Wildlife Finds: Two-needle Piñon
Photo: Marty Tow/ NPS, Arches National Park (public domain via Wikimedia Commons).
This iconic Southwestern evergreen has been a bringer of food, warmth, and light for Native American groups since time immemorial. Today, the tasty seeds of this pine are a delicacy of New Mexican cooking and food culture: it's the Two-needle piñon (Pinus edulis)!
Alternatively named the Colorado piñon for it's ubiquity on the Colorado Plateau, these plants are one half of the piñon-juniper scrublands, an ecological type that dominates many landscapes across the Four Corners region. These stout plants are among the heartiest and long-lived plant species in the Southwest. Individual trees regularly live hundreds of years, and are equipped to thrive in a wide range of temperatures and soil types. The trees can also survive flash flooding and intense winds due to their extensive taproots, which drill down more than 20 feet below the plant in search of moisture.
The seeds of this plant are worth their weight in gold as far as the wildlife are concerned: many insects and bird species like the Piñon jay thrive on these seeds. However, cone and seed production on the Piñon is notoriously fickle. An individual tree must survive 25 years of more before it can bear cones; at that point the tree must also become pollinated. Individual cones can take several years to develop, and the number of seeds developed is highly dependent on available moisture and nutrients. Finally, when the cone is fully developed, drier weather helps air it out and release seeds.
This process can take 3-7 years, meaning that predicting the next crop requires careful attention to past cycles and current development. If you manage to find a group of trees ready to harvest (in New Mexico, this is usually in the fall), you must also contend with the birds, insects, and mammals who have waited just as anxiously for piñon. Every year there is always some set of piñon trees ready to harvest, but whether these are easy to spot or are accessible on public land is another story.