Pine Nut Harvesting – When And How To Harvest Pine Nuts

Pine Nut Harvesting – When And How To Harvest Pine Nuts

By: Teo Spengler

Pine nuts are very expensive when you buy them at the grocery store, but they are hardly new. People have been pine nut harvesting for centuries. You can grow your own by planting a pinyon pine and harvesting pine nuts from pine cones. Read on for more information on when and how to harvest pine nuts.

Where Do Pine Nuts Come From?

Many people eat pine nuts but ask: Where do pine nuts come from? Pine nuts come from pinyon pine trees. These pines are native to the United States, although other pines with edible pine nuts are native to Europe and Asia, like the European stone pine and the Asian Korean pine.

Pine nuts are the smallest and the fanciest of all nuts. The taste is sweet and subtle. If you have a pinyon pine tree in your backyard, you can start harvesting pine nuts from pine cones too.

When and How to Harvest Pine Nuts

Pine nuts ripen in late summer or fall, and this is when you start pine nut harvesting. First, you’ll need pine trees with low branches containing both opened and unopened pine cones on them.

The opened pine cones indicate that the pine nuts are ripe, but you don’t want these cones when it comes to pine nut harvesting; they have already released their nuts. The nuts were, most likely, eaten up by animals and birds.

Instead, when you are harvesting pine nuts from pine cones, you want to gather closed cones. Twist them off the branches without getting the sap on your hands since it is hard to clean off. Fill the bag with cones, then take them home with you.

Pine cones are built of overlapping scales and the pine nuts are located inside each scale. The scales open when exposed to heat or dryness. If you leave your bag in a warm, dry, sunny location, the cones will release the nuts on their own. This saves time when you are harvesting pine nuts from pine cones.

Wait a few days or even a week, then shake the bag vigorously. The pine cones should be open and the pine nuts slide out of them. Collect them, then remove the shells on each with your fingers.

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Why Does the USA Import Pine Nuts When We Have Our Own?

American pine nuts have been prized for thousands of years. So why are we importing from China?

And yet, despite the fact that American pine nuts have been prized for thousands of years, the vast majority of pine nuts Americans eat do not come from Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado: they come from China, Russia, and Afghanistan. (North Korea is the third-largest producer, but you won’t be finding North Korean pine nuts sold legally in the US.) So what’s the deal?

Civil Eats has a great feature about the downfall of the American pine nut industry, a truly embarrassing and damaging loss given that the pinyon species in North America can produce nuts (seeds, technically) worth upwards of $40 per pound. The problem, reports Civil Eats, dates back to the 1950s, when the US Forestry Service and the Bureau of Land Management got together to divide up the public land in the Southwest into “forest” and “range” land.

This land can be used by private industries for certain things, like harvesting pine nuts or grazing cattle. But pine nuts, despite and therefore causing their high value, are a real pain to harvest. The gigantic pine cones have to be harvested at just the right point, then allowed to dry for the scales to open, then the seeds have to be dug out, and they they have to cracked…it’s a whole ordeal. So the governmental agencies basically said, screw the pine trees: let’s raze the forest and open the land up for cattle to graze.

The razing of the forest stopped a few decades ago, but another problem took up right where the government left off: climate change. Pine nut foragers report that unpredictable weather has made the already-challenging task of harvesting pine nuts substantially harder, and potentially not even profitable.

With cheaper labor and fewer environmental restrictions in China – some just lop off entire branches rather than picking the pine cones, which is extremely bad for the tree – Chinese pine nuts have been able to take control over the past decade. Some reviews believe that China will, in the next five years, completely dominate the pine nut export market. And that’s sad! Because we have our own right here.

MSU Extension

Bert Cregg, Michigan State University Extension, Departments of Horticulture and Forestry - September 5, 2013

Many pine trees produce edible nuts, including some species that are hardy in Michigan.

Last week, I received a voicemail message from a gentleman who wanted to learn where he could find a “pine nut tree.” His father had emigrated from Lebanon many years ago and he remembered how his dad always reminisced about eating pine nuts in the Old Country. For years he had wanted to plant a pine nut tree in memory of his dad. The problem was every time he went to a nursery and asked for a pine nut tree, nobody knew what he was talking about.

