Jun 21, 2013

Silver Thread Spruce

It's a strange sensation driving over land that contains precious metals and semi-precious stones. Mountains dug and scraped and toppled and rocks chiseled and sorted and turned over and over to find what is valuable to us, what has use, what will hammer smooth or hold fast. Or even beyond any practical use, what will give us pleasure, what will delight us by virtue of its color, its shadowy gleam, its quiet sparkle-song.

The "Silver Thread" is a scenic byway on route 149 in Southwestern Colorado I recently drove with my friend Casey in his Dodge pick-up with attached camper. It begins in a town called "South Fork" in Southern CO and winds its way up through mining towns like Lake City and Creede. As we drove the winding roads flanked by mines and their strange structures straight out of an old western, I couldn't help but think of the parallel between the hunt for gold and silver and the hunt for spices. Spices are like the precious stones of the plant world - they are the valuable minerals, the gleaming jewels amidst the rubble of other plants. I mean, what a lovely idea to replace a jewelry shop entirely with spices - taking out the amethyst and substituting cubeb pepper, removing the diamonds and replacing them with heaps of saffron, pulling out the silver bracelets and laying down vanilla pods over soft velvet.

If emeralds had to go the way of the Buffalo, I'd put spruce tips in their place. Matching in color, and nearly in shape if emeralds were all shaped like the pillars of the 'Emerald City' in the Wizard of Oz (like long green fingers), spruce tips could provide us with so much more than any green rock. They are citrusy and refreshing on the tongue, soft and tender to the touch, and full of the sensation of the forest. They are the spring shoots of the spruce tree (Picea spp) - and can be plucked and used as a flavoring agent in a variety of drinks and dishes.

I wasn't looking for spruce tips on our hike up Shallow Creek in the Rio Grande National Forest outside the mining town of Creede. I wasn't looking for anything other than the pleasure of being outside, and climbing from stream to mountain through gorgeous groves of aspen in a matter of hours. I wasn't looking for the red-orange feathers from a bird who remains unnamed, or the lupines blue in a carpet on the forest floor. But then we got caught up photographing the remains of an old mining cabin, complete with rusted cans and a window that framed a view of the aspen forest and pretty soon it was almost nightfall. Stepping back on the path I came face to face with this beautiful spruce whose young shoots brushed my face as gently as eyelashes. As Didi Emmons writes of spruce shoots in her book Wild Flavors:
"Pop a shoot in your mouth and you will be rewarded with a minty pinelike tartness that is as much fun to play with in the kitchen as lemon, lime, sorrel, or rhubarb. Spruce resin is used to flavor chewing gum, and on the simplest level, you can chew (and swallow) the shoots as a convenient breath freshener when hiking."
This we did, Casey and I having just consumed some rather foul-tasting granola bars, and the spruce was a much welcome flavor.

We also harvested a few and brought them back to the camper for an evening cocktail I aptly dubbed the "Silver Thread" after the scenic byway. It calls for moonshine, which on a commercial level (i.e. legally produced) is basically just unaged whiskey. We had some of this hooch with us on our journey to use as our apr├Ęs-hike painkiller, but it was getting a little intense to drink on its own. Hence the welcome addition of a few crushed spruce tips and some lemon, and later down the road, a bit of tonic. So refreshing! Just like that high-mountain air.

Silver Thread

4-5 spruce tips, lightly muddled
1/2 lemon
2 shots moonshine
tonic if you wish

Crush a few of the spruce tips in the bottom of an old can. Squeeze half a lemon in there, add your moonshine, a whole bunch of ice if you have it, and top with tonic and a few more spruce tips.


  1. Wonderful.

    I would like to emphasize the importance of the reused tin can as the official vessel of the Silver Thread: Just as you wouldn't (often) drink wine from a coffee mug, nor whiskey from a wine glass, the tin can gives proper shape to the Silver Thread, suggesting improvisation, packability, provisions, and a long awaited cool-to-the-touch slaking for a weary hardrock miner.

    Also noteworthy: The town of South Fork has been fully evacuated for several days due to the West Fork Fire, which at one point was predicted to destroy the entire town. It's still standing, thanks to a lucky shift of the wind, but neither South Fork nor Creede nor that old miner's cabin are out of the woods yet:

    1. Whoa. Thanks for the link. "Extreme fire behavior" - i've never seen those words together before. I hope the West Fork Fire is contained soon, it's such beautiful country out there. And yes: cool-to-the-touch cocktail vessel - like a julep cup. SO KEY. Just make sure no sharp edges!

  2. Spruce tips! I'd always hoped these were edible. Thank you!

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