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Pine Nuts Profile

By Malinda Geisler, content specialist, AgMRC, Iowa State University.

Revised April 2013 by Diane Huntrods, AgMRC, Iowa State University.

Pine nuts are getting attention from today’s cooks and restaurants as a new flavor to add to a variety of dishes. The U.S. market for pine nuts is estimated as having a $100 million value  (University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry 2004). Yet, more then 80 percent of U.S. pine nuts are imported each year.

Pine nuts, the edible seeds of pinon pines (piñon in Spanish means nut pine), are a traditional native American food. The nuts are the seeds found between the scales of the pine cones.

The United States has two species of common native pinon trees: Pinus edulis, which is also known as Colorado pinon, and Pinus monophylla, known as singleleaf pinon (Utah Forest News 2006).

Pinon pines can yield up to 135 pounds of pine nuts per acre. The number of pine cones per tree is a function of the tree diameter, and the average yield is about 33 to 48 pounds of pine nuts per 220 pounds of cones.

The pinon tree has many uses and is important in Italy, Spain and Portugal, where the nuts are known as pignolias (Australian New Crops newsletter 1996). Italy and China produce the bulk of the world’s supply of pine nuts. They are most often used in the production of pesto.

The pinon tree is fairly easily propagated from seed. The optimum temperature for seed germination is about 62 to 66 degrees F. Temperature above 77 degrees F can inhibit seeding establishment, while at temperatures below 50 degrees the seeds become dormant.  (Australian New Crops newsletter 1996)

In the first year of growth, the pinon tree produces strong taproots, which makes it more difficult to transplant later. The tree can tolerate very hot summers and cold conditions down to 73 degrees below freezing. The seedlings will grow on almost any soil other than a highly alkaline lime soil. Trees can be expected to produce cones from about year six. However, on poor soils it may be as long as 12 years before the tree bears a cone.  (Australian New Crops newsletter 1996)

Because of a complex set of scientific factors having to do with the irregular plant and weather cycles, pine nut crops vary dramatically from year to year and place to place. A given tract of pinon forest will yield a good crop about once every seven years.

The United States has two species of common native pinon trees: Pinus edulis, which is also known as Colorado pinon, and Pinus monophylla, known as singleleaf pinon (Utah Forest News 2006).

The Colorado pinon, which has two needles per bundle and produces a smaller, hard-shelled pine nut, is most commonly found in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. It typically grows in areas where precipitation ranges between 10 to 15 inches and is most abundant at elevations between 7,000 to 7,900 feet.

Singleleaf pinon has needles arranged singly and produces a large, soft-shelled pine nut. This pinon tree grows primarily in Nevada, western Utah and California. It is a drought- and cold-tolerant species that flourishes in areas where the average precipitation is between 8 to 18 inches and elevations are between 3,200 to 9,200 feet.

Pinon pines can yield up to 135 pounds per acre. The number of pine cones per tree is a function of the tree diameter, and the average yield is about 33 to 48 pounds of pine nuts per 220 pounds of cones.

Harvesting is done using a hook on a long pole to pull the nuts from the tree. The cones are spread on plastic or concrete in the sun. On drying, the cones open up and the nuts fall out. The empty cones can be used as fire wood. In many areas, the seed harvest rights are owned by Native American tribes, for whom the species is of immense cultural and economic importance.

Value-Added Products
Pine nuts are regarded as a delicacy in many cultures around the world (UN 1998). The shelled pine nuts appear like puffed grains of rice. They are consumed raw, roasted or used as an ingredient for such things as breads, candies, cookies, cakes, sauces, meat, fish and vegetable dishes. Pine nuts are also important sources of food for wildlife including songbirds, quails, squirrels, chipmunks, black bears and mule deer.

Pine nut oil is obtained by pressing and is available on the market as an expensive gourmet cooking oil or a medicine. Apart from cooking and medicine, pine nut oil is used in cosmetics, beauty products and as a high-end massage oil. It also has a variety of specialty uses such as a wood finish, paint base for paintings and treatment of fine skins in leather industry.  (University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry 2004)

According to the University of Missouri’s Center of Agroforestry (2004), the pine nut has a $100 million U.S. market. U.S. pine nut production is estimated at 400 to 500 tons per year. More than 80 percent of U.S. pine nuts are imported, primarily from China. Current stands of U.S. pine nut trees are not managed for commercial nut production.


Food Availability (Per Capita) Data System, Economic Research Service, USDA.

Goods from the Woods

Pine Nuts, Non-Wood Forest Products form Conifers, FAO, UN, 1998.

Pine Nuts: A Utah Forest Product, Utah Forest News, Utah State University, Fall 2006.

Pine Nuts: Species, Products, Markets and Potential for U.S. Production, University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry, 2004 - This report describes the global pine nut industry and the potential for expanding the economic scope of the Southwest's pinyon nut industry.

Pinnus Pinea: An edible nut pine of many uses, Australian New Crops newsletter, Issue No 6, 1996. 


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