New Mexico Plants: Pine Family

(Pinaceae)

 

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


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.

 

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 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.