After about twenty years of waiting, I happened to look at the ground and see a pine cone. The only pine tree nearby is a Korean pine (Pinus koreanensis) that I planted that many years ago, a tree that liked its new home and has soared, in that time, to fifty feet in height. My problem with the tree is that all it has done is grow; I planted the tree for its pine nuts.

A few years ago I did see a few cones way up near the top of the tree. Would the cones fall, carrying down the nuts, or would the nuts fall out, to be lost in the high grass? Would squirrels make all this moot?

I picked up the cone and clawed back its scales to see if any nuts were hiding within. Zut alors! Nuts! Most nuts need some curing before tasting good so I laid the cone in the sun for a few days.
Pinus koreansis cone and nuts
Tasting was next. First they needed to be cracked out of their shells, which was surprisingly easy with a pair of pliers. The first two nuts cracked were well filled and yielded delicious nuts. The next ten nuts, which comprised the rest of the harvest, when cracked, yielded nothing.

Many Nut Pines

The pine nuts you see for sale are generally one of the piñon pines native to the Southwest, the pignolia native to Italy and other Mediterranean countries, or Chinese white pine (Pinus armandii). In fact, though, a number of pine species provide edible nuts.

One of my favorites, the Digger pine (P. sabiniana), yields nuts the size of lima beans and is native to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Driving west down those mountains many years ago, I came to a screeching stop (well, not really screeching) upon seeing the giant cone of this tree on the ground. I picked it up and must have provided entertainment, perhaps elicited fear, in passerbys seeing some guy smashing open a pine cone on the guard rail.

My Korean pine is a dead ringer for our native white pine, the latter of which does not yield edible nuts. Korean pine is only one of a number of nut pines that grows well in cold winter climates, such as Zone 5 here in this part of New York’s Hudson Valley. Swiss Stone pine (P. cembra) and Siberian pine (P. sibirico) are also reliable nut-producers for cold climates, but are very slow growing.

Many other pine species potentially could produce pine nuts outside their native range, though their adaptability to very cold winters climate is not thoroughly tested. The closely related Colorado Pinyon (P. edulis) and Singleleaf Pinyon (P. monophylla) pines are bushy trees that become flat-topped with age. I planted a Singleleaf pine years ago and though it tolerated the cold winters here, it’s annual growth measured in inches. With the slow growth and lack of nuts, I eventually tired of it.

Over the years, my pinetum (yes, that is a word) has expanded. A Lacebark pine ((P. bungeana), after five years or so in the ground, has finally taken off and is growing over a foot a year. This species is especially worth growing also for its decorative bark, which is a patchwork of muted colors.
Pinus bungeana, bark


Back to the blank shells borne by my Korean pine. One possibility is that this pine needs cross-pollination from another tree of the same species to bear nuts or, at least, to bear them well. The cone that I found lying on the ground was pretty soggy and might have been lying there for a year or more. Perhaps nuts within dried up and/or rotted away. I subsequently found three more soggy cones, all devoid even of nut shells.

I recently planted pollinators for the pine. They’re small, but after a couple of years of nurturing are finally growing well, the largest of the two now two feet tall. I’ll report back, hopefully in less than 20 years.
Pinus koreansis, young

Survival of Fittest and Tastiest

On the bountiful side of the fruit and nut ledger this year are my tree fruits, especially the more common tree fruits. (Berries and uncommon tree fruits such as persimmon, mulberry, and cornelian cherry always do well here.) Winter and then spring weather were all  perfect for a good set of fruit. Once that usually fraught time in fruit growing was passed, Mother Nature took over and the trees naturally shed fruits that had been poorly pollinated or insect ridden. That lets a tree channel its energies into making bigger and more flavorful the fruits that remained hanging on branches.
Pear fruitlets before thinning
Nature’s aim in growing fruit is to make it appealing to all sorts of animals that incidentally spread the seeds as they eat the fruit. We humans are more discerning (would “finicky” be a better word?) when it comes to fruit quality. So once that natural fruit drop, “June drop” as it is appropriately called, is finished, we step in to remove even more fruit.

Pruning branches, on which some fruit would have been borne, in late winter and early spring already did some of that work. This week it was time to finish the job, by hand. This means putting some distance between each fruit and its neighbor, about five inches, always saving the largest and most pest free of the lot. Hand thinning would be tedious with smaller fruits, such as cherries and plums, so fortunately is unnecessary with them.

I ended up with a bucketful of cute apple and pear fruitlets. Cute, but into the compost they went where heat and time would cook any insect or disease pests lurking within that might have awakened to attack next year’s crop.
Apple and pear fruitlets on compost pile



More Than Just Pignolis and Piñons

Pine trees first appeared on earth 170 million years ago amidst lush, steaming forests of tree ferns and the footprints of dinosaurs. In time, human footsteps replaced those of the dinosaurs. Pines and humans have been intimately associated ever since. The trees have been worshipped; the cones have represented symbols of fertility; the pitch has sealed ship hulls; and the wood has been used for construction and for paper.

