The pinyon or piñon pine group grows in the southwestern United States and in Mexico. The trees yield edible pinyon nuts, which were a staple of the Native Americans (American Indians), and are still widely eaten. Harvesting techniques of the prehistoric Indians are still being used to today to collect the pinyon seeds for personal use or for commercialization. The Pinyon nut or seed is high in fats and calories.
Pinyon wood, especially when burned, has a distinctive fragrance, making it a common wood to burn in chimineas. The pinyon pine trees are also known to influence the soil in which they grow by increasing concentrations of both macronutrients and micronutrients.
Some of the species are known to hybridize, the most notable ones being P. quadrifolia with P. monophylla, and P. edulis with P. monophylla.
The Pinyon Jay (Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus) takes its name from the tree, and pinyon nuts form an important part of its diet. It is very important for regeneration of pinyon woods, as it stores large numbers of the seeds in the ground for later use, and excess seeds not used are in an ideal position to grow into new trees. The Mexican Jay is also important for the dispersal of some pinyon species, as, less often, is the Clark’s Nutcracker. Many other species of animal also eat pinyon nuts, without dispersing them.
Pinyon seeds as food for prehistoric Native Americans
The seeds of the Pinyon pine, usually called “pine nuts,” were an important food for pre-historic Indians living in the mountains of southwestern United States and northern Mexico. The nuts continue to be gathered, eaten, and marketed. All species of pine produce edible seeds, but in North America only pinyon produces seeds large enough to be a major source of food.
The Pinyon has probably been a source of food since shortly after the earliest arrival of Homo sapiens in the American southwest, 12,000 or more years ago. In the Great Basin of the United States, archaeological evidence indicates that the range of the pinyon pine expanded northward after the Ice Age, reaching its northernmost (and present) limit in southern Idaho about 4,000 BCE. Hunter/gatherer Indians undoubtedly collected the edible seeds, but, at least in some areas, the pinyon nuts were not harvested and eaten in quantity until about 600 CE. Increased use of pinyon nuts was possibly related to a population increase of humans and a decline in the number of game animals, thereby forcing the Great Basin inhabitants to seek additional sources of food.
The suitability of pinyon seeds as a staple food is reduced because of the unreliability of the harvest. Abundant crops of cones and seeds occur only every two to seven years, averaging a good crop every four years. Years of high production of seed tend to be the same over wide areas of the pinyon range.
Traditional method of harvesting
In 1878, Naturalist John Muir described the Indian method of harvesting pinyon seeds in Nevada. In September and October, the harvesters knocked the cones off the pinyon trees with poles, stacked the cones into a pile, put brushwood on top, lit it, and lightly scorched the pinyon cones with fire. The scorching burned off the sticky resin coating the cones and loosened the seeds. The cones were then dried in the sun until the seeds could be easily extracted. Muir said the Indians closely watched the pinyon trees year-round and could predict the scarcity or abundance of the crop months before harvest time. In 1891, B. H. Dutcher observed the harvesting of pinyon seeds by the Panamint Indians (Timbisha) people) in the Panamint Range overlooking Death Valley, California. The harvesting method was similar to the foregoing except that the pinyon seeds were extracted immediately after the cones had been scorched in the brushwood fire.
Both the above accounts described a method of extracting the seeds from the green cones. Another method is to leave the cones on the trees until they are dry and brown, then beat the cones with a stick, knocking the cones loose or the seeds loose from the cones which then fall to the ground where they can be collected. The nomadic hunter-gathering people of the Great Basin usually consumed their pinyon seeds during the winter following harvest; the agricultural Pueblo people of the Rio Grande valley of New Mexico could store them for two or three years in underground pits.
Each pinyon cone produces 10 to 30 seeds and a productive stand of pinyon trees in a good year can produce 250 pounds (110 kg) on 1 acre (0.40 ha) of land. An average worker can collect about 22 pounds (10.0 kg) of unshelled pinyon seed in a day’s work. Production per worker of 22 pounds of unshelled pinyon seeds — more than one-half that in shelled seeds –amounts to nearly 30,000 calories of nutrition. That is a high yield for the effort expanded by hunter-gatherers. Moreover, the pinyon seeds are high in fat, often in short supply for hunter-gatherers.
Pine nuts are the edible seeds of pines (family Pinaceae, genus Pinus). About 20 species of pine produce seeds large enough to be worth harvesting; in other pines the seeds are also edible, but are too small to be of notable value as a human food.
In the United States, pine nuts are mainly harvested by Native Americans, particularly the Uto-Aztecan: Shoshone, Paiute and Hopi, and Washoe tribes. Certain treaties negotiated by tribes and laws in Nevada guarantee Native Americans’ right to harvest pine nuts.
The Pinus monophylla seeds, commonly known as the Nevada Soft Shell Pine Nut, are harvested by commercial harvesters in Nevada, and sold throughout the western US.
