The Pinon Pine tree is responsible for the creation and survival of the cultures that inhabited the Colorado Plateau and the Great Basin as early as 6,000 years ago according to the archaeological findings of Pinon charcoal and nutshell remnants found in old cave dwellings (Lanner). This includes the Great Basin dwellers of Washo, Shoshone, Paiute and the southwest dwelling Hopi, Zuni, Pueblo, and Navajo. Bountiful Pinon shaped the creation stories, the physical objects of everyday life, and was the main source of food for Native peoples who dwelled on these lands, and still dwell on these lands. How each group and culture used and treated the plant varies according to location and time. There is no denying the importance of this tree, a fairly new inhabitant of the western deserts of the United States in geological time.
The last couple years I have had the privilege to harvest Pinon Pine nuts that form in the small cones of the tree, from the desert mountain ranges of Nevada. When I crack open a fragile nut shell with my teeth, just enough to not bite through and pierce the whole succulent pine nut inside, I get a little taste of bitter Pinon resin on my tongue. The taste of so much complexity ecologically, socially, economically, geographically moves through me as I crack one nut after another to mine the savory nutmeat. This Single-leaf Pinon nut I taste (Pinus monophylla) harvested in the mountains of Nevada is 10% protein, 20% fat and 50% carbs (Lanner, Pinon Pine). It is a historically relied on food of great sustenance.
The aromatic resin of Pinon has a distinctly intoxicating scent like no other Pine I have encountered, as each Pine's resin has it's own personality. It's aroma ignites something deep in the core my body, reminding me of something beyond these words. Of time that I can't fathom. Of hot days I would never survive. Of what it would be like to thirst for months and live and adapt. The aroma holds the history of the plant itself in all its adaptations and movements, changes and stories. It instantly grounds me in the vision of eternity, that I too am just a part of a bigger story of ebbs and flows, life and death, trials and failures, living and dying. Burning a hot fire of Pinon Pine wood as it was used many a cold winter night in the desert for thousands of years, also sends into the air the scent of time and extremes and resilience.
Pine sap also serves as a kind of antifreeze for this tree and other Pines, not totally solidifying in the winter even in below freezing temps. This is so that the tree, paired with it's adaptive needles, can continue to photosythesize all winter, unlike deciduous trees like Maple (Acer spp.) that drop leaves and stop working during the winter months. The medicine of Pine resin is reflected in its protection of the tree from being damaged by variable seasonal temperatures like extreme hot and extreme cold. For human and other animal bodies, pine resin is a strong antimicrobial. It can be put on wounds and infections directly, mixed with fat and charcoal or infused in vinegar or oil. Like other resins, Pine sap is alcohol and oil soluble at best, and not so great as a tea. Unless of course you are gently brewing the needles into a tasty diaphoretic and Vitamin C rich hot drink. Internally, in addition to it's antimicrobial qualities capable of slowing and stopping infection on the inside, Pine sap is also an expectorant. It's slightly irritating quality breaks up stuck infection, ready to purge and renew the body as sickness exits. Each pine has a different personality when engaging our bodies in this way, and Pinon's way is no exception. The sap again can be infused in alcohol, honey, and vinegar, and even combined together thereafter for a wintertime cough syrup to add to medicinal teas. Pine resin, and again Pinon is no exception, has also been historically used as a glue and waterproofing agent for vessels, boats and baskets or as a non-stick agent on cooking utensils. It can also be used in combination with other plant materials to make a incense to be burned in habited or uninhabited spaces.
