Every September, usually around the 2nd or 3rd weekend, pine nuts become mature and ready to be harvested from Utah’s desert mountains and ragelands.
Utah has two species of piñon (also spelled pinyon) pines both which produce large, edible nuts. Piñon pines can be found growing native in all Utah counties except Davis, Morgan, Summit and Weber.
Pine trees have needles (leaves) that grow from a papery sheath in bundles of 1 to 5. The needles, when held together and looked at in cross section, are round, as opposed to spruces which are square and firs which are flat. Piñon pines grow exclusively in western North America and have needles in bundles of 1 to 3. In order to tell Utah’s piñon’s apart you need to be familiar with the habitat that they grow in. You will find both species growing at elevations from 3,500ft (1,067m) to 7,500ft (2,286m) in many desert communities often mixed with junipers (Juniperus osteosperma).
Single Leaf Piñon
Single Leaf Pine (Pinus monophylla) is the world’s only pine to have one needle per sheath. Its cones are slightly longer with large scales. Salt Lake and Box Elder counties have exclusively Pinus monophylla for its piñon pine and it shares habitat with Pinus edulis in Beaver, Cache, Emery, Iron, Juab, Kane, Millard, Rich, Sanpete, Tooele, Utah, Wasatch and Washington counties.
Two Leaf Piñon
Two Leaf Piñon (Pinus edulis) is more widespread in the state than the Single Leaf Piñon. It is found in every Utah county except Box Elder, Davis, Morgan, Salt Lake, Summit and Weber. Its distinguishing characteristics include: two, rarely three needles per sheath and smaller, more compressed large-scaled cones.
The nuts from piñon pines have been used for centuries as a food source by native Americans and are still used by people today, most commonly in pesto, salads, and as a healthy, high protein snack.