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A Pine Beyond Time

Since the Pleistocene era, Texas piñons have served as a food source and graced the landscape with understated beauty.

By Dale Weisman

Riding a motorcycle west on Ranch Road 337 between Leakey and Camp Wood, I slow down and scan the roadside for a Texas native. White-tailed deer? Yes, certainly. I’m also looking for something far more unusual in the Hill Country: the Texas piñon pine.

Flourishing in isolated stands on the western edge of the Edwards Plateau south of Rocksprings and east of Camp Wood, the Texas piñon pine (Pinus re-mota) grabs my attention like no other tree in these oak- and cedar-dominated environs. Even larger populations of Texas piñons thrive in the Glass and Del Norte mountains of the Trans-Pecos and across the highlands of northern Mexico in the states of Coahuila, Chihuahua and Nuevo Leon.

Young Texas piñons — also called papershell piñons for their exception-ally thin nutshells — look like perfect, conical Christmas trees. Often mistaken for junipers, mature Texas piñons develop bushy crowns and reach heights of 25 to 30 feet — hardly impressive compared to towering ponderosa pine, bald cypress and live oak. But don’t underestimate the lofty stature of this shrubby evergreen in the ecology and history of Texas.

“The Texas piñon is one of the most photogenic plants in the Hill Country,” says Dan Hosage, owner of Madrone Nursery near San Marcos and a Texas native plant expert. “Looking at this beautiful bonsai-like form in a rugged limestone habitat — this gorgeous, bright blue-green tree against dusty hard rock with very little else growing around it — shows you what a tough player Pinus remota really is.”

Like Hosage, I’m drawn to this unsung pine-out-of-place. I admire a rugged survivor, and P. remota is certainly that: an enduring Ice Age relict taking a stand against the steadily encroaching Chihuahuan Desert and natural enemies like the porcupine and pine bark beetles.

“Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world,” wrote John Muir. Standing in a grove of Texas piñons, I imagine Cabeza de Vaca subsisting on thin-shelled pine nuts; Native Americans gathering pine cones and grinding the seeds; and vast piñon-studded woodlands carpeting West Texas during the late Pleistocene, when mammoths, giant bison, saber-toothed cats and other now-extinct megafauna walked the land.

Ancient packrat middens — piles of organic debris gathered by wood rats — provide an unlikely window into the prehistoric range of the Texas piñon. By carbon-dating fossilized piñon needles and seeds in packrat middens, researchers like Thomas Van Devender — a senior research scientist at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum — have proven that Pinus remota and other piñon species once carpeted the Trans-Pecos, from the Big Bend to El Paso.

Toward the end of the last Ice Age, West Texas’ climate was cooler and wetter than it is today. As glaciers began to recede 10,000 to 15,000 years ago, the climate grew hotter and more arid, and Pinus remota gradually retreated to higher ground. Isolated populations of these pines survive today in mesic settings — in sheltered canyons and valleys and on north- and east-facing slopes of hills and mountains.

Piñons, like all pines, share an ancient lineage. According to Ronald Lanner, author of The Piñon Pine: A Natural and Cultural History, the first pines arose about 180 million years ago in the Triassic Period. Mexico in particular has been a crucible of conifer evolution. “Few areas in the world have been such a haven for pines as Mexico,” wrote Lanner, speculating that a “slow-growing, long-lived, short-trunked” piñon progenitor evolved some 60 million years ago in the highlands of Mexico as the climate grew hotter and dryer.

Botanists have identified about 100 pine species worldwide, classifying them as either hard or soft pines based on wood density and the number of pine needles per bundle. About a third of all pines are soft pines, including 11 known species of piñons, or pinyons as some call them. (The word pinyon is an Anglicized version of the Spanish piñon, which means nut pine.)