Pine as a plant family has been a big part of my life growing up. In the Piedmont region of the southeastern United States, coniferous sun-loving Loblolly, White and Virginia Pines intertwine with deciduous trees like White Oak, Sweet Gum, Hickories and Sycamore just to name a few. I think of the smell of Pine tar soap on the hands, of Pine Sol cleaner on the floor, of burning pine branches in the brush fires. I am reminded of my grandma's homemade Pine branch and Club Moss (Lycopodium sp.) wreaths at Christmas time she would make to sell at her nursery. She sold these along side North Carolina mountain native Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri) -also in the pine family- and White Pine (Pinus strobus) Christmas trees. Not that I agree with the harvesting of endemic North Carolina Fraser Fir, or Club Moss to be used ornamentally. My dad has a 'pine cone picker upper' he would use on the regular to collect them out of his horticulturally curated yard, a kind of orange plastic extended arm that kept him from having to bend over to snag the jagged cones. Our yard was covered in tall Lobolly Pines (Pinus taeda) that would send down spent needles throughout the year that my dad would rake into curved beds and acidic mulched azalea gardens. My visions as a child remembers White Pine farms going for miles, planted in straight rows, with no vegetation underneath. These memories marked in my subconscious what "Pine" was until I ended up in the desert.
The Pinon Juniper forest grows in its own order and chaos, scattered across immense hills and mountains hanging onto every ledge and dip in the land. Pinon Pines don't tower like say their tall Longleaf, Lodgepole, and Jeffrey Pine cousins do. The tree is squat and mini, and adapted to the hot climate of various desert eco-zones stretching from eastern California to Colorado, and northern Nevada/southern Oregon south down into Mexico. It struck me to see miles of these rolling hills in a seemingly endless expanse.
In my first blog post on of sedge&salt you can read my writings and observations of the gentle ecological cascade that takes place when moving from the Great Basin floor, into Pinon Juniper territory, then to forest islands of Ponderosa Pine, Engelmann Spruce, Aspen and Douglas Fir, towards high elevation and tougher Limber and Bristlecone Pine zones.
Pinon Pine as a collection of species that scatter across the arid west has a history of being an extremely adaptable plant. In the Great Basin of Nevada and in ranges nearby, the single-needed variety who's Pine nuts I harvested the past few falls (Pinus monophylla) is actually a mutation of a preexisting two-needled variety that still thrives in Colorado and parts of the southwest (Pinus edulis). The two coexisted during the time that monophylla formed itself possibly in reaction to harsher heat spells and took hold when the single needle expression continued to produce fertile pollen in such conditions. Beginning as early as 35,000 years ago in some locations (Lanner, Pinon Pine), and through many ice ages and warming spells Pinon moved up and down mountains, moved north and then back south towards Mexico and even reached close to the California coast near the SF bay at one point according to archaeological evidence. Before the Sierras formed creating an orographic weather effect where the moisture from the ocean got blocked by the physical height of the mountains and kept from the interior, the Great Basin actually contained Redwood trees now only confined to California's coast. The Pinon Juniper woodland moved into this space as the Great Basin's water dried up or drained to be held deep underground and filled the niche it knows best. It deals with tough climates where water is rare or sporadic. Yet, while usually traveling with some species of Juniper and Sagebrush, it can be found inhabiting spaces with all kinds of other plants on the ecological edges of many zones.
There are many other species of Pinon that scatter into southern Arizona, southern Texas and Mexico varying in needle numbers and cone sizes and often are endemic populations only known to grow in specific canyons or mountaintops. Getting into the conversation about how these species may be hybrids or mutations of edulis or monophylla goes down a botany rabbit hole worth visiting but also worth acknowledging that at some point our western scientific attempts at putting boxes and squares on nature will bring us headfirst into walls that don't allow us think outside of our restrictive and sometimes colonialistic scientific paradigm. In southern California a distinctly different Pinon (Pinus californiarum) used to be thought of as a subspecies of the two-needled Colorado Pinon (Pinus edulis) until modern genetic testing proved it was actually more related to the Single-needled monophylla (Lanner, Conifers of California). Now, it is generally regarded as a subspecies of monophylla, rather than a distinct separate species, which means that it isn't genetically strong enough to last as a plant maintaining it's separate characteristics, at least yet. It could still potentially merge back with monophylla, as it probably does from time to time on the reg anyways, but in our human scope of time, we will never know what californiarum has up its sticky sleeves. As our climate changes too from natural and unnatural forces, so does our ability to predict the way that plants will react to these changes. This story parallels that of the relationship between Mexican Pinon (Pinus cembroides) and Texas Pinon (Pinus remota), remota being seen as either a separate species or subspecies of cembroides depending on whether you are asking a botanist that splits or merges.
