Pine trees use two strategies when it comes to seeds. Ponderosas and many other pines produce cones with a spine or bristle at the end of each pine cone’s scales to keep animals from pilfering the seeds. Their seeds often have paper “wings” to help them float at least a little distance from the parent tree.
Other pines have a different strategy for producing their next generation. These trees scatter their seeds far from the parent. To do this, the trees enlist animals to spread and bury the pine seeds. First, the cone scales have no spines, which makes it easy for animals to get to the seeds. Second, pine seeds are very nutritious, high in amino acids and fats. This makes them very important food sources for turkeys; squirrels; bears; deer; pinyon, Stellars and scrub jays; and other wildlife. Third, in good years, there are lots of seeds.
People enjoy pine nuts as well. From ancient times to today, they have harvested pine nuts, roasted them and savored their wonderful flavor. Piñon seeds can now be gathered in many grocery stores.
In Colorado, piñon and limber pine use the “let-them-eat-pine-seeds” philosophy. In fact, piñon means “seed” or “nut” in Spanish. These pines produce huge amounts of seeds every few years, so that in good years the animal populations have plenty to cache, or bury, for later use. The animals forget many of these caches, and then the seeds are free to sprout new trees in new territory.
But if limber and piñon pines dropped the same number of seeds every year, the animal populations would grow to match them. This would let the critters eat too many of the seeds, rather than caching them. Instead, these pines only drop a good seed crop every four to seven years, so that the animal populations are overwhelmed with nuts.
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