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Pinon Tree Tips: Growing Pinyon Pines

Not all pine trees are created equally. A particularly interesting stand out is the pinon pine, also referred to as pinyon pine or piñon pine. This pine tree produces edible nuts. There are different varieties such as Colorado pinyon and Mexican pinyon and within these varieties, there are different types as well. There are two main types of pinyon pines referred to as the single-leaf pinyon and the two-needle pinyon (also known as two-needle piñon). As you can probably guess, the single leaf pinyon (Pinus monophylla) generally has a single pine needle protruding from each growth point, while the two-needle pinyon has two needles at each growth point. Most pinyon trees have yellow-green needles and produce pine cones over the course of their very long lifetime. Some pinyon pine trees have been reported to live for up to 600 years according to the US Forest Service!

The edible pine nuts of single leaf pinyon, two needle pinyon, and colorado pinyon pine taste almost cream-like in flavor with the oiliness of macadamia and just the slightest hint of a pine-like flavor. The pinyon pine seeds are roasted and eaten as a snack and are commonly used as an ingredient in the cuisine of New Mexico, which calls pinyon pine its state tree. During pine nut harvest periods you can often find them for sale at roadside stands that pop up in states where these pines grow naturally, particularly in the Great Basin. They have also been a staple food of Native Americans for centuries and can be found on reservations across the four corners region in southwestern North America into Mexico. 

The one drawback of the piñon pine is that it can be difficult to grow; they have a very specific and set range where they produce cones filled with those delicious pine nuts. Pinus edulis is native to four states in the US — Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. While they can be grown outside that range, that’s where they thrive best — and that’s also why seed harvest rights are almost exclusively Native American-controlled on this species of tree, as they’re a wild-growing tree in reservation country.

Quick Care Guide

Pinon pine tree
The pinon pine tree is found mostly in the southwestern US. Source: Aquila-chrysaetos
Common Name(s)Pinyon pine, Piñon pine
Scientific NamePinus edulis
Days to Harvest10-15 years from seed to the first harvest of edible nuts
LightFull sun
WaterCan tolerate severe drought and thrives in dry soil, give a good soak at least once a month
SoilWell-draining
FertilizerNot necessary
PestsPine scale, bark beetle
DiseasesBlack stain root disease, Armillaria root disease

All About The Pinon Tree

Sprouting piñon pine
A newly-sprouted piñon pine tree with the seed hull still attached. Source: Lon&Queta

Pinyon pine species thrive in their native range of the American southwest. Pinus edulis is even the state tree of New Mexico. The piñon nut is not only prized by humans but are also beneficial to surrounding wildlife. They are a food source for birds and small mammals such as chipmunks. The pinyon jay of the Great Basin is named after its affinity for the pinyon nut. For this reason, pinyon jays can be found in a similar habitat as pinyon pine. They often nest in pinyon pines and other low elevation pine trees such as ponderosa and juniper. The pinyon jay prefers to make its home in pinyon-juniper woodlands which are often made up of Colorado pinyon (Pinus edulis) and Utah juniper. The ecology of this relationship is mutually beneficial as the pinyon jay readily spreads the seeds. 

Pinyon trees have a bushy appearance unlike other evergreens, they do not grow in a triangular habit but look rather gnarly with a rounded crown. They can easily grow to be 10-20 feet tall, sometimes even taller, although they are extremely slow-growing. The cones bear a resemblance to a brown rose and are also slow-growing, taking multiple seasons to reach maturity. As a conifer, they are evergreen year-round, even in the desert. 

Mid-summer is prime harvest season for pinon nuts, however, harvests depend greatly on the amount of rainfall received that year. Pinon trees produce both math and female flowers and are generally wind-pollinated. Once a cone has formed it then takes about 2-3 years for the cone to mature. The seeds taste similar to the more readily available pine nut variety that you may find in your grocery store (the Italian pignoli nuts). They are rich and fatty with a hint of pine flavor. The seeds also resemble the Italian pine nuts, but are oftentimes larger and served up in the dark brown shell. 

Planting

Pinus edulis can be grown from seeds and/or transplanted from seedlings. Seedlings should be at least 16 inches tall before you transplant them out into the soil. Pinyon pine trees are notoriously slow-growing trees and it will take about 4-5 years from seeds for them to grow 16 inches tall. The seedlings will require regular irrigation once transplanted until they are well established. You will know your pinyon pine is established when you begin to see new growth emerge. It is best to plant new seedlings in spring or in fall. Avoid transplanting during the heat of the summer when pinyon pine will have a harder time getting established. Also, avoid transplanting in the winter when the trees are naturally dormant.