Korean pine

Korean pine

Throughout this long association, seeds of certain pines have been part of our diets. The flavorful seeds of native pines have a long history of use as “nutmeat” by the people of Siberia, the Himalayas, southern Europe, and the American Southwest. Look into almost any Italian grocery store in America, and you’ll find tempting cookies studded with pignolis, which are seeds of the Italian Stone pine (Pinus pinea). Pine nuts are the nut for pesto and dolmas. And from the American Southwest come seeds of the piñon pine. 

Although pine nuts usually are associated with the dry, mild climates of Southern Europe, the American Southwest, and northern Mexico, there are pine species that will produce edible nuts outside of their native range — even in the humid, often frigid, climate of my farmden. Nut-producing pines run the gamut from scrubby shrubs to majestic trees, some with needles that are soft and misty, others with needles that are dark and somber.  

Korean pine (P. koraensis), Swiss Stone pine (P. cembra), and Siberian pine (P. sibirico) are the three most reliable nut-producers for cold climates. All are hardy to at least minus twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit. The Korean pine is the most commercial of the three, producing 5/8-inch-long seeds that are exported from China. The tree itself will eventually tower to a soft, dark-green pyramid of 150 feet. 

Swiss Stone pine finds a congenial home in the small garden, eventually reaching 50 feet or more, but very slow-growing. Native to central European Alps, this pine has dark, almost blackish-green, needles that, with the short branches, seem to hug the trunk. The Siberian pine is similar, except faster growing.  

Swiss Stone Pine

Swiss Stone Pine

Many other pine species potentially could produce pine nuts outside their native range, though their adaptability to very cold winter climates has not been not thoroughly tested. The closely related Colorado Pinyon (P. edulis) and Singleleaf Pinyon (P. monophylla) pines are bushy trees that become flat-topped with age. I planted a Singleleaf pine years ago; it’s annual growth was measured in inches. With the slow growth and lack of nuts, I eventually tired of it.

One of my favorites, unfortunately not hardy below 10°F, is the Digger (P. sabiniana). I saw many of these trees years ago as I was driving west down from the Sierra Nevada mountains; I came screeching to a stop when I spotted one of the large cones lying near the road. Passing motorists might have taken me for a lunatic as I tried to smash open the coneby smashing it repeatedly on the guardrail. This species bears lima bean sized pine nuts.

Some other pine species producing edible, albeit small seeds, are Himalayan pine (P. wallachiana), Limber pine (P. flexilis), Jeffrey’s pine (P. jeffreyi), and Japanese Dwarf Stone pine (P. pumila).

My Personal Pinetum

I’ve entered the world of nut pines with some plants here on the farmden. I began, of course, with Korean pine, but can’t claim great success. My largest tree, now about 35 feet high, has occasionally produced a cone near its summit. Perhaps some squirrels got them; I didn’t. The tree is a dead ringer for our native white pine (Pinus strobus); the most direct way to differentiate the two would be from the Korean pines cones, which are about half the length (about 4 inches) of white pine’s cones.

My older Korean pine

My older Korean pine

Just this year I purchased two more Korean pine seedlings. They’re each only a few inches high now, and I hope they bear like a friend’s Korean pine, which was loaded with cones when a mere 6 feet in height.

My younger Korean pine

My younger Korean pine

I’ve also planted a lacebark pine (P. bungeana). Besides offering pine nuts, the bark of this pine flakes off to yield pleasing patterns similar to that of sycamore. Neither nuts nor flaking bark here yet, though.

Lacebark pine

Lacebark pine

 Care and Feeding

 Nut pines, in common with most other pines, require little care. They are frugal plants, getting by with minimum water and fertility. They do require full sun and well-drained soil, though. Think of those dry, rocky slopes to which pines cling in the wild.

Two seasons are usually required for a female pine cone to produce ripe seeds. The cone is a primitive type of flower constructed of a tight cluster of either male or female reproductive cells at the bases of scales which spiral around a short axis. In the spring gusts of wind shake loose pollen from the male cones, which are catkin-like clusters located mostly at the tips of the trees’ lower branches.  Yellow clouds of pollen waft upwards to the female cones, most of which are high in the trees. Fertilization, the actual union of the male and female reproductive cells, takes place during the spring following pollination, within the tightly closed, green female cone. Seeds ripen at the end of the second season.

How a pine disperses its ripe seeds can mean the difference between getting pine nuts into your pesto or losing them to foraging squirrels or in the needles beneath the trees. With some pines, ripe seeds drop from open cones that remain attached to the trees. Other pines will not open their cones to release their seeds except with the stimulus of heat or the blow of a hammer. Such a mechanism, making it possible to beat the squirrels to the bounty, exists for the Swiss stone pine and the Siberian pine. The Swiss Stone pine clings to its neat little seed packages until the third spring from flowering.

