A few New Mexico plants: Pine Family



Plants are organized alphabetically by genus and species. Hover over a photo series to control the images.




Special section: Is it a spruce or a fir?

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 Pinyon (Pinus edulis)

The Spanish name for this plant is piñón (plural, piñones). "Pinyon" is the anglicized version of that name.


At the lower, drier end of their range, pinyons adopt a low, rounded shape. Higher up, where there's more moisture and more competition for sunlight, they become full-sized (if narrow-crowned) trees. In most of New Mexico you'll find Pinus edulis, characterized by two short curved needles per bundle. In the southwest corner of the state, P. monophylla also occurs; it has one short curved needle per bundle. Where the two species overlap and hybridize, the same tree can have either one or two needles per bundle. Seasoned pinyon wood burns hot and long, making it New Mexico's prize firewood.


Once pollinated, the female cones take a year and a half to two years to mature. They then drop their nuts, which you can find dotting the ground below a tree. The nuts are loaded with fat, so are an important food source for multiple species. To keep animals from eating all of the nuts, pinyons are genetically programmed to produce bumper crops on an irregular basis. When a bumper crop does happen, the number of seeds overwhelms the local snackers. For thousands of years, human foragers and subsistence farmer sought out these bumper crops. Today, Native American and Hispanic families still go into New Mexico's woods to find pinyon nuts, whether for their own families' use or to sell as a regionally popular snack.


Individual pinyon nuts are encased in a hard but brittle ovoid shell, as you can see in one of my photos. The traditional way to eat pinyon nuts is to roast them in the shell, then pop the nut into your mouth. With practice you can crack the shell, separate the nut from the shell fragments with your tongue, spit out the fragments, and chew and swallow the buttery-tasting nut. With more practice you don't even have to think about what you're doing.


Limber Pine (Pinus flexilis)

Look for a few of these at the crest of the Sandias. For an ID, the clincher is the bundle of five needles. Otherwise, this is a tree that likely to be on the tall side for a piñon, with needles and cones too long to be on a piñon.


Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa)

Once you've seen a few Ponderosa Pines, identifying them is easy. A mature example is many stories tall, usually with a single large trunk. The needles are long, flexible when green, and come in bundles of three. The bark consists of large scales. Sometimes simply referred to as Ponderosas, the trees can have a characteristic scent that reminds some people of vanilla.


When Anglos reached the Southwest, they encountered mature forests of Ponderosa Pines: widely spaced trees 100 or more feet tall, with an understory routinely licked clean by low-intensity ground fires. The new arrivals proceeded to remove all of the forest giants, using logging railroads and then trucks to haul them off to sawmills. Most of today's Ponderosa Pines are runts by comparison. Generations of forest mismanagement (clear cut the big trees; let stands of "doghair" spring up in their place), combined with climate change, pose ongoing threats.