The very particular schedule of picking piñon pine nuts
Every few years in the Southwestern United States, it becomes a common sight to see cars pulled over along the highway, seemingly at random, with their occupants bounding off into the woods. This isn’t due to a lack of bathrooms along the road, but piñon season. The tasty, fatty seeds are really only ready to harvest every two to seven years, but when that unpredictable harvest is ready, it can come by the bucketful, and many animals will go out of their way to collect them whenever the opportunity presents itself.
The fickle scheduling of piñon nuts is closely tied to the difficulties of living in desert environments. Dry soil and infrequent rain force these trees to pace themselves, growing only five inches a year as a sapling, and only three inches a year once mature. Even at 150 years old, a pinon tree trunk might only be 12 inches in diameter, compared to say, the 30- to 60-inch trunk of a mature ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa.) The slow and steady approach also applies to the seeds of a pinon, which may produce new pine cones each year, even without actual seeds. To save precious resources, the trees seem to only produce seeds under optimal conditions, such as years with better-than-average rainfall.
The wait seems to be worth it though, as piñon seeds are harvested by various rodents, birds and of course, humans. The birds, such as piñon jays (Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus) and Mexican jays (Aphelocoma wollweberi) play a crucial role in dispersing the seeds, as they’ll bury them when setting up their cache of food for the winter, leaving a few unretrieved nuts to grow into new trees. Rodents and humans aren’t quite as helpful, although we are happy to help cultivate the trees, especially considering the huge number of ways to enjoy them, from pasta to candy to salads.
The techniques for harvesting piñon nuts seem to have been invented as far back as the first humans to arrive in North America, persisting thousands of years. The green pine cones were knocked out of the trees, assembled in a pile then lightly roasted to remove the outer layer of resin as well as loosen the seeds. If harvesting later in the season, no scorching is necessary, as the nuts are often loose enough that you can knock or shake them out of the pine cones without much fuss at all. In those cases, just be sure that you’ve parked your car far enough off the road to avoid the passing traffic.
Source: Pinyon by Frank P. Ronco, Jr., US Forest Service