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Moctezuma Born of a Piñon Seed

By Juan Estevan Arellano

Mention the word piñon (also spelled pinyon) to a native New Mexican and immediately the word conjures up all sorts of images. The first that comes to mind is that of sitting on a bench in the resolana (south face of building) in the fall nibbling on the small brownish nuts, enjoying the last remaining days of a beautiful Indian summer with the leaves turning different hues of color before winter arrives. In winter, there is no better way to spend the day than to sit in front of the fireplace smelling the wonderful aroma of burning piñon wood while savoring the taste of piñon and carne seca, beef jerky.

Piñon is a seed that fuels the popular imagination. The late Cleofes Vigil from San Cristobal in Taos County would say that piñon could be addictive. Laughing, he added as he would crack open a piñon, “este piñon no lo deja a uno ni platicar,” (this piñon doesn’t even allow you to carry on a conversation) because one can’t eat piñon and talk at the same time.

The image of enjoying piñon is timeless. However timeless these images may be, piñon has long been in existence within the area now known as Mexico and the southwest. The existence of piñon along the historic Camino Real de Tierra Adentro is in fact so old a story that it belongs to legend.

This writer’s mother, Lucia, who was born in El Guique near present day San Juan used to say that Moctezuma was born from a piñon seed. It was part of the folklore of her upbringing. The story says that a bird, the “piñonero,” had carried the seed following the Camino Real to Mexico City where Moctezuma was born. The piñonero’s home was the mythical Aztlan, somewhere in the greater Southwest, and within the boundaries of the Colorado piñon.

The first Spanish dictionary, “Tesoro de la Lengua Castellana o Española,” by Sebastián de Covarrubias Orozco of 1611, says that “piñon” is “la fruta del pino,” and “piña,” “la nuez del pino donde nacen los piñones,” and a paste of piñon and sugar is known as “piñonate.” The word comes from the Latin, “pinus, us, et pinus, pini.” So when the Spanish first encountered the piñon tree in the Americas, it reminded them of home because it was from the same family as the Iberian piñon tree and thus the name piñon was instituted in the Americas. Pine nuts are called piñones in Spanish and pinoli (locally also pinoccoli or pinocchi - Pinocchio means in fact 'pine nut') in Italian. In the US, they are also known as Indian nuts, as they are mainly harvested by Native American tribes especially the Navajo. To the Tewas this tree and its nut is known t’o.

Unlike other crops introduced by the Spanish settlers, piñon is a native of the Americas but it also grows in Europe and Asia usually in altitudes between 4,500-7,500 feet. This is usually the same elevation most of the acequias (traditional irrigation canals) in New Mexico and throughout the world are found. If there is piñon, there is also bound to be acequias, carrying water to sustain agriculture.

In Europe, pine nuts come from the Stone Pine (pinus pinea), which has been cultivated for its nuts for over 6,000 years, and harvested from wild trees for far longer. The Swiss pine (pinus cembra) is also used to a very small extent. In Asia, two species are widely harvested, Korean pine (pinus koraiensis) in northeast Asia and chilgoza pine (pinus gerardiana) in the western Himalaya.

Today, pine nuts from Asia are found in markets of northern New Mexico, but like chile, a norteño can immediately tell the difference between a piñon from Ojo Caliente and one from China, though they are marketed as Mexican piñon, grown along the Camino Real.

In North America there are three main species of piñon: Colorado piñon (pinus edulis) found mostly in north central and northwest New Mexico; single-leaf piñon (pinus monophylla) found in southwestern New Mexico - in the Mimbres Valley – and Mexican piñon (pinus cembroides) of northern Mexico around Valle Allende and Santa Barbara among other similar elevations. This one has a very hard shell and is almost impossible to crack open.

The best known of all piñon trees along the Camino Real in northern New Mexico is the Colorado piñon or two-needle piñon (pinus edulis). It occurs at moderate altitudes from 5,000 to 7,200 ft., rarely any lower than 4,500 ft., nor higher than 9,000 ft. It is widespread and often abundant in this region, forming extensive open woodlands, usually mixed with junipers, known locally as both cedro (cedar or Spanish juniper) or sabina (alligator juniper).

