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I started harvesting pine nut cones from the piñon trees in my area yesterday and am a bit worried about the crop. From the cones I have been able to open I notice that most of the nuts are undeveloped inside the shell, just shriveled up. Is this just a bad season? I shouldn't think so, because a lot of the trees look fully loaded. I'm wondering if I'm just picking the wrong trees or something. I was wondering if anyone here had any experience in this matter.

I'm picking them on Mingus Mountain in North-Central Arizona and I started at around 5,700 feet right where the trees begin at the base of the mountain. Most of the trees I picked from were younger and had a more bushy structure, because those are easier to pick, and tended to have more cones. About half of the trees I passed with cones were already fully opened and it looked like the birds already took the good nuts, because most every nut I inspected on these trees was hollow and around half of the nuts were missing (I'm guessing these were the good ones).

  • The cones weren't as bad as I originally thought. Most of the bigger cones from the larger trees have a good amount of developed nuts in them. The cones I initially picked up from the ground must have fallen early due to insects or something – Ian Sep 6 '17 at 19:07
  • Hi Ian! You were right to wonder if it was a bad year for the trees. I study birds, and according to a 2018 Audubon report, the bird and beetle populations in piñon forests has been severely damaged due to climate change. The piñons have been struggling for many years, and 2017 was mentioned as having been a bad year for them, and thus, the birds. – Sue Dec 7 '18 at 2:36
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The number of cones on a piñon can be deceptive. In some seasons, they may set lots of cones but have poor pollination or endure below-average rainfall (which results in seeds failing to develop). This year's monsoon in central Arizona has been disappointing, so it is likely that the lack of rainfall contributed to the poor quantity of developed seeds. Smaller, younger trees (as you were foraging in) have less-developed root systems and are more susceptible to drying than are larger trees. The most reliable way to find the best crop is to follow the piñon jays, but then you have to compete with the specialists.

An excellent source for information about the piñon pine is Ronald Lanner, The Piñon Pine: A Natural and Cultural History. It's informative, very entertaining, and includes recipes. The relationship between the jays and the pines is well explored in John Marzluff and Russell Balda, The Pinyon Jay.

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