Pinus remota has two close relatives in Texas: Pinus edulis (the New Mexico or Colorado piñon) and Pinus cembroides (the Mexican piñon). The state tree of New Mexico, Pinus edulis abounds in the Southwest, providing a source of firewood and pine nuts — a Native American staple as well as a gourmet item sold coast to coast. In Texas, P. edulis grows in Hud-speth, Culberson and Deaf Smith counties, with the largest populations in the Gua-dalupe and Sierra Diablo mountains. Pinus cembroides, a wide-ranging piñon species found in the highlands of central and northern Mexico, typically grows at elevations of 4,000 to 7,000 feet in the volcanic mountains of the Trans-Pecos, including the Chisos and Davis ranges. While it has the hardest shell of all the piñons, the nut is tasty and widely available in countless Mexican village markets.

Until recently, botanists considered the Texas piñon to be a thin-shelled variety of the Mexican piñon. U.S. botanist Elbert L. Little first identified the Texas piñon in the wild in 1966, classifying it as Pinus cembroides var. remota. In 1979, botanists Dana K. Bailey and Frank Hawksworth contended the tree should be a separate species, Pinus remota. Bailey also suggested that its common name be “paper-shell pinyon” because of its paper-thin seed shells.

Most botanists, including A. Michael Powell, professor emeritus of biology at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, now classify P. remota as a distinct species. “Pinus remota is one of my favorite trees,” says Powell, author of Trees and Shrubs of the Trans-Pecos and Adjacent Areas. “I’ve camped and walked among Texas piñons for a long time. It’s nice to find a little pine forest in remote areas on limestone slopes.”

Powell, who has grown Pinus remota from seed to maturity, notes that Texas piñons have a broad, rounded crown rather than a conical crown like the Mexican piñon. The most drought- and heat-tolerant piñon of all, P. remota grows at the lowest elevations of all New World piñons — down to 1,500 feet in the Edwards Plateau and from 2,500 feet to 5,000 feet in West Texas.

According to Mark Lockwood, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department natural resources coordinator in Fort Davis, Pinus remota favors limestone substrates, while P. cembroides grows in igneous soils. “The Del Norte Mountains have patches of both soil types,” says Lockwood, “and so P. remota and P. cembroides grow in close proximity in the Del Nortes — the only place in the United States where the two species occur together.”

Because the majority of Pinus remota habitat in Texas sits on private land, the easiest way to see the trees is by driving in the western Hill Country. Follow, for instance, FM 337 west of Leakey to Camp Wood — a spectacular route that climbs out of the Frio River canyon and roller-coasters across a lofty plateau where piñons, oaks and madrones frame see-forever views.

The region’s thickest stands of piñon cloak the rugged landscape along FM 674 south of Rocksprings. North of the Edwards and Kinney County line, the twisty ranch road sweeps past the entrance to 6,400-acre Kickapoo Caverns State Park — the only Texas park with a plenitude of Pinus remota. Piñon thickets flourish in the park’s valleys and on north-facing hillsides. The park is open for regularly scheduled tours and by special arrangement (830-563-2342, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/ kickapoocavern).

Devil’s Sinkhole State Natural Area also harbors a scattering of P. remota along its southern boundary. Located off U.S. 377 northeast of Rocksprings, Devil’s Sinkhole is open to visitors only by prearranged tours through the Devil’s Sinkhole Society in Rocksprings (830-683-BATS).

If you want to see Mexican piñons up close, go hiking in Davis Mountains State Park or in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park. To commune with New Mexico piñons in Texas, trek the high country in Guadalupe Mountains National Park. But if you want to see lots of Texas piñons in the Trans-Pecos, you’d better plan on driving.

From Fort Stockton, take U.S. 385 south toward Marathon. After some 30 miles of driving, treeless Chihuahuan Desert gives way to the anomalous greenery of the limestone-laden Glass Mountains — a core woodland habitat for Texas piñons. A roadside picnic area on the west side of U.S. 385 affords scenic views of the piñon- and juniper-clad Glass Mountains. This may be the only spot of public land in West Texas where you can actually walk among Pinus remota.

Given their limited range and relict status, are Texas piñons in decline in their native habitats? The experts say no — that P. remota is holding its own in the wild.

“I’ve been terrifically impressed by the remarkable comeback Pinus remota is making,” says Dan Hosage, who has observed Texas native plants since the early 1980s. “There are piñon seedlings and juveniles coming up everywhere in their ranges.”

