The Gymnosperm Database


Mature tree and saplings; woodland in background is almost all Pinus edulis with minor Juniperus scopulorum; location Colorado, 38.81663°N, 106.08633°W [C.J. Earle, 2006.07.09].

Map of this site: nearly every tree visible is Pinus edulis.


Mature cone 4 cm long [C.J. Earle, 2006.07.09].


Seedling 7 cm tall [C.J. Earle, 2006.07.09].


Ripe cones, all have been gleaned already by birds [C.J. Earle, 2006.07.09].


Branchlet with immature pollen cones and maturing seed cone [C.J. Earle, 2006.07.09].


Growing shoot with current year cone [C.J. Earle, 2006.07.09].


Mature tree at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park; location 38.565°N, 107.750° W [C.J. Earle, 2006.07.09].


Bark on a tree 30 cm in diameter [C.J. Earle, 2006.07.09].


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Conservation status

Pinus edulis

Engelmann 1848

Common names

Piñon (Elmore & Janish 1976); New Mexican, Colorado, mesa, two-leaved, or common piñon (or pinyon) pine (Peattie 1950).

Taxonomic notes

Subsection Cembroides (Perry 1991). Syn: P. monophylla var. edulis (Silba 1986), Caryopitys edulis (Engelmann) Small, P. cembroides Zuccarini var. edulis (Engelmann) Voss (Kral 1993).

Pinus edulis forms natural hybrids with P. cembroides (Little 1979) and P. monophylla (Lanner 1974).

Pinus edulis is sometimes described as occurring in the New York Mountains of extreme eastern California, but other authors assign these trees to Pinus monophylla. These trees have also been described as a species, Pinus californiarum D.K. Bailey, which has also been described as a subspecies (P. monophylla subsp. californiarum (D.K. Bailey) Zavarin) or variety (P. monophylla var. californiarum (D.K. Bailey) Silba) of P. monophylla.

Hybrids with Pinus monophylla are common where the two species co-occur along the eastern margin of the Great Basin (Lanner 1974). See the Pinus monophylla page for further discussion of the complex and geographically varied legacy of edulis-monophylla hybridization. For more information see the work by Cole et al. (2007) and an interesting blog about that work.


Monoecious evergreen shrubs or trees typically to 21 m tall and 60 cm dbh, strongly tapering, erect; crown conic, rounded, dense. Bark red-brown, shallowly and irregularly furrowed, ridges scaly, rounded. Branches persistent to near trunk base; twigs pale red-brown to tan, rarely glaucous, aging gray-brown to gray, glabrous to papillose-puberulent. Buds ovoid to ellipsoid, red-brown, 0.5-1 cm, resinous. Leaves (1-)2(-3) per fascicle, upcurved, persisting 4-6 years, 20-40 × (0.9-)1-1.5 mm, connivent, 2-sided (1-leaved fascicles with leaves 2-grooved, 3-leaved fascicles with leaves 3-sided), blue-green, all surfaces marked with pale stomatal bands, particularly the adaxial, margins entire or finely serrulate, apex narrowly acute to subulate; sheath 0.5-0.7 cm, scales soon recurved, forming rosette, shed early. Pollen cones ellipsoid, ca. 7 mm, yellowish to red-brown. Seed cones maturing in 2 years, shedding seeds and falling soon thereafter, spreading, symmetric, ovoid before opening, depressed-ovoid to nearly globose when open, ca. (3.5)4(-5) cm, pale yellow- to pale red-brown, resinous, nearly sessile to short-stalked; apophyses thickened, raised, angulate; umbo subcentral, slightly raised or depressed, truncate or umbilicate. As with other piñons, the seeds rest in a deep cone-scale declivity and upper cone scale tissue holds the seeds in place, so seeds do not readily fall out and are readily available to avian dispersers. Seeds mostly ellipsoid to obovoid; body 10-15 mm, brown, wingless. 2 n=24 (Kral 1993, Ronald M. Lanner e-mail 1999.12.20).

Distribution and Ecology

USA: widespread in Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico, with small outlier populations in extreme eastern Nevada, southern Wyoming, extreme western Oklahoma, trans-Pecos Texas, and Mexico: Chihuahua. Grows at elevations of 1500-2100(-2700) m. Found on dry mountain slopes, mesas, and plateaus (Kral 1993).

