We are all about adventure here at Zion Adventure Company, and what could be more adventurous than finding your own food? If you know me, I love to complement strenuous Zion activities like mountain biking, canyoneering, and rock climbing with good eating and cooking. And yes, even the desert gives a bountiful harvest this time of year.
Autumn marks the Pinyon Pine harvest all over the Southwest U.S. (Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico), and we have our very own Pinyons here in Zion. The Zion region is home to the world’s only single-needled pine, pinus monophylla, or simply the Single-leaf Pinyon. It grows from elevations of 4,000 feet to almost 9,000 feet and is found in the dominant Pinyon-Juniper “pygmy” forests in the mesas surrounding Zion.
So how do you harvest pine nuts? Well, it definitely takes time and work, but I think it’s a very fun way to explore the forest. First, find an area with more pinyon pines than juniper trees. Pinyons tend to like higher elevations than junipers and often grow in groups. Pinyons start to “cone” in September and October, so you can harvest anytime in those months and sometimes even later in the year. The easiest way to collect nuts is to find a tree with many mature cones, and place a sheet at its base. Then, shake the tree or try to knock off loose cones with a long stick.
If the cones are open or partially open, you probably can see the nuts and remove them from the center. Another way to get cones to open up is to place them over hot coals. (Hmmm, bonfire party anyone?) Here’s the tough part: the seeds aren’t all developed nuts! Pollination and water conditions determine whether the seed germinates into a tasty nut or shrivels into rotten or inedible nuts. You can crack the outer shell with a small hammer or with your teeth. The nut has a little layer of brown skin too.
If you’ve bought pine nuts in the store before, your first viewing of a native American pine nut will be, “Whoa, these are HUGE”. It’s true, most pine nuts sold to stores and restaurants are actually Chinese and Siberian species that grow much smaller nuts. Picking your own nuts not only assures the absence of processing chemicals, and but think of how much less they’ve travelled! A word of warning however: be careful to watch where you collect. BLM lands and other federal lands generally allow individuals to collect pinyon pine nuts, but make sure before you go. Make sure to call the district office of the National Forest or BLM land you want to collect on; for instance, in our county, (Washington County, Utah) you can get a free collecting permit from the St. George office. If you are collecting on private lands, please have permission from the land owner. Also, be aware that on most Indian Reservations, the rights for collecting are to tribe members only. As always, observe Leave No Trace principles of picking up trash, staying on roads, and watching out for cryptobiotic soils.
Now when the work’s all done or you need motivation to pick more, think of all the fantastic foods you can make with pine nuts… add them to pesto, salads, hummus, and even cinnamon rolls and other baked goods…mmm. Pine nuts are a “complete protein”, having the highest protein content of all nuts. Can’t get out here to pick them yourself? Well, you can always support our local pickers by ordering from Penny’s Pine Nuts or Wholesale Pinenuts.
Happy fall picking and cooking!