There is a stout little tree that dots the landscapes throughout our region. Its native territory spans from Utah and Wyoming south through Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and even into parts of the Texas. Vast expanses of land in the Southwest are covered by its sparse forests. It’s a hardy survivor. We often find it used in the landscape as a low screen tree, functioning to block the wind or create privacy in a backyard. This stout little evergreen has a vast history that’s been deeply intertwined with both animal and human life in the Southwest for millennia.
The Pinyon Pine or Pinon whose latin name, Pinus edulis means edible pine, is an unassuming tree rarely growing over 30 feet in height. But what it lacks in stature, it makes up for in hardiness and abundance. It is a Pine that requires little irrigation in the landscape and can thrive in well drained gravel and rocky soils.
The prized seeds of the Pinyon Pine are familiar to most of us as a tasty topping for salads or a flavorful addition to pesto. Pine nuts have been a popular food for many centuries and are considered by many a delicacy. Pinyon seed harvests in the Southwest United States have, at times yielded millions of pounds of nuts. The nuts also fetch a hefty price as high as $40/lb. However over the last few decades the Pinyon nut harvest has dropped off significantly. Some of the decline is due to the availability of cheap pine nuts from Asia. Make sure to check the label the next time you buy Pine Nuts and try to support a local harvester of this natural wonder food!
To the Pueblo peoples and other Native Americans this tree has enjoyed mythical and spiritual significance. Its seeds represent a life sustaining staple in an arid climate. Some forests of Pinyon could provide yields of up to 300lbs of nuts per acre making it a significant food source. Often the seeds would be ground into flour or stored for up to 10 years. They are packed with plenty of protein, fats and vitamins making them an extremely nutritious food. Along with the nuts, the needles of the tree were brewed into a tea and the inner bark could be eaten to provide nutrition during tough times. The resinous aromatic wood of the Pinyon Pine is commonly burned as incense. Prehistoric native peoples used the trunks and branches of the Pinyon Pine to construct the support structure of pit houses.
We no longer use its wood to construct homes but this tree can still bring gifts of abundance to our lives. While it takes a number of years before they will begin to produce seeds they are a great addition to any landscape. By planting one you will be helping to continue the legacy of this quintessential Southwest tree and will provide sustenance to local wildlife.