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.
Pinyon Pine cone, still green, not quite ready for hungry jays, or human consumption.
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. That the jays can remember the locations
of these caches is remarkable.
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 pinyon is from an isolated grove found
in Owl Creek Canyon near Ft. Collins, Colorado. The nearest tree is miles away,
and these pines owe their existence to a cache of nuts left by Native Americas
some 400 years ago.
Pinyon Pines are iconic trees of the Southwest.
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, although 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 pi–on.
Pinyon nuts are delicious and nutritious. High in fats, iron, vitamin A,
thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin, pinyon nuts were, and still are, a highly coveted
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 later prefers the inner bark
of the pinyon tree.
Porcupines prefer 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, “pi–os pi–oneros,” 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 their state tree.
Ten years later, Nevada adopted the single-leaf pinyon as its State Tree.