Are conifers edible? Some surprising news!

Something that surprises most people is that many of our conifer species are edible including our now unwanted Christmas trees. It might well be that your tree has been around for quite a while and is shrivelled and dusty but if it’s looking quite fresh still then try popping a handful of needles into a teapot with some boiling water, leave it to steep for 5-10 mins and then enjoy a citrusy tasting cuppa.

As usual, it is important to be able to identify poisonous or problematic species before you add conifers to your foraged food recipes. Yew (Taxus baccata) is highly toxic and cupresses can cause allergic reactions so we have listed the key identification features below.

Poisonous conifers 

Yew (Taxus baccata)

A familiar sight in churchyards, yew a very common tree often used in hedging. It contains a toxin called taxine which is highly poisonous so it is important to be able to identify this species before you start using conifers in your wild food recipes. Yew’s most important obvious feature are the bright red berries that appear during autumn and winter but these aren’t always present. Yew’s needles grow flat on either side of the stem and there is no pair of parallel silver lines underneath. Another key feature is the absence of any real scent when the needles are rubbed, unlike other conifers which have a citrusy or resinous smell.

Interestingly the red jelly-like coating around the seed is the only non toxic part of the yew. Quite a few foragers have recommended it to me but as it was described as like eating “sweet slugs” I haven’t been keen to try it. If you do fancy a nibble then absolutely make sure you don’t put the hard seed or any leaf matter in your mouth.  


Yew (Taxus baccata)


This group of conifers includes the infamous Leylandii, which can grow incredibly tall and wide creating many disputes between neighbours. Cupresses don’t have true needles but rather soft, rounded growth. Although they aren’t toxic they do have a reputation for causing allergic reactions in people so are best avoided when exploring edible conifers.

Cupressus species with soft, flexible foliage

Edible conifer species - these are all needled species:-

Fir (Abies) species

This group includes Douglas fir and and Silver fir. They have flat, flexible needles that don’t grow in clusters but one-by-one along the twig. On the underside of each needle there are two parallel silver lines. The cones of Silver fir are upright whereas Douglas fir cones hang downwards. Both cones have snake tongue-like bracts between the scales. The needles have a grapefruit/tangerine scent to them when rubbed.

Can be used in:-

            • Infusing in spirits, flavouring bread, marinades and flavouring roasts and fish
            • Syrups
            • Shrubs and meads
douglas firjpg

Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)

Pine (Pinus species)

Pines, including our familiar native the Scots Pine, hold their needles in clusters of 2,3 or 5. The hard, woody cone starts off green and then turns brown as the seeds ripen. The scales then pop open so the small winged seeds can be released - that’s if the squirrels or lucky foragers don’t get to them first. The flowers, young cones, young needles and seeds can all be used in recipes:-

            • Infuse as a tea or in spirits
            • Syrups
            • Candied cones


Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris)

Spruce (Picea) species

This group contains many conifers grown in plantations such as those operated by Forestry England and as such should be considered a planted crop and therefore cannot be legally foraged. However, they do appear as self seeded plants across the country so just be careful where you’re picking them - if they are growing in rows it is best to leave them alone.

Spruces have stiff, sharp needles that are prickly when grasped. The young, bright green spring buds are packed full of citrusy flavour and are perfect in the following:-

              • Syrups, cordials, sorbets and ice-cream
              • Infused in white rum, vodka or tequila
              • Teas
              • Stuffing for fish

western hemlockjpg

Western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla)

European Larch (Larix)

This tree is the UK’s only native deciduous conifer. The new growth appears in early spring with bundles of bright green, soft needles growing out of small, woody stumps. These stumps remain on the tree throughout the year giving the twigs a Nobbly Bobbly appearance. As the bundles of needles open they form a hemispherical shape which is reminiscent of exploding fireworks. The young needles have a delicious limey flavour. Sadly, this species is suffering from a widespread fungal outbreak so avoid picking from any trees with blackened or withered growth, or oozing from the trunk.

Can be used in:-

              • Infused in spirits or tea
              • Cordials and syrups
              • The pink flowering cones can be pickled.


European larch (Larix decidua)

Juniper (Juniperus communis)

A very prickly and quite rare native species of conifer that is confined to chalky downland. Juniper has male and female cones that look just like berries. The ripe, purple female cones have been used to give gin its distinctive flavour for centuries, but can also be used in casseroles to add another layer of flavour. Picking the purple ‘berries’ is a painful and time consuming experience so it is lucky that you don’t need many to add their special flavour to a dish.


Juniper (Juniperus communis)