally landed on this recipe. One cinnamon stick, one apple, one 13g sprig of our harvested white spruce, and a tablespoon of vanilla in 6 cups of water. Bring to a simmer (do not boil as the heat will damage the vitamin C!) and let it steep. It was quite delicious and really got me thinking about more practical uses for this citrus-style flavor.

The outcome Holiday Spruce tea.

How to Make White Spruce Soda

My next recipe is a simple fermentation process. I added 1/8 c of maple syrup to a jar of water and (roughly) a cup of spruce sprigs. I want to capture the wild yeast to see if I can get a woodsy soda going on!! We are on day two! Not sure the direction I will go with this but I can’t help but think the flavors are so well suited for a fizzy pop!

Wild white spruce fermentation station.

Final thoughts!

Lately, I have been obsessed with this show From The Wild, filmed in Alberta by Kevin Kossowan, about the journey to rediscovering his connection to wild food. I highly recommend it. The show has been inspiring for me to go out and actually use some of the foraged goods that I often overlook, something like the spruce tree. Just as I suspected, the tea is actually quite nice and is something I can see myself making again or at least enjoying when we are out in the woods again.

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Unboxing Our Handmade Siberian Kuksa

Posted on Categories:Blog Posts, Unboxing

Today is an exciting day! Before we get too far into learning about kuksas, we would first like to say happy holidays to everyone who has found the blog and has started to follow. We are so grateful for your time and connecting with each of you through our experiences and stories, is a wonderful feeling. Thank you!

Living in the cold, harsh climate of Manitoba means that we often have to consider different tools while in the bush. The old, stainless steel canteens are a bleeding lip waiting to happen. You only ever lick a steel pole in the wintertime once in Canada, and you never forget it. For this reason, a wooden Kuksa, is the cold-approved drinking utensil for the great white North!

Today is the day we got to unbox ours!

Unboxing our new handmade Kuksa from @soul_of_siberia.

What is a kuksa?

Kuksa is the Finnish translation for a Guksi, a wooden cup traditionally made by the Sami people. Here is an excerpt from Kotka Living:

Originally, kuksa were widely used in Arctic areas as a personal drinking cup, so they had to be durable. The kuksas come from the Duodji: a handicraft of the Sami people. The duodji is functional and utilitarian, and sometimes concerns artistic elements but essentially are everyday objects (knives, bowls etc.) This art form splits into two categories because of the materials used – all of them natural: female objects, most often made of skins, and male objects made of wood, horn or bone. They are linked to the nomadic way of life: they had to be practical while remaining easy to adapt to the constraints linked to the environment.

Kuksa made of burl holds cold or warm drinks and can be used for collecting berries. Birch burl can withstand big temperature differences, and because of this it’s no problem to pour boiling water while the air temperature is freezing -15°C. The material does not crack when dropped on the ground. The name Guksi or Kuksa means ladle, a cup or a scoop, as that is what it was used for.

The kuksa is part of the male object group. It was traditionally handmade, requiring both time and dexterity in the cutting of the wood. In most cases, a Sámi would make his own kuksa. It was also meant to be a gift sometimes. The kuksa embodies the duodji’s importance in Sámi identity: a handmade object which bears a culture, a symbol of their way of life.

The Story of kuksa – kotka living

How is a kuksa made?

Birch is an ideal kuksa wood and is historically the most common wood used for this purpose. The most prized kuksa wood is a birch burl that has the same curvature as the finished kuksa, but other woods can be used as well. A burl is a tree growth in which the grain has grown in a deformed manner. Burl formation is typically a result of some form of stress such as an injury or a viral or fungal infection. It often takes the shape of a knot or rounded outgrowth and looks a lot like the Chaga we talked about in our last post!

Handmade Birch Kuksa from @soul_of_siberia.

What kuksa did we get?

We picked up a kuksa made from Anton in Western Siberia. He runs “Soul of Siberia” kuksa shop. You can watch him work below:

What do we think?

It is absolutely beautiful! It’s light, yet sturdy and the wood grain gives it its own unique fingerprint and story. This is something we have always loved about wood carving and using wood as a raw material. In fact, we love it so much, our engagement ring from Chasing Victory, has a Bethlehem olive wood inlay, but that is another story for another day. We also feel like after that harvest of Chaga last month and now this birch kuksa, that we are somehow connected to the birch trees this winter – just an interesting observation.

Our official opinion is that they are a must-have for the avid outdoors-person!

Handmade Birch Kuksa from @soul_of_siberia.