In the American Southwest, there is not the diversity of tree species that exist in Appalachia. Fortunately, the trees that are available to us are truly gifts from the earth. One of my favorites is the pinon pine, which is common throughout the Four Corners area and the Colorado Plateau.
Family – Pinaceae
Pinus edulis (edible pine)
In Arizona, I have found it as low as 3700’ and as high as 7000’. The general zone is around 5000’-6500’ and often mixed with junipers. Look for it in the upper reaches of a juniper forest, where it transitions to a Ponderosa zone. In northern Arizona, pinons are found in the warmer and drier areas of Flagstaff and are quite common in Sedona and some areas of Oak Creek Canyon.
How to Identify
Pines have a band (fascia) at the base of the needles where they join the branch. Spruce and fir have only single needles attached directly to the branch. Most pines have multiple needles in each band. Pinus edulis is a two needle pine. A similar tree in the Great Basin area is Pinus monophylla which has a single needle. This is also commonly called pinon.
Pinon pines are distinct in their asymmetrical shape, more like a beginning bonsai than a traditional symmetrical Christmas tree. They are rarely more than 20’ tall.
The needles are high in vitamin C and can be prepared in hot water for an aromatic tea. I prefer the newer growth on the tips of the branches for this.
An excellent essential oil is produced from the needles. One excellent use of the oil is for respiratory health. This includes coughs, bronchitis, colds, flu and sinusitis. An effective way to use pine oil is with a diffuser, allowing the person to actually breathe in the therapeutic aroma. Constituents include various monoterpenes, including pinene and limonene.
Several species of pine are used. Pinon essential oil is less common and is found either regionally or from better quality companies such as Floracopeia.
The resin of the pinon is exquisite and my favorite of all the pine species. I think of resin as a type of immune system for the tree. It can be found oozing out from wherever the bark has been compromised from a broken branch, a beetle bore or other wound.
Similar to the needles, the resin has anti-bacterial properties and is best used in a salve formulation. While direct application of the sticky resin is possible, this is messy and only done when necessary in the field.
For many people, myself included, the aroma of the salve is a big draw. It is not uncommon for folks, especially younger ones, to use it for lip balm or apply it wherever the intoxicating scent can be inhaled throughout the day.
Pine Nuts as Food
Pinus edulis is Latin for the ‘edible pine’. Botanists recognized the life giving properties of the pine nuts as do native peoples throughout the American Southwest. Being high in fat and protein and providing 3000 calories per pound, this is a great food for the hard working lifestyle of hunter gatherers and for anyone today who leads an active lifestyle.
The Plant Profiles are brief materia medica summaries of plants encountered during plant walks or introduced during class on our longer programs. They are presented here to help students organize plant info on an ongoing basis. Although the Profiles are not meant to be comprehensive, they are offered here to the public in the hope that others find these pages useful.