Zooming back out from this western scientific way of seeing plants, I want to acknowledge that the coyote may have had something to do with the birth of Pinon and its special medicines, foods and waterproofing qualities. This is the coyote that seems to show up in the stories of native peoples all over the world explaining how certain things came to be the way they are now. The stories of Pinon among the people who lived with it is no exception. Stories of how the tree came to be so short, how the pitch came to be so sticky, and how places were born from the eating of pine nuts or the inhaling of Pinon smoke all contain references of the tricky coyote and his paradoxical doings. Imagine coyote getting together with Pine sap, a sneaky pairing indeed. This summer when I worked with Signal Fire during their Wide Open Studios session, our focus was on these coyote stories through the lands we traversed predominantly in Nez Perce territory. Sometimes these stories don't make sense to our western literary minds. We read a story daily and sometimes we were left with a "what the heck does this even mean?" feeling, yet eventually we began to accept that these creation stories are just a different way of seeing the land, the plants and the history of a people in a place.
Pine 'nuts' are actually seeds, as they come from the cone-bearing group of plants called gymnosperms (so basically all conifers), much older that common flowering plants. So they are seeds without a fruit, as a fruit is a mechanism used by flowering plants. I originally was going to write this piece to explain how to harvest Pinyon pine nuts. Ultimately, I am not the expert on this and there are many ways to do it. I have a friend who harvests edulis in Colorado and primarily uses fire and the sun's heat to open the sticky cones and extract the nuts, also roasting the nuts in the process. He puts the closed cones in sacks and puts them next to a fire to encourage them to open and uses the sack to swing and bang the cones onto the ground to release the nuts. Friends who harvest in Nevada wait for the nuts to fall out of the cones and land on the ground, and they go through and pick the darkest colored nuts, for they are less likely to have a debunk nut inside. Others use extended arms much like my dad's 'pine cone picker-upper' except they use the contraption to reach up not down to get to the pine cones that are hard to get to hanging. The cones are then collected and the nuts are manually plucked out with sticks or butter knives, paying attention to the sandy colored ones that most likely are no good inside. Some people roast the nuts to expand the flavor and others do not. If you do choose to roast, the time is short and nuanced and it is not a multitasking scenario for fear of potentially scorched nuts. They are generally roasted in the shell, and this also melts off the pine sap residue often left on (so use a junk pan), hence why my nut cracking tends to come with a little bitter taste of resin, because I have not roasted mine this year. Also keep in mind that storing the Pine nuts out of their shell will greatly reduce their storage time, hence why they are often found in the refrigerated section of grocery stores. So, you're better off to store them in their shells in sacks.
Also keep in mind that it is a privilege to be able to harvest pine nuts on Native lands. In some locations a permit is required to harvest large amounts, but a small subsistence amount is allowed for any individuals to gather. Native folks usually have full rights to harvest as much as they want from their traditional lands either for their own food or to sell. If you go harvest Pine nuts, keep in mind that even though the tree is incredibly abundant where it grows, that settlers have had a history of 'taking without giving' from the lands of the Pinon, and have a history of abusing and disregarding the Pinon itself in addition to mistreating and misplacing the native people who relied on the tree. There are also many species of birds (like the fascinating Pinon Jay, that knows how to tell the good ones from the bad ones) and rats that depend on the tree so consider them too when you gather from a place. Maybe even take some of those fallen nuts and push them into the soil with your finger, a rat may dig them up and stash them in their underground bunker, but you may just increase the chances of a Pinon tree growing there.
The Pine nuts usually commercially sold in the U.S. are not of Pinon Pine. Though I have harvested the fat nuts of Gray Pine (Pinus sabineana) in the Sierra foothills, it usually takes some major heat and a rock to crack them open and get to the nutmeat. Other species of Pine can be harvested for their edible nuts but none are as easy to get to and worth the effort as Pinon. The varieties found in grocery stores unshelled are usually imported from China or Europe and are from the tended trees of those zones. In Europe it is usually the longer lengthed Stone Pine nut (Pinus pinea) or Italian Pine. In Asia it is usually the fatter bodied Korean Pine nut (Pinus koraiensis). Historically people in parts of Europe and Asia have a much longer relationship with Pine nuts as a food than in people in North America. Basically, since humans have been humans, they have been eating Pine nuts.