Pine nuts are the seed from pine cones and the pine nuts the gentleman’s father cherished were likely from stone pine (Pinus pinea) trees (Photo 1), which are the pine nuts (pignoles) favored for making pesto (Photo 2). In the United States, pine nuts that are sold commercially usually come from pinyon pine (Pinus edulis), which is native the southwestern United States. Unfortunately, neither of those trees will grow here in the Upper Midwest.

Photos 1-2. Stone pine cone (left) and pine nuts (right). Photo credits: Luis Fernandez Garcia, Wikimedia commons (left) and Paul Goyette, Wikimedia commons (right).

There are, however, many other pine trees that produce edible nuts – the main reason stone pine and pinyon pine are widely used is because they produce very large seeds, making them relatively easy to harvest. About 20 species of pine produce seeds large enough that harvesting the nuts is worthwhile. Two pine species that produce edible nuts and grow well in our area are Korean pine (Pinus koraiensis) and Swiss stone pine (Pinus cembra) (Photos 3- 4). Both trees are excellent landscape trees and are included in Michigan State University Extension’s tip sheet on recommendations for alternative conifers for Michigan.

Photos 3-4. Korean pine (left) and Swiss stone pine (right). Photo credits: Bert Cregg, MSU

If you want to try your hand at growing your own pine nuts, here are a few factors to consider.

Be patient. Pines, like most conifers, may not produce cones until they are 10 or 15 years old. Planting large container stock or balled and burlapped trees rather than seedlings can provide a jump-start.

Plant several trees of the same species near each other. Pines are not completely self-infertile, but trees that are “selfed” (cones are pollinated with their own pollen) will have poor seed set and many empty seeds. Pines are wind pollinated so allow enough space between trees for air movement to carry pollen between trees.

Expect “boom and bust” cycles. Cone production in conifers is complex and controlled by weather as well as internal, alternate-bearing cycles. Forestry seed orchard managers often try to induce stress in pine trees in order to get them to produce seed cones.

Dr. Cregg's work is funded in part by MSU 's AgBioResearch.

This article was published by Michigan State University Extension. For more information, visit To have a digest of information delivered straight to your email inbox, visit To contact an expert in your area, visit, or call 888-MSUE4MI (888-678-3464).

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Thirteen Things You Never Knew About Pine Cones.

On a recent trip to San Diego, I met two Americans (in their 20s or 30s) who had never heard of Maine, the state where I am living. I tried to explain ("it's the northernmost tip of New England," etc.) and they still had no idea what I was talking about. I can't speak as to why they never heard of one of our fifty states, but I have learned that most Americans in their lifetime never see Maine, and I get it. Remote, off in the quietest corner of our country, unencumbered by a metropolis or major sports team, but once here, you'll understand why it's nicknamed the "Pine Tree State." Hundreds of miles of the tallest pine forests in our country. Step into its woods, and pine cones carpet the forest floors. Where I live, they're nearly as common as rocks. You've probably held them, maybe even decorated a holiday wreath with them, but what are they? And what roles have these strange, scaly pine tree-spawn played in our world? You might be surprised that throughout history, cones have been symbolic of immortality, human enlightenment, and 'the third eye.' Why? After some digging, much light was shed on a secret world of little known cone facts starting with.

1. Pine cones are the official Maine State Flower. When you think of flowers, you think of something colorful, lovely, delicate not a hard, brown, woody, grenade-shaped object with sharp sticky scales. So are pine cones technically flowers? No, actually they are not, which makes them the only official state flower that are not flowers at all (what's up with that, Maine?). Cones are known in the botanical world as gymnosperm (seeds), and date back to prehistoric times - leading us to fact #2.

2. Pine cones were a dinosaur delicacy.

Parasaurolophus grazing in a Cretaceous pine forest (Photo courtesy of

Today, pine cones are prized food sources for squirrels, woodpeckers and crossbills, but about sixty million years ago, they were a favorite meal of Parasaurolophus, the famous crest-headed hadrosaur (often referred to as duckbill dinosaurs because their skulls resemble modern ducks). Parasaurolophus had uniquely formed jaws and thousands of rows of teeth perfectly adapted to eat tough, chewy pine cones, which they savored in their Cretaceous marshlands habitat as fossils attest. Parasaurolophus weren't the only ancient beings fixated on pine cones.