It is a small to medium size tree, reaching from 10-40 feet tall and with a trunk diameter of up to three feet, rarely more. The seeds are one quarter to half inch long, with a thin shell, a white endosperm, and a vestigial wing; they are dispersed by the piñon jay, which plucks the seeds out of the open cones. The jay, which uses the seeds as a food resource, stores many of the seeds for later use, and some of these stored seeds are not used and often grow into new trees.

Colorado piñon was described by George Engelmann in 1848 from collections made near Santa Fe, New Mexico on Alexander William Doniphan's expedition to northern Mexico in 1846. Mexican pinyon was the first piñon pine described, named by Zuccarini in 1832. The seeds are widely collected in Mexico, being the main pine nut in the region but to the “Norteño” in New Mexico, they don’t compare.

During the mid-nineteenth century many piñon groves in both New Mexico and Mexico along the Camino Real were cut down to make charcoal for ore-processing, destroying the traditional lifestyle of the Native Americans who depended on them for food. When the railroads penetrated these areas, imported coal supplanted locally-produced charcoal. The destruction of large areas of piñon forests in the interests of cattle ranching is seen by many as an act of major ecological and cultural vandalism. Colorado piñon is also occasionally planted as an ornamental tree and sometimes used as a Christmas tree.

In the US, bad land use practices both by the government and private individuals have led to the destruction of millions of acres of productive piñon woods by conversion to grazing lands or overcrowding. These issues, combined by draught stress, have led to the beetle infestation that has attacked the piñon since the turn of the century. In China, destructive harvesting techniques (breaking off whole branches to harvest the cones) and cutting of the trees for timber have led to losses in production capacity. The same has happened in northern New Mexico with the advent of the power saw.

Following the re-establishment of piñon woodlands, many ranchers became concerned that these woodlands provided decreased livestock forage. Efforts to clear these woodlands, often using a surplus battleship chain dragged between two bulldozers, peaked in the 1950s, but were subsequently abandoned when no improved forage resulted. The destruction of large areas of piñon woodlands in the interests of mining and cattle ranching is seen by many as an act of major ecological and cultural vandalism.

The Harvest

Pine nuts are the edible seeds of these pine trees. There are about 20 species of pines that produce seeds large enough to be worth harvesting; in other pines the seeds are also edible, but are too small to be of value as a human food. The edible seeds, pine nuts, are extensively collected throughout its range; in many areas, the seed harvest rights are owned by Native American tribes, for whom the species is of immense cultural and economic importance.

Among “piñoneros” (those that harvest the nuts), when there is plenty of piñon, the very small piñon are left behind for the wildlife, especially the raton coludos, or squirrels, and the piñon jay (gymnorhinus cyanocephalus) or “pájaro piñonero” who compete with humans for the nutritious nuts. The piñon jay is a bluish-grey colored bird with deeper head coloring and whitish throat with a black bill, legs and feet. At times people strike it rich when they encounter a nest full of piñon, which people then replenish with corn or other grains for the squirrels to survive on through the long cold winter. This is a tradition that goes back in time and has its origins in the dicho, saying, “para vos, para nos y para los animalitos de Dios,” for us, for them and for God’s other creatures.

When first extracted from the pine cone, pine nuts are covered with a hard shell (seed coat), thin in some species, thick in others. The nutrition is stored in the large female gametophytic tissue that supports the developing embryo (sporophyte) in the center. They are not a true nut as (being a gymnosperm) they lack a carpel (fruit) outside.

Unshelled pine nuts have a long shelf life if kept dry and refrigerated but the shell must be removed before the nut is eaten; shelled nuts (and unshelled nuts in warm conditions) deteriorate rapidly, becoming rancio, rancid, within a few weeks, or even days in warm humid conditions. Pine nuts are commercially available in shelled form, but due to poor storage, these rarely have a good flavor, all too often already being rancid or vanas (empty shell without the nut inside) before they are purchased. People who are experienced piñon pickers can tell which are vanos because of their dull color and are left un-harvested. The most important species in international trade is the Korean pine, harvested in northeast China. In the United States, the piñon pines have traditionally been the most highly sought after for pine nuts.