Distribution data from USGS (1999).

The piñon-juniper woodland is one of the principal forest types of western North America. Woodlands of this type, dominated by Pinus edulis, cover approximately 14.9 million ha in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah (Ronco 1990). Most such woodlands are dominated by one or two species of pine and another one or two species of juniper. The principal pines involved are Pinus edulis, P. monophylla, and P. cembroides, and the principal junipers are Juniperus occidentalis, J. monosperma, J. osteosperma, J. deppeana and J. flaccida. However, a good variety of other, sometimes rather unusual combinations may occur. For instance, at the northern extreme, the Missouri Breaks of eastern Montana have Pinus flexilis-Juniperus scopulorum woodlands, whereas Mexico has stands that contain some very rare species of both pine and juniper. Regardless of its dominant tree species composition, the piñon-juniper woodland is of enormous ecological importance because the dominant trees create a structure that produces habitat diversity, attenuates soil erosion and microclimatic extremes, retains snow cover and enhances soil moisture, supports very high diversity of both cryptogamic and vascular vegetation, and provides an important food source (pine nuts and juniper "berries") for many species of birds, mammals, and insects. These resources are in turn available to humans, who historically have exploited them primarily for grazing domestic animals, and in this connection the piñon-juniper woodland is of great economic importance.

Although Americans tend to see piñon-juniper as a hot desert vegetation type, Pinus edulis in particular occupies a relatively cold, relatively mesic niche within the piñon-juniper type. Annual precipitation varies with geography and elevation from about 250-560(-690) mm, and varies from summer-wet to winter-wet, though some summer rainfall occurs throughout the species' range (Ronco 1990). Pinus edulis tends to give way to junipers or desert shrubs on dry sites, and to forest trees such as Pinus ponderosa on wet sites. Temperatures in the species' range vary from (-35-)4-16(-44)°C, with January means of -10-6°C and July means of 20-27°C (Ronco 1990). Hardy to Zone 5 (cold hardiness limit between -28.8°C and -23.3°C) (Bannister and Neuner 2001).

As noted, Pinus edulis is a major component of the piñon-juniper forest type. It is also a minor component of Pinus aristata, Pseudotsuga menziesii var. glauca, Juniperus scopulorum, Pinus ponderosa subsp. scopulorum, Cupressus arizonica, and Quercus spp. forest types. Where they co-occur, common associates are Juniperus monosperma, J. osteosperma, J. erythrocarpa, J. deppeana, and J. scopulorum; these juniper species are ranked roughly from hot-dry to cold-moist site occurrence. Although most stands qualify as "woodland", they still vary considerably in appearance and composition. Dense stands may approach canopy closure with correspondingly low understory species diversity, while very open stands have widely scattered pines and junipers with a diverse assemblage of shrubs, forbs, and grasses. Some of the more common associated species are Quercus gambelii, Q. grisea, Q. turbinella, Cercocarpus montanus, C. ledifolius, Purshia tridentata, Artemisia tridentata, A. nova, Amelanchier spp., Chrysothamnus spp., Cowania mexicana, Fallugia paradoxa, Rhus trilobata, Ephedra spp., Yucca spp., Opuntia spp., Gutierrezia sarothrae, and Eriogonum spp. Some of the more important herbs are Chenopodium graveolens, Solidago pumila, Gilia spp., Penstemon spp., Calochortus nuttallii, Sphaeralcea spp., Aster hirtifolius, Hymenopappus filifolius var. lugens, Oryzopsis hymenoides, Sporobolus spp., Stipa comata, Sitanion hystrix, Koeleria pyramidata, Hilaria jamesii, Bouteloua gracilis, B. curtipendula, Muhlenbergia torreyi, Agropyron smithii, A. spicatum, A. trachycaulum, Bromus tectorum, and Arisitada spp. (Ronco 1990).

