Using and Eating Piñon Pine

Piñon Pine nuts are edible and were an important food for many Southwestern native tribes.
By Christopher Nyerges
April 21, 2014
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Piñon pine needles.
Photo courtesy Chicago Review Press
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More than a listing of plant types and general facts, Guild to Wild Foods and Useful Plants, Second Edition (Chicago Review Press, 2014) is full of fascinating folklore, personal anecdotes, and tasty recipes perfect for anyone who is interested in living closer to the earth. Christopher Nyerges — co-director of the School of Self-Reliance — offers hikers, campers and foragers an array of tips for harvesting and consuming wild edibles. This excerpt offers information on the sustenance and medicinal value of Piñon Pine.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants, Second Edition.

Piñon Pine Pinus edulis, P. monophylla, P. quadrifolia
Pine Family: Pinaceae
Common Name: Nut pine

Most Prominent Characteristics of Piñon Pine

Overall Shape and Size: Pines are evergreen and vary from roundish bushes to towering pyramid-like Christmas trees. The piñons range from 10 to 35 feet tall. The piñon is drought resistant, requiring only 10 to 18 inches of rain annually.

Trunk: Piñon is a short-trunked low tree, with a trunk diameter of about two feet.

Leaves: The piñons, like all pines, have needlelike leaves when fully mature. The needles of all pines, whether born singly or in groups, have a paperlike fascicle (or sheath) at their base. Piñon needles occur singly or in pairs, and they measure up to two inches long.

Flowers: There are no flowers present in the gymnosperm group of plants, to which the pines belong. Rather than flowers, there are woody cones. The cones of the piñon are almost globe shaped with thick scales. Each scale is raised into a broad-based pyramid with a slightly flattened summit, bearing a minute deciduous prickle.

Seeds: The seeds (also called pine nuts or Indian nuts) are available in late August through October. The large, wingless seeds are oblong, thin shelled, and from ¾ inch to 1½ inches long. The red-brown to black shell is not difficult to crack between the teeth. The nut meat is flavorful and easily digested. Piñon nuts are abundant in cycles, usually every four to seven years.

Beneficial Properties of Piñon Pine

Edible Properties of Piñon Pine: Piñon nuts provided one of the most important foods for many Southwest tribes, such as the Apaches, Hopis, Navajo, Paiutes, and Zunis, but other pines with large nuts were also used, such as coulter pine (P. coulteri), digger pine (P. sabiniana), and sugar pine (P. lambertiana). The nuts were gathered on the ground, or sometimes limbs were shaken so that cones would fall. If the scales on the cone are still tightly closed, the seeds cannot be simply shaken out. In such cases, the cone must be pried apart to release the seeds.

Piñon nuts are from the low-growing piñon trees of the Southwest. Although all pine nuts are edible, few are as large and are therefore not as valuable as the piñon. The nuts can be eaten raw or roasted, ground or chopped finely into a meal that can then be made into pine nut soup. Some Native American children whose mothers had died were often fed pine nut soup, apparently a close substitute for mother’s milk.

USDA analysis of pine nuts reveals that 100 grams contain 635 calories, 12 grams of protein, 60.5 grams of fat, 20.5 grams of carbohydrates, 604 milligrams of phosphorus, 5.2 milligrams of iron, 1.28 milligrams of thiamine (or 14.6 percent protein, 61.1 percent fat, 17.3 percent carbohydrates, 2.8 percent ash, and 3,205 calories per pound).

Many birds and squirrels rely heavily on pine nuts. Other wildlife eat the buds, bark, needles, and wood. Needles of all the pines can be nibbled for their vitamin C or made into a flavorful tea, which has the aroma of Christmastime.

The tree’s cambium layer (the soft layer of growing tissue beneath the bark, or inner bark) is also edible. Although supposedly edible raw, it is improved if it is ground into powder and made into flour or cut into slices and cooked like spaghetti. Some Native Americans mashed the cambium into pulp and formed cakes, which were baked on the coals of the fire. Once dried, these cakes were trail rations, but needed to be broken into bits and boiled to make them soft enough to eat. Although this cambium layer has been highly praised in some literature, it should be considered an extreme survival food due to the work involved in order to obtain a food which, at best, is still resinous, fibrous, and tough.

Medicinal Uses of Piñon Pine: Chewing the fresh sap or gum of piñon is said to be effective for coughs and sore throats and as a laxative. The heated sap may also be used externally on sores, cuts, bites, boils, and burns.

Mashed green needles make an antiseptic poultice for open wounds.

Other Uses of Piñon Pine: Pine sap is useful as glue or pitch to waterproof baskets, boats, and shelters. The Yuki Native Americans chewed the sap (you don’t chew the sap as you’d chew gum; it’s best described as rolling the sap in the mouth).

Pine oil (made from the needles) is used not only medicinally but also as an antiseptic (especially in cleaning bathrooms) and as an air freshener.

Detrimental Properties of Piñon Pine

The needles, scaly cones, and bark can be rough on the hands when collecting parts of the tree. For safety, wear gloves when gathering any part of this valuable plant. The fresh sap is so adhesive and durable that if you sit on it or get it on your clothing, it will stick with you for a long time.

Where Piñon Pine Can Be Found

Native of the southwestern United States, various piñon species can be found along many coastal mountain ranges and into the Mexican and Central American highlands. The piñons are widespread in chaparral woodlands up to timberline. Piñons are found from 3,000 feet to 8,500 feet in the southern ranges, often in association with juniper. Piñon-juniper woodlands extend up to the base of the ponderosa pine zone and are the first coniferous zone up the mountains from the desert sagebrush. Piñon is found in areas of 10 to 25 inches of annual rain, high winds, temperature extremes, and an evaporation rate that is the highest of any forest type. Piñon can be found in pure stands or with the juniper on desert slopes, dry rocky foothills, mesas, plateaus, and on the eastern slopes of the Sierras. Other pines are found throughout the United States.

Growing Cycle of Piñon Pine

Seeds mature in late August through October. The actual cycle for seed production begins in August when the first winter buds (that will become new cones) start to form. The buds mature by October, but then growth stops and resumes the next spring in May. Pollination occurs in June and cone growth continues only to stop again in August. Growth picks up again the following May, and finally in September the cones are mature and the nuts soon fall to the ground.

Lore and Signature of Piñon Pine

In his book Rolling Thunder, Doug Boyd discusses the destruction of the piñon pine as well as the deep importance of this tree to the Native Americans.

The pine nut shape and name resemble the pineal gland, located between the eyes, about two inches back. This is the region called the third eye. Thus, those who accept the Doctrine of Signatures (which, briefly, states that plants contain some signature that alludes to its useful properties) suggest that the ingestion of pine nuts stimulates and/or awakens the pineal gland.

More from Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants

• The Benefits of Wild Edibles
• Guide to Edible Seaweed
• Guide to Wild Manzanita
• The Health Benefits of Ribwort
• Using and Eating Prickly Pear


Reprinted with permission from Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants: Second Edition by Christopher Nyerges and published by Chicago Review Press, 2014. Buy this book from our store: Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants, Second Edition.


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