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Flora Fact: Western Pines

Though smaller than their East Texas counterparts, pinyons offer large, nutritious seeds.

By Dyanne Fry Cortez

Mention pine trees, and many Texans think of East Texas, but pines also inhabit the western reaches of our state.

Pinyon pines, with their compact stature and slow, patient growth, are well adapted to the semi-arid mountains of the Southwest. Three species are found in Texas. Mexican pinyon (Pinus cembroides) thrives in the volcanic mountains of the Big Bend area. Texas or papershell pinyon (P. remota) prefers limestone soils. It’s found on the western edge of the Edwards Plateau and also in parts of the Big Bend. The Colorado or two-leaf pinyon (P. edulis) grows in the Guadalupe Mountains and Sierra Diablo east of El Paso.

Some East Texas pines attain heights of more than 100 feet; pinyons usually top out at 40 feet or less. Pinyon cones also are small, about 1.5 inches long, but the seeds inside are bigger than seeds of many other pines, and they’re quite tasty. Pinyon “nuts” were important to the diets of prehistoric Texans and indigenous tribes across the Southwest. As settlers of European descent expanded westward, the seeds became valuable trade goods. The Spanish name piñon is believed to be shorthand for “pine with large seeds.”

pinyon

Like most conifers, pinyon trees have needle-like foliage. The needles are short, averaging little more than an inch in length. They’re packed close together on the branches, and often have a blue-green tint. These traits might lead a passer-by to confuse a pinyon with a spruce or fir, but on close inspection, it’s clearly a pine. Spruce and fir needles are attached one-by-one to a stem, while pine needles appear in a bundle with a paper-like wrapper at the base. Needles of our pinyon species come in bundles of two or three.

Pinyons grow on sunny mountain slopes. P. cembroides and P. edulis prefer elevations of 4,000 to 7,000 feet. P. remota has been found as low as 1,500 feet in the Edwards Plateau, and 2,500 to 5,000 feet in West Texas. These trees grow slowly and live long lives. A pinyon might be 25 years old before it starts to produce cones. A 40-foot tree with a trunk diameter of 10 inches might be more than 100 years old.

Usually found in community with other trees, pinyons tend to be more crooked and gnarly in the lower part of their range. A U.S. Forest Service handbook published in the 1990s remarked, “A typical pinyon-juniper woodland, with its many-branched trees resembling shrubs, has the appearance of a stunted coniferous forest.”

People still harvest pinyon seeds for commercial and traditional use. This mostly occurs to the south and west where the trees are more abundant. Pinyon habitat is limited in Texas, and much of it is located in national parks or other protected areas, so we don’t see much human harvest here. Instead, the seeds are enjoyed by a variety of birds and mammals including scrub jay, Mexican jay, Steller’s jay, squirrels, porcupines and the bears of the Chisos Mountains. High in fat, with respectable amounts of starch and protein, pinyon seeds provide essential nutrition in an environment where food can be hard to find.

Jays, in particular, are important to the pinyons’ survival. Some pine species have winged seeds that can ride the wind. Pinyon seeds are wingless and fairly heavy, so they depend on birds to spread them around. The jays consume many seeds, but they always drop a few. Also, as our human ancestors did, jays will often gather a pile of seeds and put them away for the winter. Some will survive to germinate and send roots reaching into mountain soil. Two hundred years from now, a grandchild of your great-grandchild may stop to rest in the shade of a pinyon tree that was planted by a noisy bird this winter.

 

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