I will mention it again as I noted before, the Pinon Pine has seen its share of abuse and destruction. Though it saved many settlers from imminent death- i.e. saving the Donner Party lost in the high Sierra, Cabeza de Vaca's expeditions, and others including Franciscan monks, it was regarded as an inferior tree and food by the European explorers. Gathering wild foods was seen as barbaric. Native peoples at that time also grew corn agriculturally. The explorers were often drawn to groups that tended to grow more corn, considering them more human and civilized, and more likely to be easy to convert to Christianity. The tree was also cut down in the deserts in masse during the times Europeans were first settling the Great Basin and Mojave deserts. Because of the need to use Pinon to fuel the steam engines that ran mines and to clear land for ranching, major ecological destruction occurred. This activity by European settlers took away the main food source for the native folks that inhabited those regions. The bringing of technology like the simple axe to North America played a huge role in the ability to cut down so many Pinon Pines at a rapid rate. Though the tree has bounced back because of its resilient nature since this era, it is worth noting the history of this tree's treatment by white settlers, and reminds us to think about our culturally engrained extraction mindset.
When I take on projects like making plant profiles, I can't seem to do it lightly. I have taken on this task in the past like with Tan Oak, posted in my blog last Spring. My interest in plants comes from many sources. An upbringing surrounded by people who love plants. A life-long interest in the spiritual and energetic connections humans inherently have with plants and animals because we have co-evolved with them living on this earth. An interest in the deep science and taxonomy of plants that is just one way- but not the ultimate way- to look at the world. A curiousity about the stories that are told. Being an avid history buff and philosopher and wanting to interweave bigger picture ideas somehow about why studying plants should even matter in our attempts to reconnect ourselves to something we are told we have lost. And, valuing the importance of interweaving socio-political-economic contexts into writing about plants because it is all too often skipped in the sharing of botanical information, especially now that herbalism, foraging and plant-eros have become more popular. Profiles like these are always meant to be an incomplete work in progress. Subject to changes and additions, they can't possibly paint the fullest picture of a plant that could be imaginably written, just like a scientific name is actually quite malleable. But, I wanted to share with you what I have come to learn thus far about Pinon and it's fascinating life and history. A continuously evolving and adapting tree, let us learn to live by it's example, thickening our resin when the temps are extreme and filling in the scars appropriately when tragedy strikes.
I have started to do extensive unique monthly plant profiles based on plants I have been studying for awhile as a thanks to my supporters over on my Patreon page
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Resources I used to dive deeper into Pinon Pine, Pines, and desert ecology for this piece that you can use too for additional learning:
Lanner, Ronald. The Pinon Pine: A Natural and Cultural History. University of Nevada Press. Reno: 1981.
Lanner, Ronald. Conifers of California. 3rd edition. Cachuma Press. Los Olivos, CA: 1997.
Elpel, Thomas J. Botany in a Day : The Patterns Method of Plant Identification. 6th edition. Hops Press. Pony, MT: 2013.
Fox, William L. The Void, The Grid and the Sign: Traversing the Great Basin. University of Nevada Press. Reno: 2000.
Moore, Michael. Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West. Museum of New Mexico Press. Santa Fe: 1989. (Frank Cook's copy)
Clark, Charlotte Bringle. Edible and Useful Plants of California. University of California Press. Berkeley: 1997.
Jackson, Louise A. The Sierra Nevada Before History: Ancient Landscapes, Early People. Mountain Press Publishing Company. Missoula, Montana: 2010.
- I could not figure out how to make the tilde above the 'N' happen in Pinon writing in my website's text block. Otherwise, I would have appropriately done so. If you have any advice on how to do that, I will go through and correct them all.
- It has been brought to my attention that a 'Part 2' is needed for this piece. Both a more extensive visiting of the human planting culture surrounding Pinon as well as more info on current environmental politics in relationship to Pinon.