It’s the seventh of the month already! … time for monthly reports from tree-followers around the world. But I’m 1200 miles from home and my willow. I won't know what it’s doing until I return in a few weeks. So I’m reporting on a surrogate, the pinyon pine – also known as hésho tsítonnê or gum tree.
I knew I would be in pinyon country, so I looked into pinyon pines before I left. This earlier post is an overview. So far I’ve been hanging out with the two-needle pinyon. Together with Utah juniper (Juniperus osteosperma) it forms pinyon - juniper woodlands covering millions of acres.
Two-needle or Colorado pinyon, Pinus edulis. Source.
Distribution of two-needle pinyon and its western relative, the singleleaf. After Lanner 1981.
On harsh sites, pinyon pines can be especially photogenic ... tough gnarled little trees with disproportionate trunks and crowns. These portraits were taken in sandstone country near spectacular Muley Point Overlook in southeast Utah. Some of the pinyons were pretty spectacular too, in their own way.
|Pinyon pine poses with Indian paintbrush in the foreground and Navajo Mountain behind.|
This tree is only 4.5 feet tall, but the trunk is over a foot across at the base.
|How about that switch-backing trunk! (click on image to view) There's a close-up below.|
Pinyon pines are quite pitchy, so much so that Zuni Indians called them hésho tsítonnê or gum trees. The pinyons at my campsite were indeed gummy, and pitch blobs were scattered on the ground beneath mature trees.
Pitch is a plant resin. It’s not the same as sap, which transports nutrients through the tree. In some cases, pitch is clearly protective and “may confound a wide range of herbivores, insects, and pathogens.” Trees use it as a dressing on open wounds.
|Pitch protecting an area where bark was removed.|
Like the trees, Navajo and Hopi people used pinyon pitch to dress open wounds, sometimes mixing it with red clay. Its most important use was in sealing water jugs. There were many other applications – glue, dye, medicine and even a teflon-equivalent on sandstone griddles for cooking Pueblo wafer bread:
"It took them almost a day to get the stone properly heated, rub the squash oil into it and then rub it again with wads of piñon gum, which melted and sank into the pores. They finished by scrubbing the stone with juniper and pine twigs, which left it clean and slightly scented.” – Ruth Underhill, Workaday life of the Pueblos (in Lanner 1981)In summer, the Navajo turned pinyon pine trees into shade shelters. They cut off the lower branches and carefully sealed the stubs with mud. For if they didn’t, pitch would rain down on inhabitants and their belongings. What a horrendous sticky mess that would be!
Pitch is messy but it’s also magical, making pinyon wood the perfect fuel for an evening out. It produces a hot sparkling aromatic campfire that frees the mind and lets it wander far from real world cares:
“Nobody who has sat before a roaring, pitch-boiling, bubbling, scented fire of piñon can think of it as the mere consumption of wood. It is the spirited release of centuries of brilliant sunlight, absorbed under a cloudless Southwestern sky …” – Ronald Lanner (1981)
Campfire of pinyon and juniper. Even a few small dead branches will make a lively fire.
Sources (in addition to links in post)
Lanner, RM. 1981. The piñon pine, a natural and cultural history. University of Nevada Press, Reno.