Ah, the west! The wide blue vistas, breath-taking sunsets, stars sparkling in an inky sky, and the sweet fragrance in the air of pinions, junipers, and sage.
Pinyons and junipers are relatively short, seldom exceeding 15-20 feet tall. Bushy and prolific, they comprise what are called pinyon-juniper woodlands covering over 40,000 square miles of Arizona, New Mexico, and portions of Utah, Colorado, Nevada, Oklahoma, and Texas. Parts of Old Mexico are also included in this deliciously aromatic section of the west.
Pinyon-Juniper woodlands have long been home to a multitude of Native Americans, and here they found everything they needed for construction, art, clothing, medicines, and a myriad of other uses.
Although the locals call the juniper “cedar,” there are actually no native cedars in the United States. Whatever it’s called, this strong, insect and rot resistant wood is often used as fence posts that last for many years.
Pinyons, like all pines, have special resin or pitch ducts that serve as a protection from bird and insect injury. Melted, this sticky pitch was used as glue and sealant. Woven water baskets were covered with the hot pitch and on hardening, the vessel, no longer sticky, was entirely waterproof. Fresh pinyon pitch could be spread on a wound to cover and protect it. Terpene compounds in the resin served as an antiseptic to prevent infection. Only recently has modern health care developed a liquid Band-Aid that works basically same way.
Seeds of the pinyon pine have been prized for generations of time for their taste and nutritional value. Collected in the fall, these almost peanut-sized seeds were roasted or eaten raw in ancient times, and have a delicious, mild flavor. Large groups of women would go to the pinyon stands and using long sticks, they knocked off the cones housing the “pinenuts.” For a fairly steep price, these tasty morsels are now available in many markets, and are used in a variety of recipes, including one of our favorites, pesto – made from basil, olive oil, garlic, and pine nuts.
Juniper provided a huge variety of uses. Its shaggy bark is easily peeled off and will quickly ignite even when damp, providing an important fire-making material. This same bark, pounded on a rock, becomes soft and absorbent, making it ideal for padding and stuffing a baby’s backboard. More importantly, it was also an ideal disposable diaper.
Berries of the juniper were used for decorative beads, and also produced a green dye. Boiled in water, the result was a potent and truly unpleasant tasting “tea” used to treat sore throats and stomach upset. Some Indians ate the berries, but I’ve always found them particularly unpalatable. In modern days, juniper berries are used as the main flavoring in gin.
For me, the spicy, biting fragrance of sagebrush has always been an important component of a visit to these arid regions. When a desert rain first begins to fall, sagebrush perfumes the air with a delicious fragrance, and when mixed with the subtler aroma of pine and juniper is almost intoxicating. Perhaps because of their associations with pleasant experiences in my life, this mixture of aromatic vapors has a great calming effect upon me. With a little creosote brush mixed in, a whiff is nirvana.
To many Indians, sagebrush is a sacred plant. Dried and bound into bundles, it is ignited and as it smolders, the smoke is gently fanned over the face and head. A more utilitarian use was made of it’s pungent smoke to counteract the effects of an unpleasant skunk encounter, helping to neutralize the potent aroma of the skunk’s spray. Sagebrush tea was also used as an effective remedy for colds and stomach disorders.
In a nutshell, pinyons, junipers, and sagebrush were vitally important to the earliest inhabitants of this western area and continue to influence our lives today. They help us step back in time to a simpler life, create gentle moods, and provide us with delicious seasonings.
As the saying goes – “what goes around comes around.” Never was this truer than in the pinyon-juniper woodlands of the west.
Dr. Risk is a professor emeritus in the College of Forestry and Agriculture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Content © Paul H. Risk, Ph.D. All rights reserved, except where otherwise noted. Click firstname.lastname@example.org to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.