How to eat (and drink) your Christmas tree

Spruce cured salmon fillet, a tasty way to eat your tree

Spruce cured salmon fillet, a tasty way to eat your tree - Credit: James Wood

Your Christmas tree needles can be used as flavouring for a festive meal or beverage.

For a few weeks it is the focal point of the home, festooned with lights and baubles and with presents piled at its base. Once the presents have been unwrapped, though, and the old year has made way for the new, the Christmas tree can be starting to look past its best. 

Around eight million real trees are bought in the UK every Christmas and once they’re stripped of their decorations, many of them will be sent for recycling or will end up as fire wood. 

But there are alternatives that mean every part of your tree could still have a role around the house and garden. You could remove the branches and use the trunk as a stake for plants in the garden. The branches can help protect delicate plants from frosts and the needles can be added to pot pourri for a natural pine scent.

When the tree comes down, it can still have uses around the house

When the tree comes down, it can still have uses around the house - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

You might be able to carve gifts or decorations for next year from the trunk, or find somewhere for it in the garden where animals and birds can seek refuge. 

Or you could eat it. 

Christmas trees are a good source of vitamin C and can be versatile in the kitchen, as an ingredient in sweet and savoury dishes as well as drinks. 

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The appropriately-named James Wood is one of the UK’s leading foragers and he says: ‘Christmas trees have been used for centuries as food. From using spruce tips to cure fish and making spruce beer, to pine cone syrup and cookies, Christmas trees are delicious.

James Wood picking wild garlic in woods near his home in Bollington

James Wood on a foraging trip in the woods - Credit: James Wood

‘Like most people, when I first started foraging I didn't pay much attention to these edible trees. But after being introduced to them through John Townsend’s spruce beer recipe – and after doing some research and experimenting with recipes – I now think they are not only delicious and useful trees but they are also an amazing beginner wild edible. 

‘The best thing is they’re not just for Christmas, as they grow wild throughout the country all year round. If you have space you could even plant out your Christmas tree in your garden, or even just into a larger pot to be able to use it as a wild edible all year round. Sometimes lazy foraging is effective foraging.’

The needles of a fir tree are a versatile ingredient

The needles of a fir tree are a versatile ingredient - Credit: James Wood

Look before you cook 

There are three main types of Christmas tree belonging to the conifer family, meaning cone bearing: the fir, the spruce and the pine. Here's how to identify them: 

Fir  

Fir trees often have a classic Christmas tree shape: their branches are dense and slightly upturned. The needles are short, soft, flat, and have a rounded edge and they connect to the stem by suction cup-like attachments. 

The underside of the needle will have two white strips with a green line at the centre and when crushed will have a strong smell of resin or citrus. 

The cones for fir remain upright like candle flames.

Pine  

Pine needles are long, pointed, and small clusters of needles will come from a single point on the stem. Pine cones are hard and woody with larger scales than spruce. The clusters of male cones produce vast amounts of pollen on lower branches in spring.

Spruce

Spruce branches are less densely packed than fir with needles that are short, four-sided with a pointed, sharp edge. You can roll a spruce needle in between your fingers, unlike a fir needle. The needles are connected to the stem by a woody attachment. If the needle is pulled from the stem, the attachment remains, giving the stem a rough texture. 

Spruce cones are long and hang down from the tree. The scales are smooth and overlapping, flexible and soft.

Toxic trees

Yew and cedar trees can be confused with the edible trees, but must not be eaten as they are poisonous. Yew doesn’t have the citrusy smell in its needles that fir has. Yew needles are matte green underneath and do not carry the hallmark white lines like fir needles and eating even a small handful of yew leaves can be fatal. 

Also be careful to choose a tree that has not been sprayed with pesticides or other chemicals. 

Spruce cured salmon fillet

Spruce cured salmon fillet - Credit: James Wood

Spruce cured salmon fillet 

Ingredients 

2 pieces/fillets of raw and fresh salmon, 100-150g per fillet 

50g fine sea salt 

50g fine white sugar 

10g spruce tips – the young green ones growing around May-July 

Method 

  • Blend the salt, sugar and spruce tips in a blender until the spruce is chopped up and mixed nicely with the salt and sugar. Pour half the mixture into a bowl or bag. 

  • Add the salmon fillets and pour the rest of the spruce mix on top and turn the fish to ensure it is coated with the mixture. 

  • Cover and place in the fridge for 3-24 hours. The longer you leave it, the more firm the salmon will become. 

  • Remove from the fridge, shake to remove the coating and pat dry with a piece of kitchen paper. 

  • Serve with cream cheese, black pepper and capers on a bagel, or if you had pickled some blackberries in autumn use those instead of capers. 

NOTE: To create a vegan verion, replace the salmon with 300g of carrots that have been dry roasted with salt at 250 degrees C until soft enough to prick with a fork. Then ribboned once cool using a veg peeler. 

Christmas tree margarita  

Ingredients 

100g Spruce shoot, or douglas fir 

1 shot sugar syrup 

1 shot tequila 

1 shot orange liquor  

1 shot lime juice (freshly squeezed) 

Salt around the edge of the glass 

Ice  

Crushed Ice 

Method 

  • Put the spruce shoot, or douglas fir, in a blender with 750ml tequila and blend until the liquid turns a nice light green. Pass the liquid through a cloth or muslin to remove any hard bits of tree. 

  • Pour all the ingredients apart from the crushed ice into a cocktail shaker, pop on the lid and shake well for about 30 seconds. 

  • Rub the squeezed lime around the rim of the glass and sprinkle with salt, or put salt on a plate and put the glass into it rim side down. 

  • Pour through a strainer into a glass filled with crushed ice.

More to try 

Four more ways to use your tree in the kitchen 

Green pine cone syrup.
Great for drizzling over desserts or pancakes, using in baking or as a syrup in tea or a gin and tonic. Layer pine cones and sugar in a sealed jar and leave in a warm place for about three weeks, then sieve to remove the pine cones.  

Spruce beer.
An ancient recipe which is a great summer drink. Use 100g spruce needles for every five litres of water. Boil the water, add the needles, 20g of hops and a small piece of root ginger and continue to boil for 30 minutes. Add 600g malt extract or molasses and boil for a further ten minutes. Strain into a sterilised container (such as a fermentation bucket) add cool to room temperature then add a packet of ale yeast and leave somewhere warm for a week, the bottle. 

Spruce/fir/pine tea.
A natural cold remedy, best made with the young growth in late spring and summer. About two tablespoons of chopped needles will make one strong cup. 

Pine roasted lamb.
For a delicately flavoured roast, place two or three decent sized branches under the joint as it roasts to impart flavour to the lamb. 

Family fun 

Try this easy to make bird feeder and see how many feathered friends you can spot 

Homemade bird feeder, coconut fat cookie with nut, raisin hanging on tree in winter with Eurasian bl

Make this pine cone bird feeder for your garden - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

You will need: Dried pine cones, lard or suet, seeds, nuts, raisins, grated cheese, a bowl, string, scissors. 

Leave the lard at room temperature but don’t allow it to melt, then cut it into small pieces and, in the bowl, mix in the other ingredients. Tie the string around the pine cone, leaving a loop for hanging it with. Pack the mixture around the cone and chill in the fridge for an hour or so. While it’s chilling, plant your Christmas securely in a pot or hole in the garden (you may need to remove some lower branches). Then hang the feeder on the tree and watch the birds tuck in! 

The RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch will take place on January 28-30, 2022. For details, go to rspb.org.uk/get-involved/activities/birdwatch.