Like all piñons, Pinus remota is a long-lived tree. Based on field work and core samples at Kickapoo Caverns and in the Glass and Del Norte ranges, Rob Kinucan, dean of agricultural and natural resource sciences at Sul Ross State University, believes some Texas piñon stands are 250-300 years old and that P. remota potentially can live for up to a thousand years.

But not without a fight. Texas piñons face two natural adversaries: porcupines and pine bark beetles. Porcupines feed on the bark of piñons and other trees, damaging the nutrient-carrying phloem (soft tissue) beneath the bark. Porcupine scarring opens the door to pine bark beetle infestation. The beetles often attack drought-stressed pines by chewing through the outer bark and feeding on the phloem, which cuts off nutrient flow. The beetles also deposit eggs beneath the bark, and the larvae feed on the phloem. To compound this damage, the beetles infect pines with a “blue stain fungus” that clogs the tree’s soft tissue.

Some animals that feed on the protein-rich piñon nuts actually do the pines a favor by inadvertently planting the seeds. Blue jays, western scrub jays and other birds, as well as some rodents, cache the pine nuts, some of which remain uneaten and germinate. Piñon nuts also provide forage for wild turkey, deer and black bear.

Drought-tolerant Texas piñons make excellent ornamentals for xeric and conventional landscapes, thriving in both alkaline and acid soils with no supplemental watering.

Hosage, who grows Texas piñons from seed in his greenhouse, enthusiastically advocates widespread planting of Pinus remota. “Not only should P. remota be grown as a native Texas Christmas tree, but piñons are also a highly desirable food source,” says Hosage.

According to Lanner, piñon nuts average 15 percent protein, 20 percent or more fat, and at least 14 percent carbohydrate. They’re also high in iron, vitamin A, thiamine, riboflavin and niacin. Not only are piñon nuts nourishing (rivaling pecans, peanuts and walnuts), they’re quite tasty, whether consumed raw or as an ingredient in salad dressing, pesto, spaghetti sauce, corn pudding, granola and many other recipes from Lanner’s book, The Piñon Pine.

The next time you see a Texas piñon in the wild or in your neighbor’s yard, consider this bit of wisdom from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The wonder is that we can see these trees and not wonder more.”

Trail of seeds holds clues to Cabeza de Vaca’s route

For nearly a century, historians have debated the route of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca’s epic odyssey from the Galveston area to safety in Culiacan (a city in northern Mexico). Some scholars favor a trans-Texas route arcing into New Mexico before entering northern Mexico, either near present-day El Paso or Presidio. Others advocate a more southerly route through South Texas and across northern Mexico. The debate rages on, mostly in scholarly circles.

One of the more intriguing articles on the subject makes a compelling case for the southerly route, based on Cabeza de Vaca’s descriptions of subsisting on thin-shelled pine nuts. (The article, “Piñon Pines and the Route of Cabeza de Vaca,” by Donald W. Olson, Marilynn S. Olson, Russell L. Doescher, et al., first appeared in the Southwestern Historical Quarterly in October 1997. To view the complete article, visit <www.library.txstate.edu/swwc/cdv/further _study/pinon_pines.pdf>.)

In one of his published works, Cabeza de Vaca describes eating piñon nuts provided to him and three shipwrecked companions by Indians: “They ate the fruit of the prickly pears and nuts from pine trees. In that land there are small pine trees, and the cones of these are like small eggs, but the pine nuts are better than those of Castile, because they have very thin shells.” In fact, the shells were so thin they could be consumed with the nuts.

Such thin shells come from Pinus remota, rather than New Mexico’s moderately hard-shelled Pinus edulis, P. remota grows in abundance in the mountains of the Mexican states of Nuevo Leon, Cohauila and Chihuahua. Follow the seeds, and you’ll probably follow in the footsteps of Cabeza de Vaca across northern Mexico.

While Cabeza de Vaca’s exact path remains a tough nut to crack, the papershell piñon pine seed evidence points convincingly to a southerly route.

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