What do you C?


Photo: Bryant Olsen

We all know that citrus fruits are excellent sources of essential Vitamin C, lack of which causes scurvy and death. While we have little knowledge of scurvy today, thanks in part to the Florida orange industry, what did native people do in parts of the world that did not have citrus fruit, or when citrus was not in season? Fortunately, there are lots of Vitamin C-rich native plant alternatives in North America. Some are probably in your back yard right now; fall is when some of the best sources become available.

One of the best sources of Vitamin C is rosehips, which should be freshly mature right about now. The mildly sweet pulpy flesh can be eaten (not the seeds and hairs) and has about 2000 mg of Vitamin C per 100 g. For comparison, oranges and lemons have about 50 mg of Vitamin C per 100 g. Rosehips have other important compounds including lycopenes, and Vitamins A and B. The hips will stay on the plant much of the winter, providing a Vitamin C source for many months.

The berries of staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) are also a delicious source of C, although the prime harvest time may be a little past by this point (mid-October). If you do decide to pluck a few berries, look for fresh, vibrant red ones that haven't yet dried out. Place them on your tongue and you will quickly detect the tart flavor of ascorbic acid. The berries can be steeped in cold water for a refreshing lemony tea.

Staghorn sumac

Another well-known and year-round source of C is the fresh needles and bark of white pine (Pinus strobus), which can be brewed into a tea. Other conifers are also high in Vitamin C — one report showed that balsam fir has 5 times more vitamin C (270 mg/100 g) than lemons and oranges. In the famous story of the 1536 settlers, Jacques Cartier and his crew were sick and dying of scurvy until Native Americans saved them with a tea from the needles and bark of the tree of life." White cedar (Thuja occidentalis) is considered to be the conifer that was used. (See the full story below.)

However you choose to get your C, fall is a great time to increase your intake — Vitamin C is generally considered helpful in reducing susceptibility to cold and flu viruses. So brew your needles and hips and bon appettit!

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