Pine Conifers
Conifers (division Pinophyta) first appeared in the Carboniferous period more than 250 million years ago and about 100 million years earlier than the first flowering plants. While conifers cover vast areas of the earth and are of great economic value for wood, paper and pitch, few are much used as food.

Conifers are noted for their seed cones (female) and much smaller pollen cones (male). Most have long narrow leaves called "needles" but in some the leaves are small triangular scales covering the twigs. The seed cones often have many scales which may be woody, leathery or paper-like, but in other genera the scales are fleshy and fused together so the cone resembles a berry.



Araucaria   -   [genus Araucaria of family Araucariaceae]
Monkey Puzzle These are the southern hemisphere equivalent of pines, but are related to the northern hemisphere pines only at the order level Pinales. A few species, particularly the Monkey Puzzle A. araucana of Brazil and Chile and the Bunya-bunya A. bidwillii of Eastern Australia are harvested to yield seeds often called "pine nuts" even though Araucaria are not actually pines.

The photo shows the densely needled habit of these trees which are now widely planted as ornamentals in the northern hemisphere from which they have been absent since the demise of the dinosaurs about 65 million years ago.

Junipers   -   [genus Juniperus of family Cupressaceae (cypress)]
Junipers, ranging from tiny shrubs to medium size trees, are found throughout the Northern Hemisphere in some 50 to 67 species (depending on which botanist you wish to believe). Some have short needles and others have their twigs covered with tiny triangular scale-like leaves. A number bear cones that can be used for flavoring, two of which are described here. The female cones are comprised of just a few fleshy scales which are fused together to resemble berries.

Common Juniper   -   [J. communis]
Juniper This shrub or small tree is found across North America, Europe and Asia. It provides the juniper "berries" of commerce and those used to flavor most gin. The leaves are moderate length needles and the three fleshy scales of the cones are fused together to resemble a berry. These cones are too bitter to eat raw and are generally sold dried for use as a flavoring. They should be crushed when used to release the flavors. Photo from Wikimedia Commons distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5.

Eastern Juniper   -   [Eastern Redcedar, J. virginiana]
Juniper Often just a shrub at the edges of its range, this juniper can be a tree large enough to cut for lumber in the Southeastern USA. This is a "scale leafed" juniper with twigs covered in tiny triangular green leaves, but juvenile plants have short needles which may also appear on shaded twigs of mature plants. The scales of the cones are fleshy and fused into a "berry" as with the Common Juniper but the cones are lumpier in shape and covered with a white wax which makes them a sky blue color. As with the Common Juniper these cones are used to flavor gin but are not commonly sold as a commercial spice. Photo by Quadell is distributed under the Gnu Free Document License v1.2 or later.

Pines   -   [genus Pinus of family Pinaceae (pines)]

Pine nuts (officially a seed, not a nut) have been eaten since prehistoric times in Europe, Asia and North America. Today the sweet resinous seeds are somewhat costly and used mostly as a flavoring ingredient but Italian pesto sauce is often based on pine nuts (other nuts are also used).

Pine nuts from a number of species are available. In Europe it's mostly the Stone Pine (Pinus pinea) and in Asia the Korean Pine (Pinus koraiensis) and Chilgoza Pine (Pinus gerardiana). Siberian Pine (Pinus sibirica) and a number of other varieties are also used. In North America seeds of various species of Pinon pines (subgenus Ducampopinus) are harvested.

The most common commercial pine nut is the Korean, a fairly large seed, followed by the Siberian, a fairly small seed. North American Pinon seeds are large but in very short supply, particularly due to forest destruction to make range land after WWII. Most now come from Mexico and the price is much higher than for Korean or Siberian seeds.

Warning:   See Details and Cooking for description of problems with Chinese pine nuts (99+% of shelled pine nuts sold in the U.S.).

The soft layer between pine bark and the wood is also edible and has been used as a famine food. Pine needles are sometimes used as a flavoring.

The photo shows the end of a pine branch from a tree in my front yard with tiny male cones at the center, a pine cone of unknown source and a few whole seeds in the shell from that cone. The small shelled seeds were commercially purchased and are from Siberian pines.

Spruce   -   [genus Picea of family Pinaceae]
Red Spruce The many species of spruce are of great economic importance throughout the Northern Hemisphere for lumber, paper making and as Christmas trees, but have little culinary application. Buds and needles of young growth are used as a flavoring, mainly for beer in areas too far north for hops to grow, and sap of a few species is used locally to make a gum. The photo shows foliage and cones of Red Spruce (P. rubens), one of the species used to make spruce beer. Photo USDA (public domain).

cf_conifer 2008   -
©Andrew Grygus - - Photos on this page not otherwise credited © cg1 - Linking to and non-commercial use of this page permitted