Fifteen years ago, after a few weeks of field work in the Mojave, I met my ex-wife and our dog for a few days of camping in the arid hills of the Southern Sierra Nevada above Ridgecrest. It was October. Warm days and frosty nights combined to make perfect weather for being outdoors. We stayed for a few days, eating food cooked over a fire and watching the stars at night. And the entire time we were there whole extended families would arrive at the campground carrying rakes and buckets, chatter excitedly as they locked their cars, and then disappear into the open forest of piñon and juniper.
An old man emerged from the woods after a while and waved happily to us as he ambled past our campsite, saying "Hola." I asked what he had found in my fractured and ungrammatical Spanish; he held out a big zip-sealed plastic bag full of pine nuts.
Gathering pine nuts in the desert mountains is a fall tradition that stretches back centuries. Especially in the cooler Great Basin desert, where the piñon and juniper forest is more widespread, pine nuts were a crucial part of the Native diet. They still are: laws in Nevada preserve Native people's right to harvest pine nuts in order to maintain the continuity of their cultural heritage.
Pine nut harvesting is a fairly labor-intensive task. In good years, the nuts may well be lying on the ground waiting for you, and all you need do is rake up piles and sort out the nuts from the forest floor debris. (The trees seem to alternate heavy harvests with lighter ones about every other year.) More industrious people will spread tarps out beneath the trees and then shake them, or even pick cones directly from the branches and open them by heating. However you get the nuts, you must separate good nuts from the ill-formed or bug-eaten ones -- usually by dumping them into a bucket of water and discarding the floaters -- and then shell them. That last is more work than you'd think. Each nut is encased in a thin, hard seed coat. Removing that seed coat without crushing the nut inside is only a little easier than opening a stubborn pistachio.
If you've ever wondered why pine nuts are so pricy, that's your answer right there. The neat little soft and unblemished pine nuts in the supermarket have a significant labor overhead attached. And for what? Many store-bought pine nuts are halfway to being rancid by the time you get to the cash register: the nuts degrade quickly after shelling. Buy them in the shell and you can store them for years.
Commercial pine nuts generally come from a European pine species, the Italian stone pine -- though Korean and Chinese species have made their way into the U.S. marketplace as well. Wild pine nuts in the desert come from one of a few species of American piñon.
The actual species are in dispute, as is usual for desert plants. For decades, beginning botanists were taught that California's deserts held two species of piñon pine: the single-leafed piñon Pinus monophylla, widespread throughout the cooler northwestern deserts of California and Nevada, and the two-leaved or Colorado piñon, Pinus edulis, one of the most common forest trees throughout the summer-rain deserts in Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico but essentially restricted, in California, to the New York Mountains in the Mojave National Preserve.
Since I sat in my campsite on Halloween weekend 1997 and watched families gather seeds from pine trees that were then unambiguously considered Pinus monophylla, things have changed. One botanist has suggested that the trees in the New York Mountains ought to be considered their own species, Pinus californiarum. There's a lot of evidence to support the idea, though perhaps not enough to make those trees a full species. Some botanists have lumped Pinus edulis and Pinus monophylla together, suggesting that what we once knew as Pinus edulis is actually either a subspecies or variety of Pinus monophylla. The single-leafed piñon and Colorado piñon hybridize readily, adding to the confusion.
For its part, the U.S. Geological Survey's botanists seem to have decided to split things down the middle, with the southwesternmost populations of old Pinus edulis assigned to Pinus edulis var. fallax, and the trees in the New York Mountains assigned to Pinus monophylla var. californiarum along with others of their kind in a thin band stretching from Mount Charleston and the mountains above Bullhead City through central Baja -- inermingling with their plain old Pinus monophylla cousins in Joshua Tree and the Santa Rosa Mountains.
But enough of the eye-glazing taxonomical detail. Whether the southwest's nut pines are three species, or the old canonical two, or a swarm of varieties, the trees nonetheless remain the base of a complex partnership between bird and pine. Pine nuts don't disperse well. On their own, they tend to fall to the ground and stay there. This is great for those who want to eat pine nuts, humans or bears or coyotes or whatever. It's not so great for the purposes of the tree, which after all makes seeds in order to make new trees.
Fortunately for the piñon pines, they've evolved a partnership with a few different birds in the crow family: scrub jays, piñon jays, Clark's nutcrackers, and Mexican jays all really like pine nuts. They gather them from the ground and from ripened cones, then hide them in caches scattered throughout the landscape. Though the crow family is noted for its members' prodigious memories -- the birds can remember locations of hundreds of caches a year or more after they plant them -- they do miss some seeds, which grow into new piñon pines.
For now, anyway. Though piñons are well-adapted to arid conditions, they do need more moisture than is usually found in the desert. That's why they stick to upper elevations: above 3,500 feet for most Pinus monophylla, while the old-school Pinus edulis live above 5,000 feet, mainly as their more southerly range is a bit warmer. As climate changes, and the desert dries and gets hotter, piñon pines have more trouble thriving. You can see this in action in Joshua Tree National Park, where piñons once thrived in upper-elevation spots like Pine City, whose pines are dying off from drought and heat.
This ancient partnership of bird and tree, which we humans have taken advantage of successfully and sustainably for centuries, may well be just one more casualty of our habit of burning fossil fuels. So gather ye pinenuts while ye may.
Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Director of Desert Biodiversity, he writes from Joshua Tree regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.