When choosing a planting site keep in mind that while pinyon trees are slow-growing, they will eventually come to be 10-20 ft tall and wide over the course of 10-15 years. It’s also best to avoid an area in your landscape that is regularly irrigated due to the fact that too much water can actually be detrimental to these plants. They would rather be underwatered as opposed to overwatered. This small tree makes an excellent privacy screen or accent behind smaller shrubs and evergreen trees like juniper. 

Care

Pinon male pollen pod
Male flowers produce pollen pods such as these. Source: digitalscully

Pinyon pine care requires minimal maintenance. These drought-tolerant pine trees have long lives and have been known to live up to 600 years with very little attention! 

Sun and Temperature

Pinon trees do best in full sun where they are able to get 6-8 hours of direct sunlight. They are native to Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado and thrive in USDA zones 4-8. Pinyon trees can tolerate poor soil conditions and can even grow on rocky slopes which makes them particularly well suited to the rocky mountain region, including Grand Canyon National Park. This conifer can handle hot summers followed by mild winters which again makes it particularly well suited for the deserts found throughout the Great Basin region as well. Frost and freezes during the wintertime will not harm this evergreen. During times of severe heat and severe drought, it may need more water to protect it from permanent damage. 

Water and Humidity

Piñon pine (Pinus edulis) can survive without much water, however, if you’d like to harvest the pine cones then regular water will put you in the best position to do so. Water twice a month during especially hot and dry periods, water once monthly otherwise. During cone production increase watering pinyon pines to once per week. Giving this tree a good soak at the base of the trunk with a soaker hose is the best approach. Do not water during winter once temperatures are consistently below 40-45 degrees as the tree will move into dormancy and water requirements will decrease significantly. If you are in an area like Colorado that receives snow during the winter, then this will provide plenty of irrigation during this period. 

Soil

Pinyon pine can tolerate a variety of soils as long as they are well-draining. Pinyon pine trees naturally grow in sandy or loamy soils that are slightly acidic. Avoid clay soils that hold on to too much water. Before planting it’s a good idea to pH test the soil to make sure that it’s either neutral or slightly acidic. Yours can be amended using acidifier if necessary. It’s easiest to amend soils before the tree is planted. 

Fertilizing

Since pinyon pine trees are so slow growers they generally don’t need regular fertilizing. If you’d like to help get a young tree established then a 3-2-1 NPK fertilizer can be used 3 times per year for the first few years. Otherwise, fertilizing pinyon pine pine can actually cause more harm than good. Trying to hasten growth by fertilizing and watering can weaken and kill this pinyon pine (Pinus edulis). 

Pruning

Being a slow-growing tree also has the benefit of being low maintenance in terms of pruning. In fact, if you so choose, you could get away with never pruning Pinus edulis and it would do just fine. However, the best time to prune pinyon pine tree is when it’s young in order to shape it to fit into your landscape. Otherwise, you’ll only need to prune to remove dead or damaged wood. As it gets older reshaping may be necessary, but this definitely isn’t a tree that needs yearly pruning. When pruning dead and damaged branches, remove them from the area promptly and avoid piling them up in close proximity to the tree. This can provide the perfect breeding ground for beetles that can attack this pine tree. For this reason, it’s also best to prune during the winter when these beetles are not active instead of other seasons. 

Propagation

Pinyon pines can reliably be grown from seeds that will produce a plant species that is true to type. However, since this tree is such a slow grower, it will be at least 5 years before you have a seedling that is about 15 inches in height. Seedlings and young trees can be purchased from reputable nurseries and they too will generally be on the smaller size. The cost of pinyon pines is usually pretty steep considering how long it takes to grow them! Unfortunately pinyon trees (and trees of this plant type) cannot be propogated from cuttings. 

Harvesting and Storing

Pinon pine cones and nuts
The female pine cones gradually open as the seeds inside ripen. Source: bookwoman_52

Harvesting and storing the piñon nuts has a long history amongst many generations of Native Americans of the American Southwest and Mexico. It is tied to tradition in many instances and these methods prove to be the best.

