Trees are the most successful, long-lived forms of vegetation on our planet. Some are tall like the redwoods or massive like sequoias while others are exceptional water conservationists.
Pinyon pines fall into the latter category as they have carved out a niche on the edge of deserts occupying an astounding range of over 75,000 square miles in the American southwest.
The Spanish named them pinyon or nut-bearing pines because of their very large, wingless seeds. Pinyon seeds are popular in salads and pesto.
Pinyon pine and their constant companion juniper grow in low, open forests or woodlands. Tree canopies do not touch because moisture is scarce.
The history of pines is rich and dates back over 180 million years to the age of the reptiles. About 75 million years ago the pines migrated into North America across the wide Bering land bridge that several times connected Alaska with Siberia.
Many species migrated as far as the Mexican highlands, which today boasts exquisite diversity of pines.
Sixty million years ago, during the Paleocene Epoch, the North American climate began to warm and get drier. Ocean and land cores show that a massive drought ensued for 30 million years forcing any vegetation that remained in the U.S. southwest to become drought tolerant.
The great moisture-loving redwood forests of Nevada perished, making way for the incoming drought-hardy pinyon pines.
There are about 100 species of pine worldwide. Interestingly, there are 11 species of pinyon pines; two in the U.S. and nine only found in Mexico. In addition, there are three species of junipers found throughout the pinyon woodlands.
Single-leaf pinyons of California, Arizona, Idaho, Nevada and Utah exhibit a fantastic distribution found with barrel cactus of the Sonoran Desert at 3,200 feet above sea level and with the high elevation bristlecone pines at 9,700 feet on Utah’s Frisco Peak.
The Colorado pinyons of Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Oklahoma also display an impressive range from the frigid Great Basin Desert of Wyoming to the edge of the Mogollon Rim to the fringes of the high wind-swept plains of the Oklahoma panhandle.
Pinyons exhibit a remarkable genetic variability providing a deep pipeline for continuing evolution and protection from climate change.
One unlikely curator, the bushy-tailed wood rat, has given scientists a glimpse of the vegetation patterns of the southwest over the past 30,000 years.
Bushy-tailed rats build their homes or middens amid rocks. They drag dry sticks, cones, needles, dried leaves and anything shiny into their middens. Over time the debris becomes well trodden and encrusted with residue from evaporated urine. Essentially, the urine welds the material together leaving a shiny surface.
Well-preserved middens found in caves are wonderful museums containing animals and plants from the last ice age.
Vulture Cave above the Colorado River in the lower Grand Canyon is one such example that has provided paleo-scientists a rare opportunity to see the woodland forests that crept down the hills and lived in the valley bottom during the Pleistocene when temperatures were almost 6 degrees cooler with 7 inches more precipitation.
The gregarious and raucous-voiced pinyon jay is a conspicuous critter in these woodlands. Flocks of a hundred or so birds regularly sweep through these forests.
Pinyon pines produce two colors of seeds. Light tan seeds are mostly empty and completely disregarded by the jays. The chocolate-brown seeds, on the other hand, are carefully examined first for their weight. Then a “click-test” is performed on the seed whereby the bird rapidly opens and closes its mandibles. Presumably the seed must make the right sound, otherwise its discarded.
Pinyon jays store up to 20 seeds in their elastic esophagus and fly as far as six miles away. They carefully place several seeds into the litter of dead needles and twigs on the forest floor, remembering where most, but not all, of their food or caches are located.
It’s an elegant symbiotic relationship: Tree feeds birds and birds plant trees. The seeds are an important food source for stellar jays, Clark’s nutcrackers, small ground mammals, black bears and desert bighorn sheep.
Pinyon pines were central to the Hopi, Zuni, Pueblo, Washoe, Shoshone, Paiute and Navajo nations.
Gooey pitch was used to cement turquoise into silver settings, to waterproof basketry water jugs and to give stone griddles a nonstick surface — analogous to Teflon.
Medicinally, the pitch was used for dressing wounds and fumes of burning gum were inhaled to cure colds and ear aches.
The seeds were collected in the fall by entire tribes and stored as a crucial winter food source. They were eaten raw, roasted, boiled whole or ground into flour.
Pinyon seeds are rich in proteins, amino acids especially tryptophan (facilitating restful sleeps), fats, complex carbohydrates, phosphorus, vitamin A, thiamine, riboflavin and niacin.
My favorite snack while working in the woods is pinyon pemmican — toasted pinyon seeds and chocolate chips with a light sprinkle of shredded coconut.
Dr. Reese Halter is a public speaker and conservation biologist. His upcoming book is entitled “The Incomparable Honey Bee,” Rocky Mountain Books. He can be contacted through www.DrReese.com.