Updated: Nov 21, 2021
Memories can pop up when least expected. My family and I would sit on the back deck of our South Lake Tahoe cabin and pick out and devour pine nuts from our property's ponderosas. Dad's two tone whistle to the birds seemed to call back to him, me mesmerized by his connection to nature...in that moment. I think about this often when I return to the mountains but also at the grocery store when I see how expensive pine nuts have become. We thought nothing of an afternoon enjoying their buttery meat.
Pinus edulis is only one of several species that produces these coveted pine nuts, and it is one of the more popular for this purpose. When contemplating the price, we should remember that most are still foraged or shipped from overseas, which is why some cooks have opted to use walnuts in pesto sauce instead.
The piñon pine deserves further research than what I can accomplish here. Briefly, I see conflicting discussions about its native region and if we in California can call it one of our own. A USDA distribution map includes a region in California's southeastern deserts. Further confusion ponders why observers have seen 1, 2, or 3 needles in one fascicle, making identification difficult. Species with one needle might actually be its relative Pinus monophylla, (aka one-needle pinyon) but to confound the subject further, both species may naturally hybridize. For the purpose of this post, I will focus on Pinus edulis (aka two-needle pinyon).
Like so many other native conifer trees, their use by landscape architects is sparing. I suspect that despite ornamental and utilitarian benefit, P. edulis needs fantastic drainage and prefers the climate of its high desert home. That said, Cal Poly's SelecTree and other sources mention specimens located at UC Berkeley's Botanical Garden and the East Bay's Tilden Regional Park. Has anyone within the range of this blog seen them, and if so, how are they performing? Note to self to visit both locations.
One could argue for their use in Asian-inspired gardens as a replacement for the more popular non-native Pinus mugo. Both are slow growing and can be aesthetically pruned to enhance their look and minimize their size. Using either should consider their mature sizes despite their slow progress; a foreground planting may become too large over time, unless the intent is to dynamically alter the spatial definition. Would it not be interesting to design a Japanese garden exclusively using California natives? That is something I would like to see.
This video, produced by the International Wood Culture Society, features Navajo Shanna Yazzie demonstrating gathering and preparing pine nuts.
Botanical Name: Pinus edulis
Pinus: Latin for pine
Common Name: Piñon pine; pinyon pine; two-needle pinyon pine; common piñon
Family Name: Pinaceae
Origin: Native; Mojave National Preserve, eastern Nevada to Colorado, south to New Mexico and Arizona
Positioning: Slopes, rock formations, foreground in youth, background with age
Garden Themes: Native, kitchen, naturalized, bird, high desert, rock, drought
Uses: Specimen, screen (recall slow growth), pine nut harvest, bonsai/container
Type: Evergreen coniferous tree
Form: Round when young becoming pyramidal with age
Size: 35' tall by 25' wide
Outstanding Feature(s): Foliage, cone, pine nuts
Arrangement: Alternate (set in fascicles with 1,2, or 3 needles)
Shape: Linear (needle)
Margin: Entire to finely serrate
Flower: Spring. Bell shape in racemes, pink.
Fruit: Summer. Red when unripe turning black when ready. Edible
cultural requirements, tolerances & problems
Sunset Zones: 1-11, 14-21
USDA Zones: 4-8
Light: Sun (cooler microclimates) to part shade (inland)
WUCOLS SF Bay Area Hydro Zone: Low
Texture: Sand, loam, clay (if amended), rocky
Moisture Retention: Well-drained with periods of dryness
pH: Highly acidic to highly alkaline
Tolerances: Verticillium, deer
Branch Strength: Moderate
Insects: Aphids, scale
Disease: Root rot, armillaria
citations & attributions
Bayton, R. (2019). The Royal Horticultural Society's the Gardener's Botanical: An Encyclopedia of Latin Plant Names. London: Mitchell Beazley.
Calscape. "Twoneedle Pinyon." California Native Plant Society, Sacramento. Accessed on October 29, 2021, from https://calscape.org/Pinus-edulis-().
Earle, C.J. (ed.) "Pinus edulis." The Gymnosperm Database, no identified location. Accessed on October 29, 2021, from https://www.conifers.org/pi/Pinus_edulis.php.
Anderson, M.D. "Pinus edulis." Fire Effects Information System, United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Science Laboratory, Fort Collins. Accessed on October 29, 2021, from https://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/tree/pinedu/all.html.
Norris Brenzel, K. (Ed.). (2012). The New Sunset Western Garden Book. New York: Time Home Entertainment, Inc.
Ronk, C. "Meet the Pinyon Pine Tree." Master Gardener Newspaper, University of California Cooperative Extension, Tulare/Kings Counties. Accessed on October 29, 2021, from https://ucanr.edu/datastoreFiles/268-718.pdf.
SelecTree. UFEI. "Pinus edulis Tree Record." 1995-2021. Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. Accessed on Oct 29, 2021, from https://selectree.calpoly.edu/tree-detail/1045.
Water Use Classification of Landscape Species. "WUCOLS IV Plant List." University of California, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Davis. Accessed on October 29, 2021 https://ucanr.edu/sites/WUCOLS/Download_WUCOLS_IV_List/.