It’s almost impossible to suggest an expected yield of nuts from a single tree. The trees are rarely grown in plantations. Most nuts are harvested from more or less wild trees, rather than from trees growing under uniform orchard conditions. And even then, yields are variable and erratic.

Lack of precocity or erratic nut production shouldn’t be a deterrent to planting a nut-bearing pine. What these pines lack in instant gratification, they furnish in “piney” fragrance,  longevity, and for the beauty and character they bring to a landscape.


Bark Giveaway

Walking in the woods or an arboretum this time of year is a good time to play a game of tree identification. You say, “But trees are leafless!” No problem. Often, all you need is to look at the bark.
Paperbark birch bark
You might think a white-barked birch would be an easy identification. Not necessarily. A white-barked birch might be, instead, a European birch (Betula pendula). This one is distinguished from our native paper birch (B. papyrifera) by the dark, diamond shaped fissures on its bark. Or Himalayan birch (B. jacquemontii) or Asian white birch (B. platyphylla). Of course, these last three species aren’t likely to turn up in our woodlands.

I’m often snagged by cherry birch (B. lenta), whose bark isn’t white at all, but whose young bark resembles young cherry bark, then morphs with age into longitudinally elongated plates. The giveaway for cherry birch comes with breaking a small twig and smelling wintergreen.

Trees like red oak (Acer rubrum), sugar maple (A. saccharum), hop hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana), and ash (Fraxinus spp.) are easy to identify once you know their bark.

I can immediately identify hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) because its bark is one of my favorites, pure gray and punctuated by corky ridges.
Hackberry bark
On a clear, wintry day when the sun hangs low in the sky, the shadows create a pattern that recalls those crisp, achromatic photographs of lunar landscapes.

Another of my favorites is American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana), whose bark looks like striated muscle. And juneberry (Amelanchier spp.), pale gray with charcoal gray striations. And paperbark maple (Acer griseum), with shiny, copper-red bark.

Paperbark maple bark

Paperbark maple bark

If tree bark offers no leads about a tree, a few dead leaves on the ground or clinging to stems can help out. Beech leaves make identification especially easy because beech is among the few trees that clings to almost all its dead leaves all winter. The lower leaves of some oaks also are reluctant to drop.

Bark, leaves, and aroma aren’t the only things that scream out a tree’s name. Everyone knows the distinctive weeping form and light-colored young bark of weeping willows. Less universally known is the very distinctive form of pin oaks (Quercus palustris): lower limbs sweep downward, mid-height limbs grow out horizontally, and upper limbs point skyward.
Pin oak tree form
On most trees, stems are alternate, that is, they don’t grow directly opposite each other. So if a tree — one that grows wild in the northeast, at least — has opposite stems, I can limit the choices to just a few trees: dogwoods, maples, ashes, or catalpa.

This tree game is more than fun; it’s also useful for identifying firewood. A couple of years ago, I bought some firewood that was billed as swamp oak, which is sometimes a name for pin oak. The firewood’s bark had distinctive, long, flat-topped ridges, which a friend finally identified as belonging to American linden (basswood, Tilia americana). It’s not very good for firewood.

(For a lot more about identifying trees by their bark, in the Northeast, at least, see the book Bark by Michael Wojtech.)

Chestnuts Roasting on an . . . Well, not Exactly

Moving indoors, to the fruits of my labor. Or, rather, the nuts of my labor.

A few years ago I came up with yet another way to roast chestnuts, one that makes the pellicle, that thin, brown skin clinging to the nutmeat, easy to remove. After giving each nut a slit perpendicular to its axis, I spread the nuts in a shallow layer in a covered pan set in a hot oven or on top of the wood stove for 45 minutes. During that time the nuts steam from their own moisture. Then off comes the lid for another 15 minutes of cooking to let the nuts roast and the shells and pellicles (the skin around each nut) turn crisp.
Chestnuts roasting
Massaging each nut without breaking up the nutmeat cracks the shell and the pellicle so that both come off easily — usually. The nuts have the mealy texture of a baked potato and a wonderfully sweet flavor.

Bark Futures

I’m planning to enjoy more fruits — or, rather, nuts — of my labor in years to come. Two Korean pine (Pinus koreansis) trees should eventually get me home-grown pine nuts. As should a lacebark pine (P. bungeana).

The lacebark pine, once it gets older, will also bring me attractive bark to admire as it naturally peels away in brown, rust, green, and cream-colored patches.

Other home-grown bark beauty here includes persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), whose bark is like alligator skin (but not scary), Japanese stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia)

Bark of persimmon and sterwartia

Persimmon (left)                           Stewartia (right)

and my previously mentioned favorite, hackberry, a fast growing tree now almost 15 feet tall that I started from seed I pulled off an old tree. The hackberry’s bark is just starting to develop those attractive, corky ridges.
Young hackberry bark