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In my recent travels across Nevada, Utah, and Colorado, I passed through many miles of arid, high elevation country that barely sees enough precipitation to grow trees. This is the home of pinyon pines. Together with junipers, they add green to landscapes that would otherwise appear quite barren. You might think of their ecological niche as being bounded on one side by sagebrush desert and similar dry sites, and on the other side by lands with sufficient moisture for larger and more dominant tree species such as ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir.

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Pinyons are hardy trees, rarely larger than forty feet tall and 16 inches in diameter, often nearly as wide as they are tall. The trunk is sometimes twisted, and multiple forks are common. Given that description, one would think that they would be safe from logging. And that's true today. Pinyons are seldom cut except for occasional use as firewood. But during the mining boom-and-bust days of the late 1800s, vast areas were harvested for firewood, and to make charcoal for smelters. One historical marker near Ely, Nevada reads in part:
During the late 1870s the hills and mountains around many mining camps were completely stripped of all timber for a radius of up to 35 miles.
The good news is that the trees grew back. And being younger than the undisturbed trees which can be 200 years old, they are more resistant to outbreaks of insects and disease.

Six species of pinyons grow in the western states, but four are confined to narrow ranges near the Mexican border. The most common pinyons are Pinus monophylla (singleleaf pinyon) and Pinus edulis (twoneedle pinyon). These are the species I encountered in my travels.

Let's start with the singleleaf pinyon, since it was the first species I encountered. Here is a typical pinyon-juniper forest in central Nevada:

Pinyon-juniper forest along Old Highway 50 in central Nevada

One way to distinguish pines from other conifers (Douglas-fir, spruce, true fir, etc.) is that pines have needles in bundles of two to five, while the other conifers have single needles. Pinus monophylla is the oddball among pines. Instead of bundled needles, it has single needles.

Pinyon pine (Pinus monophylla)
Pinyon pine (Pinus monophylla)
Looking at a small portion of the above image, we see the single needles in more detail.
Pinus monophylla
Forked tree with furrowed bark.
Pinyon pine (Pinus monophylla)
Pinyon seeds are large and edible. Pine nuts were historically a major food source of Native Americans in the region, and are still harvested today. In an environment where food is scarce, pine nuts are important to the survival of many wildlife species.
cone and seeds of pinyon pine (Pinus monophylla)
This singleleaf pinyon has a commanding view of Zion National Park
Pinyon pine (pinus monophylla)
In eastern Utah, I began to notice the other major pinyon species, Pinus edulis. Its common name of twoneedle pinyon tells us how to distinguish it from the singleleaf species. From a distance the the trees look similar.
Pinyon pine (pinus edulis)
The cones are also similar, and contain large edible seeds (if you can find them before the wildlife does). The cones are on the stump of a tree that had been cut for firewood. I estimated the age to be 75-100 years, but the rings were obscured by pitch.
stump and cones of pinyon pine (Pinus edulis)
Close-up of branch, showing the needles in bundles of two.
Pinyon pine (Pinus edulis)
Fun fact: The range of Pinus edulis extends into western Texas and the westernmost county of Oklahoma, giving those states the distinction of being the only states that are home to both southern pines and western pinyons.

With that, I open this forum to the readers. What's happening in your part of the world today?



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