Holmes on the Range for July 17, 2008

by Nelson Holmes

HUERFANO- There is likely no natural feature in Huerfano County more abundant, and more taken for granted, than our Pinus edulis or Piñon Pine.  From the low shoulders of our peaks, to the hills and arroyos of the plains, this rugged little tree persists and thrives in impoverished soils and extremes of weather.  The Pinus edulis is one of the slowest growing and most drought resistant members of the pine family.  A gnarled, 30 foot tall, specimen in a stand may be over 400 years old and may have survived many seasons with as little as twelve inches of rain a year.  For company the Piñon has only our Western Junipers, in much smaller numbers, to share its back country territory. With this sturdy tree of the west we in Huerfano County are at the Eastern terminus of the Two-needle Piñon Pine’s range; an indication to any westward wanderer that Kansas is no more.

    I’ve seen the far-away look in an old-timer’s eyes as he relates tales of Piñon nut harvests. I don’t mind the seeds myself, but I don’t salivate at the thought of them and, like sunflower seeds, they seem too much trouble.  I’m a minority in this regard; seems the feathered and fuzzy residents of the county swear by the piñon nut too.  Turkey, deer, cottontail, bear, dove and the Scrub and Pinyon Jays etc. all derive sustenance from the Piñon nut.  My personal passion for this tree stems from those winter nights when I’ve stoked my small stove with the dense, pitch-heavy wood and watched the oily, orange flame dance its heat into the room.  The scent of Piñon stump wood and the waxy texture of a split log’s interior instill in me a sense of hope and security when the icy wind claws its way through any and all defenses.  Aside from warmth, the wood of this tree, because of its gnome-like growth habit, isn’t used for much more than a woodworker’s artistic pursuits.  Nurseryfolk and landscapers, though, are becoming very fond of the living Piñon as a drought tolerant and very hardy addition to the modern garden. 

    I know you’re wondering, gravity doing what it does, how do young Piñons end up growing on hillsides above older, established trees?  The agents of Piñon expansion and gravitational defiance are jays; the Scrub and Pinyon Jays to be precise.  These busy little birds bury caches of Piñon nuts in far greater numbers than they would have the likelihood of finding (and the Scrub Jays are very private, they’ll abandon a cache should they   note they’re being watched).  And this leads us to next week’s subject; the Jay family.