Pinyon Pines

A Quest for Pinyon Pines

One line in a travel guide in 1997 first hinted to me the beauty of pinyon pines. The guide described my hotel in Taos, NM, as a place to read in front of a kiva (a traditional fireplace) full of smoking pinyon. To me, pinyon, a tree I had never knowingly seen, became an intrinsic part of the land of enchantment. I imagined that I saw pinyons in all the mountain forests we drove through, but I didn't know much about trees then and I never knew for sure.

On a drive through Utah, last year, I finally identified and photographed a pinyon pine. We were driving from Moab to St. George on an interstate marked every ten miles with signs no more descriptive than "ranch exit." I wondered who lived down those lonely lanes. I imagined that whoever did was still living the type of life where they would have to store provisions for the winter.

As we climbed in altitude, I saw an evergreen with pinecones that looked like wooden roses. This pine was no Christmas tree. Its needles curled upward like the tentacles of an anemone during a promising tide. The wind made a swooshing sound through all those curved needles on the low pines perched on rocky soil.

Then I learned that the bloom of cones was auspicious. Pinyons don't produce them until at least the age of 25, and then only once every three years.

Pinyon Pine Life

Pinyons live in lands of high-altitude beauty: dry mesas, plateaus, buttes. They often grow mixed with junipers, another plant that defines a landscape. They are concentrated primarily in Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico.

Although they find refreshing coolness at higher altitudes, their home is still a harsh land, and young pinyons often only grow in the shade of shrubs or near downed trees.

Together with junipers, they create a habitat for numerous birds such as pinyon jays (critical for the dispersal of pinyon seeds that do not have sails for flight), juniper titmice, and black-throated gray warblers. Pinyon jays bury the pine nuts over the winter, and they can even find them underneath the snow-- well most of them anyway. Those they leave behind have the chance to become new pinyons.

Pinyon Meaning

The word pinyon is Spanish for pine. The tree is emblematic of the high dry areas of the U.S. Southwest.

The South Paiute Indians made flour from pine nuts. They brewed pine needle tea for medicinal purposes as an expectorant.

Today pine nuts are an ingredient in recipes, ranging from pesto to brownies. Here are some interesting ideas that I want to try over the next month. The first is Pine Nut Cardamon Scones, said to be great with cardamon-spiked chai tea-- to give a feeling of the steppes of Central Asia. The second is a really easy recipe for baklava, which hardly seems Southwestern. However, a relative of the pinyon grows in Europe, and the associated pine nut has spread into recipes throughout the Mediterranean and beyond.

I plan to research pinyons in the winter. As evidenced by the habits of pinyon jays digging pine nuts out of snow, they do live in snowy regions. I would love a photograph of one in the snow. I do not know if they ever serve as Christmas trees. When they are young, they are pyramid-shaped but more mature pinyons take on a rounded, ragged shape. If not, as part of a glowing Christmas fire, a pinyon log would add a lovely, smoky scent.


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