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Clark’s Nutcracker and some five needled pines

Every morning I take a walk on the open meadows above my house dotted with Limber Pines.  Limber pines are technically in the white bark pine ‘family’, which consists of all pines with a cluster of 5 needles.  So when people say ‘That’s not a white bark pine, but a limber pine”, technically they are right and wrong.

Pinus albicaulis is the latin for the White Bark Pine, which is in the white bark pine group because its a 5 needled pine.  The Greater Yellowstone is at the very southern end of Pinus albicaulis territory.  Its a white bark pine that grows at very high altitudes.

I live at around 7,000 feet and, although we have P. albicaulis on our ridgelines, my zone consists of Pinus flexilis, or Limber Pine, another 5 needled pine.  Both produce cones with large, tasty seeds.  And its difficult to tell the two pines apart.  The best way is to look at the cones.  P. albicaulis cones are purple and disintegrate on the tree.  P. flexilis stay intact, are the usual grey/brown, and fall to the ground.

In the mornings on my walk, there’s lots of chatter these days.  The Clark’s Nutcrackers are busy. Clark's Nutcracker Their wings make a whirlwind noise, but their raspy call is distinct.  I watch them take their long beak and skillfully pluck out the large seeds.  They do it upside down or right side up.   Between the busy red squirrels caching all the seeds (they are also amazing to watch as they work the cones like an ear of corn) and the birds, its a wonder there’s any seeds left.  The crop seems to be good this year, as most of the trees have lots of good cones with few worms.  If I watch the squirrels, they know which ones have the worms and which are intact.  But I can always find a few opened cones on the trees, low down that I can reach, that have some missed seeds to eat.  My problem is that the cones are so full of sap, I’m a sticky mess just for a few pine nuts.

The nuts are good.  They taste like pinyon pine nuts (which is a 1 needled pine) and are about as big.  Some of the best and biggest pine nuts I’ve ever tasted are from the Italian Stone pine, Pinus pinea.  Its a beautiful tree and commonly cultivated.  But the Limber Pine nuts are good too, just harder to get out because they are tucked way down inside.

Limber pine cone with seeds

Limber pine cone with seeds and lots of sap

Limber, White Bark, and the Clark’s Nutcracker have evolved a unique marriage.  The two pines are dependent upon the bird for seed dispersal.  Unlike the fire adaptation of Lodgepole pines, whose seed cones open with heat, Limber and White Bark pines disperse their seeds through the bird, and prefer to sprout on the fertile soils after fires.

I asked a grizzly expert at the Shoshone ranger station if grizzlies will sometimes eat the seeds of limber pines.

“Not usually, because they are harder to get out, but they will.”

Grizzlies will reach up for the P. albicaulis seeds; they’ll climb up; and they are smart and look for the stashes of red squirrels and raid them.

By the way, after getting some pine nuts out of the sappy cones, I’m full of sap.  How to get rid of sap on your hands:  take some vegetable oil and rub it around; leave on for a minute; then wash with soap. Voila! Its out.  On your clothes?  Use a little WD40 before you wash.

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