WILDFLOWER HOME PAGE      SEARCH BY PLANT NAME     TREES      CONTACT US

Pinyon and Juniper Forests

     Pinus edulis (Pinyon Pine),  Juniperus osteosperma (Utah Juniper), and Juniperus monosperma (One-seed Juniper), dominate hundreds of thousands of acres of the Colorado Plateau. The Four Corners region of the Colorado Plateau has extensive stands of these trees in the 4,000-8,000 foot vegetation zone.  Grasses, Sagebrush, Serviceberry, Mountain Mahogany, Blackbrush, and numerous wildflowers find homes in these vast forests.  The seeds of Pinyon and Juniper nourish wildlife. For centuries the Anasazi created a civilization with these trees, building homes, feeding, clothing, and warming themselves. And the Anasazi must have found the redolence of a Juniper and Pinyon Pine fire to be one of the grand pleasures of life  --  many of us in the Southwest still find that pleasure today.

Pinyon Juniper Forest A forest of darker green Pinyon and yellow-green Juniper stretches through rocky canyon country to the base of the Sleeping Ute Mountain.

     Today Native Americans of the Southwest and gourmet cooks around the world still prize Pinyon Pine nuts for snacking and cooking.  The rot resistant wood of the Juniper is used extensively for fence posts and its seeds are strung on necklaces as "Ghost Beads" by the Navajo.

     Most species of Juniperus are commonly called "cedar" throughout the United States: "Cedar fence posts", "Cedar firewood", "Eastern Red Cedar", etc.  They are not Cedars.  The scientific name also has its share of confusion: most botanists refer to the genus as "Juniperus", but Colorado flora expert, William Weber, maintains that the genus should be Sabina.

     "Pinus edulis", the state tree of New Mexico, was first collected by Friedrich Wislizenus in the Sangre de Cristo Range of New Mexico and was first described by George Engelmann in Wislizenus' 1848 Tour through Northern Mexico .

   

Pinyon and Juniper

    Pinus edulis (above left) typically has a thick and straight main trunk; drops its lower limbs as it ages; has dark, tight, fissured bark; and has dark green, open, and airy foliage.

    Juniperus osteosperma (above right) often bends, twists, and even reclines; it retains its dead limbs for decades (perhaps even centuries); and it has light gray, shredding bark.  

    Pinus edulis leaves are very thin, about two inches long, dark green, and in bundles of twos.  Juniperus osteosperma leaves are short, scale-like, light olive-green, and in cylindrical bundles. 

    (That's our Willi Coyote checking under the Juniperus osteosperma for lizards to chase.)

    "Pinus edulis" is Latin for "edible pine".  See Juniperus for more details about the Junipers.

Pinus edulis
Pinus edulis (Pinyon Pine)
Pinaceae (Pine Family)

Semi-desert, foothills. Woodlands. Spring.
Canyonlands National Park, Utah, November 11, 2005.

Pinyons are a most lovely, soft, dark green.  Throughout their adult life Pinyons have a rounded symmetrical shape.  After many decades most Pinyons lose their lower branches, grow 30 to 45 feet tall and three feet in diameter, and have a handsome 30 foot crown spread.  Pinyons live long lives, perhaps 800 years -- unless, as the next picture shows they encounter severe drought.

Pinus edulis
Pinus edulis (Pinyon Pine)
Pinaceae (Pine Family)

Semi-desert, foothills. Woodlands. Spring.
Mule Canyon, November 7, 2006.

The drought years of the early 2000s fostered the proliferation of the Ips Beetle (Ips confusus) which devastated millions of Pinyons in the Southwest.  (Click for a brief survey.)  The Beetle is normally not a significant threat to the Pinyon Pine, but in drought years Pinyons cannot produce enough sap to close the holes the Beetles bore.  Thousands of Beetles attack a tree (you can actually hear them chewing) and kill it in a few months.  Needles die first; within a year or so the needles drop; and within two or three years the tree topples because its woody strength has been decimated.

Many homeowners who had gorgeous stands of Pinyons found themselves with hundreds of dead trees in the early 2000s.  A three acre plot of land often suffered the loss of 500 trees.

Such a massive die-off probably has not occurred for at least the past 500-1000 years, and although millions of Pinyons remain, it will take the arid Southwest centuries to regain the millions of mature trees it lost in just a few years.

Pinus edulisPinus edulis
Pinus edulis (Pinyon Pine)
Pinaceae (Pine Family)

Semi-desert, foothills. Woodlands. Spring.
Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, March 1, 2006.

Prolific nutting years such as the one the Pinyon at far left just finished, are often followed by several lean years, apparently because the tree exhausts its energy in the production of pine nuts.  Since Pinyon Pine nuts take 3 seasons to mature (as explained below) any particular Pinyon has a good crop cycle of about 4 or 6 years, but this will vary with soil moisture.

Pinus edulis almost always has two needles bundled together and the appearance of the tree is soft as in the photo at far left. The rare single needle tree looks thin and prickly, as shown in the photo at near left.

Pinus edulis

Pinus edulis

Pinus edulis

Pinus edulis (Pinyon Pine)
Pinaceae (Pine Family)

Semi-desert, foothills. Woodlands. Spring.
Mesa Verde National Park, May 31, 2004. 
Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, September 19, 2005.

Pinyon Pine, as all Pines, is monoecious, that is, pollen bearing (male, "staminate") structures (top photograph at left) and seed-bearing (female, "pistillate") structures (middle photo at left) are separate but on each tree.

Pinyon Pine nuts take 3 seasons to mature: minute cone buds are formed; a small cone grows, opens, is pollinated, and closes; this cone reopens allowing the pollen inside to fertilize the eggs.  Growth is then rapid and the green, sappy, two inch seed cone matures, dries to light brown, and opens September-November of the third season.

Light colored seed husks are almost always empty; good seed husks are usually dark brown (as in the bottom photograph at left).  The buff-yellow pine nuts inside the good husks are a  mainstay of many Colorado Plateau critters-- including Al and Betty.

Before the growing cycle begins again, it is common for several years to pass. Thus seed production is on about a four to six year cycle, a bit more frequent than the often stated seven year cycle.  The seven year cycle myth dates back at least to the mid-1870's: The botanist Townshend Brandegee states in his "Flora of Southwestern Colorado" (part of the Hayden Survey report for 1876) that Pinus edulis "is said to fruit once in seven years".

Range map © John Kartesz,
Floristic Synthesis of North America

State Color Key

Species present in state and native
Species present in state and exotic
Species not present in state

County Color Key

Species present and not rare
Species present and rare
Species extirpated (historic)
Species extinct
Species noxious
Species exotic and present
Native species, but adventive in state
Eradicated
Questionable presence

Range map for Pinus edulis  

WILDFLOWER HOME PAGE      SEARCH BY PLANT NAME     TREES      CONTACT US