What is a pine nut?
Pine nuts come from pine trees, which are conifers, or cone producing trees. But pine nuts aren’t actually nuts at all; they are seeds! All pine trees have edible seeds that develop in their cones, but only about twenty species of pine produce seeds large enough to be worth the time and effort to harvest, and all twenty species are found in the Northern Hemisphere. In the United States, we find pine nuts, or seeds, mostly in the southwest. Here in Colorado, edible pine seeds are found in Pinyon Pine trees. When the cone is young, it will be green in color. They turn yellow when they fully mature, between 18 months and two years, and then the cone will open. Pine seeds remain attached to the scales of the cone after opening, encased in a thin shell. In the wild, these seeds are dispersed by the Pinyon Jay which plucks them from the cones and uses them as a food source. Some of these seeds are then unused or dropped, which allows the Pinyon Pine to reproduce.
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What are the health benefits of pine nuts?
Pine nuts provide us with a good source of energy and are rich with many nutrients including healthy fats, protein, iron, magnesium, antioxidants and vitamins E and K, which support cardiovascular health and help reduce the risk of heart disease.
How do I harvest pine nuts?
Pine nut harvesting occurs from late August to early October here in Colorado. Pinyon Pine trees can be found all over the valley in forested areas, and it is best to use gloves to avoid the sap on the cones. If harvesting early in the fall season, you can pick the cones off the trees when they are still green and closed. Be careful to not break the branches as this reduces the ability of the pine to produce as many cones the following year. Place the cones in a burlap sack and put them out in the sun to dry for twenty days. Turn the bag over each day to ensure even heat distribution. When the cones have dried up and opened, shake or smash the sack to dislodge the seeds from the cones. Seeds can then be picked out by hand from the fragments. However, if you are harvesting later in the season when cones are already opened, the seeds will be exposed. You can pick the cones and then shake or smash them right after to collect the seeds. Gently crush the seeds with a rolling pin to break the shells. To clean the pine nuts, rinse them under water. They are now ready to eat!
What can I do with pine nuts when they are harvested and cleaned?
1) For a quick snack, roast your pine nuts with salt and other fall spices at 375°F for 5 to 10 minutes until golden brown.
2) Pine nuts serve as a great source of protein in salads.
3) You can never go wrong with a homemade pesto pasta or chicken dish!
By picking your pine nuts locally, you are minimizing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that result from the transport of pine nuts halfway across the world to your local grocery store, and therefore you are helping to combat global climate change in support of a more sustainable future. So what are you waiting for? Get out there and start harvesting!
Megan McCauley is a Naturalist at Walking Mountains Science Center in Avon. Come join her for an afternoon nature walk, leaving Monday through Saturdays at 2pm.