It is also joked throughout northern New Mexico that during the harvest of the piñon nut from mid-September until the hunting season begins or the first snow covers the ground, people from out of state can’t figure out what people are doing kneeling under and going in circles around the piñon trees.

A typical October day in northern New Mexico for hundreds of years usually meant putting all the kids in the horse drawn wagon and more recently the Chevy pickup, along with a bag of dried jerky, some tortillas, plenty of water and heading to the nearest piñon forest for the day. Once in the monte, the dad and usually the elder sibling would gather a load of piñon wood while the mother and other siblings would harvest piñon and a big wad of trementina. Folklore also reminds people that piñon trees only produce every seven years, so people keep track of which piñon forests produce when and where.

Before the era of the power saws, the “leñeros” were conscious of their environment and of how they would harvest the piñon wood, usually taking only the dead branches or trees that had died. The type of wood preferred by all was called “piñon blanco,” or the piñon that was dead but still standing and had lost its bark. The patina of the tree or branches was grayish in color and whitish on the inside instead of the typical yellow color of the green piñon. This meant that the wood was ready, naturally seasoned, to be used for firewood and that it would make plenty of brazas, embers, to hold over for the night.

Also, people would never think of cutting down the biggest trees for firewood because those were the trees that produced the best and most nuts. Every family could tell you where they found the best piñon and that usually was kept as a family secret.

Before most everyone had a pickup truck to go into the monte, someone from the community would volunteer theirs to drive community members in search of piñon. In lieu of money, the people would pay the truck’s owner with piñon. At times people would camp in the monte for up to a week in order to harvest the piñon nut which is used in many ways in New Mexico cooking.

Same as the “Pájaro piñoeros,” piñon pickers usually work in groups and there is always one person that keeps track of all the pickers for it is very easy to get “norteao” or disoriented when harvesting. It’s not uncommon to find people that have gotten lost and are looking for a ride home or to their home base.

For hundreds of years the ritual of going for piñon, or to gather piñon wood, is repeated everywhere there are piñon trees along the legendary Camino Real, whether in Mexico or New Mexico by descendents of the first Spanish settlers and Native Americans, and more recently Anglos who have moved into the area.

The Use

The piñon tree is one of those trees that serve several purposes. Today the tree is used as a landscape element in many Southwest homes, but to the Native American and Indo-Hispano it has always been a source of food, fuel and the trementina, or sap, which is used for a variety of purposes including as a home remedy. Piñon is also used as currency. It was long used in cambalache or bartering, and for many it has been a source of income and economic development; both the nut as well as the wood.

Piñon trees along the Camino Real do not become visible until one gets close to Albuquerque when coming from the south but once in Santa Fe and up to Taos they are everywhere along the trail.

Since time immemorial, both in New Mexico as well as Mexico along the Camino Real the piñon nut has been used for cooking and baking. It is used in cookies as well as stuffed in trout to make it more flavorful and nutritious.

The firewood, besides being the preferred wood for its intense heat and aroma, also provides the best kindling to start fires, and its ocote (torch pine) is always set aside to be used in starting fires during cold winter mornings typical of northern New Mexico. Most people still prefer ocote to kerosene or other starter fluid to start a fire in the early morning of a cold winter day.

According to legend, Moctezuma, the Aztec king, was born from a piñon nut. The Camino Real, from the chinampas of Xochimilco to northern New Mexico provides a link between south and north, peoples, customs and traditions and the “pájaro piñonero,” or Piñon Jay is the godfather not only of the Aztec emperor but also of this historic road.

Sources Used:

Ronald M. Lanner. The Piñon Pine: A Natural and Cultural History. University of Nevada Press, 1981.

Baker H. Morrow. Best Plants For New Mexico Gardens and Landscapes.
University of New Mexico Press, 1995.

Personal knowledge of the author, who is a native of Embudo, who remembers both going to pick piñon and for piñon wood