Pollination and seed development
The pine nut (seed) species will take a time that depends on the exact species (e.g. 36 months for a stone pine seed) to complete its maturity; to reach full maturity, the environmental conditions must be favorable for the tree and its cone.
For some American species development begins in early spring with pollination. A tiny cone, about the size of a small marble, will form from mid-spring to the end of summer; the premature cone will then become and remain dormant (with a cessation of growth) until the following spring. The cone will then commence growth until it reaches maturity near the end of summer. The mature piñon pine cone is ready to harvest ten days before the green cone begins to open. A cone is harvested by placing it in a burlap bag and exposing it to a heat source such as the sun to begin the drying process. It takes about 20 days until the cone fully opens. Once it is fully open and dry, the seed can be easily extracted in various ways. The most common and practical extraction method used is the repeated striking of the burlap bag containing the cone(s) against a rough surface to cause the cone(s) to shatter, leaving just the job of separating by hand the seed from the residue within the bag.
Another option for harvesting is to wait until the cone opens on the tree (as it naturally will) and harvest the cone from the piñon pine, followed by the extracting process mentioned above. Fallen seed can also be gathered beneath the trees.
Elevation and pinecone production
The elevation of the pinyon pine is an important determinant of the quantity of pine cone production, and therefore, will largely determine the amount of pine nuts the tree will yield.
American Pinyon pine cone production is most commonly found at an elevation between 6,000 feet (1,800 m) and 8,500 feet (2,600 m), and ideally at 7,000 feet (2,100 m). This is due to higher temperatures at elevations lower than 6,000 feet (1,800 m) during the spring, which dry up humidity and moisture content (particularly snow packs) that provide for the tree throughout the spring and summer, causing little nourishment for pine cone maturity.
Although there are several other environmental factors that determine the conditions of the eco-system (such as clouds and rain), without sufficient water the trees tend to abort cones. High humidity encourages cone development. There are certain topographical areas found in lower elevations, such as shaded canyons, where the humidity remains constant throughout the spring and summer, allowing pine cones to fully mature and produce seed.
At elevations above 8,500 feet (2,600 m), the temperature substantially drops, drastically affecting the state of the dormant cone. During the winter, frequent dramatic changes in temperature, along with drying, gusty winds, make the cones susceptible to freeze-drying that damages them permanently; in this case, growth is stunted and the seeds wither away.
Pine nuts contain 10–34% protein depending on species, with stone pine having the highest content. They are also a source of dietary fiber. When first extracted from the pine cone, they are covered with a hard shell (seed coat), thin in some species, thick in others. The nutrition is stored in the embryo (sporophyte) in the centre. Although a nut in the culinary sense, in the botanical sense pine nuts are seeds; being a gymnosperm, they lack a carpel (fruit) outside.
The shell must be removed before the pine nut can be eaten. Unshelled pine nuts have a long shelf life if kept dry and refrigerated (−5 °C (23 °F) to 2 °C (36 °F)); shelled nuts (and unshelled nuts in warm conditions) deteriorate rapidly, becoming rancid within a few weeks or even days in warm humid conditions. Pine nuts are commercially available in shelled form, but due to poor storage, can have poor flavor and may be already rancid at the time of purchase. Consequently, pine nuts are often frozen to preserve their flavor.
The American piñon nuts are known for their large size and ease of shelling. In the United States, P. edulis, the hard shell of New Mexico and Colorado, became a sought-after species due to the trading post system, and the Navajo people who used the nuts as a means of commerce. The Italian pine nut (P. pinea) was brought to the United States by immigrants, and became a favored treat along the East Coast in the early 1930s, when bumper crops of American pine nuts were readily available at low prices.
The Nevada, or Great Basin, pine nut has a sweet fruity flavor and is promoted for its large size, sweet flavor and ease of peeling. Pine nuts are also widely used in Middle Eastern cuisine, reflected in a diverse range of dishes such as kibbeh, sambusak, desserts such as baklava, and many others.
Pine nut coffee, known as piñón (Spanish for pine nut), is a specialty found in the southwest United States, especially New Mexico, and is typically a dark roast coffee having a deep, nutty flavor; roasted and lightly salted pine nuts can often be found sold on the side of the road in cities across New Mexico to be used for this purpose, as well as a snack.
Pine nuts have long been a dietary staple in some Native American tribes. Today, though some tribes still use pine nuts in traditional cooking, others use the hard outer shell of the pine nut as a bead for decorative purposes in traditional regalia and jewelry. In the Great Basin area of the US, collecting pine nuts is a protected right through state law and treaty.
In the northern California regions, pine nuts are collected from the Grey Pine (or Bull Pine.) Tribes burn designs into the hard shell, reflecting the same design they use in baskets, however often times they are left in blank, or burned to blacken. These are more often used in women’s regalia and jewelry.
Photo credits: Andrew Zharkikh