3. The Pope, his pine cones, and other examples of pine cone worship.

Images of the Mayan God, Chicomecoatl ("7 Snakes"), depict the deity offering pine cones in one hand and an evergreen tree in the other. Images of Osiris, ancient Egyptian God of the dead, carrying a staff of two intertwining serpents rising up to meet a pine cone date back to 1224 BC. Dionysus, of Greek mythology, carried a staff (a "Thyrsus") topped by a pine cone. Similarly, today, the Pope's sacred papal staffs all feature a pine cone near the top. And just outside of St. Peter's in Vatican City is the "The Court of the Pine Cone" where a huge (three story tall) bronze sculpture of a pine cone ("Pigna") literally holds court.

Cortile della pigna "Court of the Pine Cone" in Vatican City (photo by David Constanti)

4. Want to get pregnant? Place a pine cone under your pillow. This trick seemed to work for ancient Celtic women who believed in pine cones as a symbol of fertility. Celts trying to conceive would place a pine cone under the pillow as a fertility charm. Ancient Romans also associated pine cones with Venus, Goddess of love and fertility.

5. We've all got pine cones in our brains!

Well, sort of. The Pineal Gland, the geographic center of our brain, is named for the pine cone because of its shape. The Pineal governs our body's perception of light, as well as our wake/sleep patterns. It receives the highest amount of blood flow of any organ in our body other than our kidneys. The Pineal Gland is long considered our biological "third eye" and "the epicenter of enlightenment." This may explain why pine cones have been exalted in religious imagery for thousands of years.

6. Pineal Glands aren't the only thing named after pine cones.

In 1600s Old English, the word "apple" was applied to coin terms for many fruits and flora including "earth apple" (a potato), "love apple" (a tomato), "oak apple" (the round nut produced by oak leaves). "Pine apple," was named as such for the tropical fruit's resemblance to pine cones. "Pineapple" is the only one of these Old English terms that stuck.

7. Some pine cones can actually nourish you

That's not to say pine cones are edible, but humans have been consuming them in various ways for a very long time. The most popular method to bring pine cone goodness into your diet, is with pine nuts. Only 20 varieties of pine tree worldwide produce cones with large enough pine nuts for harvesting. The Korean Pine and the Chilgoza Pine of the Himalayas contain Asia's best pine nuts. The Stone Pine produces Europe's (and the world's) most famous pine nuts. Pinyon Pines (which only grow between 6,000 and 9,000 foot altitudes) offer the finest pine nuts in North America, and are largely harvested by Native Americans. Pine nuts are a good source of thamine (B1), Vitamin K and L, magnesium, and protein. And one of the best natural sources period for manganese, phosphorus and zinc. Italians have been using pine nuts ("pignoli") since the Middle Ages as a prime ingredient in pesto, and desserts such as torta della nonna, and pignoli cookies.

8. Coffee, jam and seasoning!

Pine nut coffee (known as Pinon) is a dark roast specialty of the southwestern United States (especially New Mexico). Pine Cone Jam (similar to honey) has long been a staple in Ukraine, Georgia and Russia. Made from the natural syrup of boiled soft, green, young cones, the tasty, aromatic jam is used as a folk remedy for weakened immune systems. Pine cone jam has been used for centuries to treat bronchitis, cough, asthma, respiratory diseases, TB, arthritis, and cancers. You can find a recipe for Pine Cone Jam here: Cooks worldwide use the immature green tender pinecones to use as edible garnish, season meat, or slip into tea. Some pine needles are edible too. Think about rosemary - very pine needly and similar.

The young tender green pine cones used for jam, seasoning, and tea (photo by Stan Potts

9. Pine cones, as you know them, are actually only the FEMALE of the species.

The male cones, even at maturity, are smaller, softer, less impressive, and much less distinctive then the iconic female cones. You might not have ever noticed them. The male cones release pollen, which drifts into the air and eventually finds female cones.

Female pine cone at the top of photo. Male pine cones at the bottom. (Photo courtesy of Jeanne Mac)

10. Pine cones are nature's barometer for wildfires and severe winters.

A pine cone on the forest floor is an indication of moisture and wildfire risk. Closed scales on a cone mean damp conditions while open scales mean the forest floor is dry. In autumn, pine trees produce more of the larger cones before a severe winter to ensure seeds will make it through squirrel and bird feeding frenzies.