One of the most ecologically interesting things about piñon pines is their relationship with the birds that gather, cache and eat their seeds, and upon which the trees are completely dependent for seed dissemination. This relationship is wonderfully detailed in two books by Ron Lanner (Lanner 1981, 1996). Because the seeds are large and wingless, they cannot be disseminated by wind. Instead, the seeds are gathered by four species of corvids: the Clark's nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana), Steller's jay (Cyanocitta stelleri), Mexican jay (Aphelocoma ultramarina), and pinyon jay (Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus). Each of these will gather and cache huge numbers of seeds for consumption during the winter months. Some seeds are not recovered by the jays, and germinate to produce new seedlings. Steller's and Mexican jays collect seed only from open cones, but pinyon jays and Clark's nutcrackers forage from green cones, and then from open cones as the season progresses. Clark's nutcrackers and Steller's jays probably do not effectively disseminate the seeds because their caches are located in ponderosa pine and mixed conifer forests or in the ecotone above pinyon-juniper woodlands. Mexican jays and pinyon jays, however, cache seeds in woodland areas, the former in small, local territories, whereas the latter transport seeds up to 12 kilometers. Thus, the pinyon jay is the most important of the four species because it forages from both green and mature cones, disseminates the seeds across significant distances, and sites caches in locations where successful regeneration may occur. Pinyon jays can carry an average of up to 56 seeds in an expandable esophagus, and most seeds are cached individually rather than in groups, so there is a good dispersal of the potential seedlings. Pinyon jays live in flocks of 50 to 500 birds, and it has been estimated that during a substantial seed year in New Mexico, about 4.5 million seeds were cached by a single flock (Ronco 1990).

Big tree

Diameter 172 cm, height 21 m, crown spread 16 m. Locality: Cuba, New Mexico (American Forests 1996).


A crossdated age of 973 years from sample SUNB2522, collected in NE Utah by Schulman in 1956 (Brown 1996). Trees more than 750 years old are reasonably common, given that you can find a relatively fireproof site where they have not been killed by ranchers who, especially from the 1950s to the 1990s, would cheerfully bulldoze a thousand-year-old tree in the hope that a little grass would grow up in its stead.


Pinus edulis has been very widely used since the development of dendrochronology; a recent search found it referenced in 147 papers. In the early 20th Century crossdating techniques were used to assign calendar dates to timbers used in the construction of early Native American cliff dwellings and other structures. Later the species was used to develop climate reconstructions, first at the local scale and then as part of large tree-ring data networks covering sub-continental scales. In recent years the uses of the species have further expanded to include streamflow reconstructions, studies of erosion and alluviation, forest demography and succession, forest growth responses to climate change and changing carbon dioxide concentrations, and a host of more esoteric problems in archeology, tree physiology, climate studies, ecology, and geology. More than almost any other tree species, it acts as an articulate witness of all that it experiences in its long lifetime.


The seeds are much eaten and traded by Native Americans (Kral 1993), and by others who are lucky enough to partake of the harvest. The wood was formerly used in construction by Native Americans, and is still often used for fenceposts and firewood. Due to their ecological importance, management of Pinus edulis woodlands is a major concern throughout their area of distribution. Principal management themes include wildfire control, grazing, invasion by weedy forbs and shrubs, and "grassland invasion" due to fire suppression. The literature on this subject is immense; search for "pinyon juniper management" to see some examples.


Easily found in most of its range. I have seen it forming vast woodlands in South Park, Colorado (location referenced at right). Some extremely picturesque trees, including some of the oldest known ones, are easily found along the trails and roads of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, also in Colorado. It also appears at Mesa Verde, Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest, Guadalupe Mountains, Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion National Parks.


Piñon (Pinus edulis) is the state tree of New Mexico (Kral 1993).

This species, along with Pinus monophylla, is host to the dwarf mistletoe Arceuthobium divaricatum (Hawksworth and Wiens 1996).


American Forests 1996. The 1996-1997 National Register of Big Trees. Washington, DC: American Forests. This is a dated citation; the big tree register is now available online.

Engelmann 1848. Sketch of the botany of Dr. Wislizenius' expedition. Appendix, pp. 87-115, to Wislizenus, F. A. Memoir of a Tour to Northern Mexico. Washington.

Little, Elbert L., Jr. 1979. Checklist of United States trees (native and naturalized). Agric. Handb. 541. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service. 375 p.

Ronco, Frank. 1990. Pinyon, in Burns and Honkala (1990).

See also

The FEIS database.

Some nice photos at Northern Arizona Flora, accessed 2009.04.28.

Some more nice photos at Wikipedia Commons, accessed 2009.04.28.

Last Modified 2017-12-29