Friday, August 16, 2013

Dotting the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada: nut pine (Pinus monophylla), an important food-tree

The nut pine (Pinus monophylla), commonly named singleleaf pinyon (also written single-leaf pinyon and singleleaf piñon), is a small evergreen tree with one to two inches long single needles (its name!)—rarely two or three needles in a fascicle. Trees grow up to a height of 40 feet, often with several twisted trunks, branching low and into a broad crown [1]. It is native to North America, having a distribution range from Idaho to Baja California [2]. John Muir mentioned its scattered occurrence along the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada, where it grows in “grayish, bush-like patches, from the margin of the sage-plain to an elevation of from 7000 to 8000 feet” [3]. Often mixed with junipers, the nut pine is a significant member of the pinyon-juniper woodland community.

The edible seeds of the nut pine—the pine nuts—have been collected as a diet by Native Americans for a long time. The nuts have a relatively high water content and a moderate fat content. Their nutritional value may be accessed by comparing percentages-by-weight content of water, protein, fat, fiber and carbohydrates for Pinus monophylla nuts with respective percentages for other pine nuts and acorns [4].

Back to John Muir, who described the cones with their seeds, so important to Native American tribes [3]:

The cones are green while growing, and are usually found over all the tree, forming quite a marked feature as seen against the bluish-gray foliage. They are quite small, only about two inches in length, and give no promise of edible nuts; bu when we come to open them, we find that about half the entire bulk of the cone is made up of sweet, nutritious seeds, the kernels of which are nearly as large as those of hazel-nuts.
This is undoubtedly the most important food-tree on the Sierra, and furnishes the Mono, Carson, and Walker River Indians with more and better nuts than all the other species taken together. It is the Indians' own tree, and many a white man have they killed for cutting it down. 
John Muir, 1894.

Keywords: conifers, Pinales, Pinaceae, ethnobotany, food source, natural history.

References and more to explore
[1] VirginiaTech, Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation: singleleaf pinyon [ ].
[2] The Gymnosperm Database: Pinus monophylla - Torrey et Frémont 1845 [].
[3] John Muir: The Mountains of California. The Century Company, New York, 1894. Note: see pages 154 to 156 in the Penguin Classics Book print of 1985 with an introduction by Edward Hoagland.
[4] Glenn J. Farris: A Reassessment of the Nutritional Value of Pinus monophylla. Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropolgy 1980, 2 (1), pp. 132-136 [].

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