11. Scandinavia loves pine cones!

Children in Finland and Sweden commonly make traditional toys called "Cone Cows" using sticks for legs, attached into the pine cow scales. In Finland, there is a park with giant pine cone cow sculptures large enough for children to ride on. Sweden has featured cone cows on their postage stamps.

A pair of traditional cone cows (Photo by Timo Viitanen)

12. Not all cones are pine cones.

All members of the pine family (pine, spruce, firs, cedars, larches, hemlocks, yews, etc) have cones, but "pine cones" only come from pine trees. The largest pine cones in the world are from the Coulter Pines of California/Baja California. Known as "widow makers," these giant cones with dagger-like scales can weight up to 11 pounds.

Child holding a jumbo-sized widowmaker cone from a Coulter Pine (Photo by kensint0wn)

13. Pine cones in today's arts.

Pine cones continue to be a fountain of inspiration for writers, artists, musicians worldwide. Native American tribes in Nevada use the outer shell of the pine nut as a bead in decorative jewelry. Artist Floyd Elzinga's pine cone scuptures are made from repurposing old shovels.

Floyd Elzinga's work "Colonization Device" 70"x54" diameter (Photo by Floyd Elzinga)

Also of note, The Pinecone is author Jenny Uglow's biography of 19th Century Cambrian architect Sarah Losh - well reviewed by the New York Times:

And you can rock out to pine cones too. Pine Cones are a rock band from Athens, Georgia (home of The B-52s, R.E.M. and many others) whose full length debut album, Sings For You Now, was released in 2015. And they are not to be confused with The Rockin' Pinecones who are a rootsy New Orleans-style Cajun/Zydeco/R&B band that formed in 1988 in Minnesota's Twin Cities. And this is not to be confused with the wonderful Sticky Vikki and The Pinecones (fronted by singer/songwriter Vikki Lee) who will entice fans of Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams with their rockabilly twang.

Sticky Vikki & the Pinecones Why Do I Breathe? live in Grass Valley, California:

Rock on, all you pine cones! I could go on and on, but we'll stop at #13. Now put your computer down, walk outside, and have your own pine cone adventures. See you in the woods!

Is It All Worth It?

Having discovered what’s involved to get a good harvest of Pine Nuts, you might decide it’s simply not worth it. (anyways you can buy it from here )Especially if you have no plans to stay on the property you currently live at, or if the work of harvesting the nuts just sounds like too much hassle.

That’s not to say that the Pine Nut tree isn’t worth growing on it’s own merit. The Italian Stone Pine is a lovely tree when mature with a gorgeous shade giving canopy and that fresh pine smell, and getting a few nuts out of it eventually might be your secondary gain, rather than it’s prime purpose.

We decided to plant a couple of trees and have definitely gone with the theory that we will enjoy the trees for their aesthetic value first and if we’re lucky enough to get a few cones finally mature on the tree, then we’ll have a go at harvesting them.

Until then, we’ll just have to keep paying for the hard work of whoever produced the nuts for our local store.

Kudos to them. Growing Pine Nuts commercially is definitely a business for the committed, not for the faint hearted.

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Growing A Pine Nut Tree

There are actually a number of different varieties of Pine tree that the Pine Nut can be harvested from but the ones used most often, due to the bigger sized nut they produce, are Pinus koraiensis, which is used for the majority of commercial pine nut supply, or Pinus Pinea, the Stone Pine, preferred in the European regions.

Often sold in their smaller form as table top Christmas Trees, the Stone Pine actually has a lot of potential and in it’s mature form and can grow as large as 25 feet tall, with a canopy of up to 15 feet.

It’s definitely not a small tree once it’s growing in the right conditions, and needs to be planted with care if you want to keep it around for the long term.

Which you’ll need to, if you want to actually get the nuts from the tree.

Pine Nut trees take between 6-8 years to mature fully and then start to produce the cones that the nuts are in. Then it’s another 2-3 years before the cones are fully developed and ready to pick.

That’s at least 10 years to get anything at all from your Pine Nut tree.

So this is not a quick grow crop. Pine Nuts take a LOT of patience simply to get to the beginning of the harvesting process.

Watch the video: Pine Nuts the Movie Paiute, Shoshone u0026 Washo pine nut harvesting and preparation