Harvesting

Harvest the piñon cones before they have opened. When about 25% of the pinyon pine cones have opened and the rest remain closed, then this is the optimal time to begin harvesting. The closed pine cones will likely have a bit of a green tint to them. The height of harvest season usually occurs around mid-summer. 

One documented method for harvesting pinyon cones comes from a passage written by John Muir in 1878 where he describes the Native American harvesters stacking the pine cones in a pile topped with brushwood and then lightly scorching them with fire. This method burned off the resin on the outside of the pinyon pine cones and loosened the seeds. Afterward, the burned cones would be set out to dry in the sun for a few days until the seeds easily fell away from the cone. 

Storing

The nuts have naturally high levels of fats in the form of monounsaturated fatty acids which help lower LDL also referred to as bad cholesterol. Because of this high-fat content, the nut has the potential to spoil and go rancid. You can tell they are past their prime if you notice an off odor. There are some storage techniques that can extend their shelf life. The fresh nuts should be stored in an airtight container and can be stored under refrigeration for up to 2 months. They can be stored in the freezer for even longer, up to 6 months. Once roasted each nut will last even longer, they can be stored in the freezer for up to a year. With how delicious each pinyon nut is, I can’t imagine having them around for that long without eating them all! 

Troubleshooting

Pine nuts
Pine nuts have a hard seed hull that must be cracked to reach the nut meat. Source: Zwedlana

Pinyon pines are about as low maintenance as they come. A tree that essentially thrives on neglect makes it a welcome sight in the high desert landscape. There are, however, some troubleshooting tips to keep in mind. 

Growing Problems

If you’re growing pinyon pine (Pinus edulis) for its cones then it is important to water it regularly. It will need water once a month throughout the year and up to twice a month during the hottest months of summer. If the pine tree is not receiving enough water then this could affect its ability to produce cones or the cones may even be sparse and stunted. 

Pests

Thin and wispy growth can indicate piñon pine scale, a small insect that pierces the needles and sucks out the juices. In cases of serious infestation, pine scale can cause enough stress and damage to kill the tree. In extreme infestations or areas with recurring issues with pine scale, it is recommended to apply an organic systematic insecticide annually. The use of these insecticides should be a last resort as they will kill indiscriminately and can harm beneficial insects as well. 

Bark beetles are hard to spot visually as they are smaller than a grain of rice. These beetles are attracted to stressed and drought-stricken nut pine trees. They burrow into the bark where they lay their eggs. A healthy pinyon pine tree will enact its natural defense system of pumping resin into the tunnels and driving the beetles out. However, a stressed or thirsty pinyon pine tree won’t have the energy to employ this defense. A tree suffering from a bark beetle attack will begin to drop its needles. Since all species of pines are evergreens there is no reason for green needles to begin falling unless there is something going awry. Infested limbs can be pruned away if the rest of the plant is beetle free. Dispose of these limbs immediately. 

Diseases

Black stain root disease is usually transmitted by insects that carry the spores. This vascular disease prevents the pinyon from taking up water and causes a black stain to appear on the wood. Bark beetles tend to follow since they seek out stressed trees and this combination can cause the death of the pinyon pine tree. There is no cure for this disease and infected trees should be destroyed or it may spread to nearby pines, including pinyon pine. 

Armillaria root rot disease is a fungus that spreads along the piñon roots. This fungus can survive on dead wood for up to 35 years. This fungus prefers moist soil and mild climates. It cannot survive in hot and dry areas. A particularly wet spring or fall is the perfect breeding ground for this fungus. There is no treatment for this disease, however, allowing the piñon plant to dry out may starve the fungus and slow its progression. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Mexican Pinyon Pine (Pinus cembroides)
Other pinyon relatives like this Mexican pinyon grow similarly and produce nuts. Source: Dick Culbert

Q: How often do pinon trees produce nuts?

A: The production of pinyon cones is dependent upon the amount of rainfall received in a season. Once a cone is produced it can take 2-3 years to fully mature. 

Q: How do you identify a pinon tree?

A: Pinyon pines have a gnarly shape with a rounded crown, and a single leaf or two needle with yellow-green needles. The cones have been said to resemble brown roses. 

Q: How long does it take for a pinon tree to grow?

A: Pinyon pine can take up to 10-15 years to reach maturity and can live for up to 600 years. 

Q: Are pine nuts and pinon nuts the same?

A: Pinyon pine seeds are a type of edible pine nut because they are pine seeds.