Pinyon Pine Trees
Icons of the Southwest
by Damian Fagan
It is early autumn as we hike a trail across the mesa top at the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park in southeastern Utah. Cotton candy clouds float high above us and a light breeze joins us from the southwest. The morning is quiet until a horde of nut-crazy visitors descends upon us.
A small cloud of gunmetal-blue pinyon jays lands on a nearby pinyon pine. The raucous jays keep up their chatter as they forage for pine nuts. The jays know what we have discovered - this is one of those years where the pinyon trees bear a mother lode of nuts. Bumper crops don’t happen every year, maybe once every four to seven years. Some years the harvest is good, but this year’s crop is excellent.
The woody cones offer up their seeds to the hungry jays. With spreading scales the cones provide easy access for the jays to pick out the seeds. Whereas, our fingers are coated with pine pitch, testimony to our collection efforts, the jays seem immune to “getting pitched.” From a distance we see the jays mobbing the cones until then suddenly depart like a horde of mosquitoes.
A pinyon jay can discern by color or weight between a viable nut and one that did not mature through the embryonic cycle. If the seed’s thin shell coats are two-toned or if the shell is lightweight, the jays discard the duds and grab the keepers with their stout beaks. The birds gorge themselves, but also store seeds in their crops. These seeds will either be consumed or cached somewhere away from the trees for future use. The jays remember the locations of these caches – a remarkable feat.
Icons of the Southwest
Pinyons are icons of the Southwest. The sweet pinyon wood fragrance is associated with pueblos and adobe homes and evokes images of sprawling mesas. Harvested for timber and firewood over the centuries, the Ancestral Puebloans, formerly known as the Anasazi, used pinyon poles as door headers in their dwellings.
A testament to the growing power of the pinyon can be found in an isolated grove in Owl Creek Canyon near Ft. Collins, Colorado. The nearest tree is miles away; these pines owe their existence to a cache of nuts left by Native Americans some 400 years ago.
Pinyon trees are found throughout the Southwest ranging across the Four Corners region to Nevada and California at elevations generally between 4,500 and 7,500 feet, up to 9,300 feet on south-facing slopes. Growing in arid climates, areas with precipitation between 10 and 18” a year, the pinyons grow on rocky slopes and mesas, mixing in with big sagebrush, rabbitbrush, and junipers to form the characteristic woodlands of the Colorado Plateau.
These vast woodlands include Utah, one-seeded, and alligator junipers depending upon the location. Though the composition varies between the junipers and some different pinyon species, this “P-J belt” covers thousands of acres across the Southwest. The name “pinyon” is the anglicized version of the Spanish name piñon.
Nuts over Nuts
Pinyon jays are not the only birds interested in the pinyon nuts. Clark’s nutcrackers, western scrub jays, Steller’s jays and wild turkeys also eat the ripe seeds. The jays and nutcrackers create caches like the pinyon jays, but the turkeys gobble down the seeds, shells and all. The turkey’s tough gizzard grinds the shells down to a pulp. Other wildlife that compete for this nutritious food source are black bears, mule deer, woodrats, pinyon mice, ground squirrels, chipmunks, and porcupines, although the latter prefers the inner bark of the pinyon tree over the pinyon nuts.
Native Americans also collected pinyon nuts for hundreds of years before Europeans probed the area for reported wealth and treasures. The Ancient Ones depended upon the trees for food and fuel, building materials and medicines. They were custodians of these forests, maybe even tending to them like orchards.
Sweet pinyon nuts are highly nutritious, containing about 20 amino acids and about 3,000 calories per pound. High in fats, iron, vitamin A, thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin, pinyon nuts were, and still are, a highly coveted crop.
The relationship between the pinyon and the jay is much more than just a food source. The tree produces cones that, when open, provide the jays easy access to the large seeds. And the jays have stout beaks that are specialized for extracting nuts from even unopened cones. Humans, unable to crack through these closed cones like a jay, place the resinous closed cones in the fire, where they pop open like popcorn. Both birds and humans alike have an easy time with the thin shells.
The first to report the pinyon tree to the European World was a Spaniard named Nunez Cabeza de Vaca in 1535. He and several companions were the sole survivors of a shipwreck along the Gulf Coast. They spent the next eight years trying to find a way home to Mexico City, a New World outpost carved into the wilderness. Nunez de Vacas wrote about this ordeal and how pinyon nuts kept them from starving on the plains of Texas.
New to Science
In 1846, Frederick Aldophus Wislizenus, a German physician, explorer and plant collector reached the southwest where he collected pine specimens and sent them back to the botanist George Engelmann in St. Louis. Engelmann named the species after the edible pine nuts, “piños piñoneros,” calling them Pinus edulis. This is the Colorado or two-needled pinyon pine and depending upon the taxonomy, there are several recognized pinyon species. One such species is the single-leaf pinyon or P. monophylla.
Identified by 1 to 2 inch long needles that arise in pairs from a papery sheath, the thick needles are slightly curved and pointed at the tip. Many pinyon trees have a distinct profile that includes a thick truck, numerous branches and a rounded crown. Set off from the junipers that they co-exist with, the darker pinyons are a contrast to the blue-green coloration of the junipers.
Generally long-lived, pinyons may become infested with dwarf mistletoe that sinks rootlike tendrils into the wood. Living off of the pinyon, the mistletoe draws nutrients and moisture from the plant. When this parasitic plant produces seeds, the sticky seeds are ejected out of the pods and may travel 60 miles per hour and up to 50 feet away. If the sticky seed lands on another pinyon, that tree may become infected.
The mistletoe may stress the tree, but drought, lightning and insects take a greater toll on the trees. At times, hillsides may turn brown as the trees die; setting up a scenario of high fire danger that can sweep through the dead forests. Sometimes catastrophic, these fires also open up sites where jays may bury their excess seeds, thus continuing the cycle of the pinyon woodland.
New Mexico State Tree
New Mexico adopted the pinyon pine on March 16, 1949 as its state tree. Ten years later, Nevada adopted the single-leaf pinyon as its state tree.
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