Piñon Pines and their Dwarf Selections
By Kirk Fiesler:
Ever since the pioneers first started to dig and transplant them to beautify the bleak rolling prairie where they built their homes, piñon pines have been stalwart evergreens in Front Range landscapes. Now, as back then, most all piñons in our urban landscapes start out growing in our mountain forests until a collector digs and sells them to a nursery to sell to you.
Planting & Cultivation
Piñons are the hardiest, most xeric and heat tolerant pine in our landscapes. Along with the native junipers, they would be the only thing alive in twenty years if we stopped irrigating our yards. Once established they need only what nature provides in the way of precipitation. Piñons love full sun and stay on the small side, reaching 25-30 feet in height and 10 to 15 feet in width at maturity. The only thing they don’t tolerate is a consistently wet planting site; they do very well in well drained soils or on slopes. Heavy clay soils will cause some chlorosis at first; as the tree grows it will adjust to the soil and become green again. These pines have vigorous root systems that allow them to stay alive in the harshest of conditions; they will grow in Leadville.
In their native forests, covering the mesas and plateaus at elevations of 4,000 to 9,000’ in southwest Colorado, northern New Mexico, northeast Arizona and southeast Utah, they grow alongside junipers. This vegetation type is called the piñon-juniper woodland, an open forest of low, rounded trees that is thicker with more moisture, thinner when dry. Because they produce a large edible seed the native peoples of the southwest invested a good deal of their time seeking out and collecting these piñon nuts, as they provided much needed nourishment when other foods were scarce. In fact, some think that these native people, knowingly or unknowingly, transported the piñon seeds that they collected farther south to an area far north of their native range, creating the 400 year-old grove of piñons north of Fort Collins known as the Owl Canyon stand.
Starting out in the nursery/landscape trade in the late 70’s I never really appreciated the pinon pines we bought from the tree collectors and then resold to our customers. They would come in balled and burlapped at around 6-7' high along with the aspens. The aspens would quickly be sold, as every landscape plan would have a few aspens on it – after all this was Colorado, the new homeowners were not in Kansas anymore. The multi-stemmed and wild looking piñons moved more slowly. But, as I drive by many of those houses we landscaped in the 70’s and 80’s, it’s the piñons that are still thriving and the aspens that are long dead or chlorotic and close to death. Look around at the non-irrigated greenbelts and parkways; the pines that are thriving are the piñons while the mugos and Austrian pines are struggling. If you have the space, piñons make excellent choices for more native xeric landscapes. If you don’t have much room think about going with the newer dwarf piñons now available.
The Dwarf Selections
Over the years the nursery trade has selected for dwarfing characteristics of most all landscape plants into the trade. About thirty years ago, a few dwarf piñons were brought into cultivation by Jerry Morris, a Denver horticulturist/arborist who has spent over 50 years combing the West for dwarf woody plants. He selects from genetically dwarfing growths called witch’s brooms that look like dense balls of twigs and foliage growing on the branches of normal trees. After finding these brooms, he collected small pieces of their stems and grafted them onto standard seedling rootstock, creating a plant with a dwarf witch’s broom top and a normal root system. Most of the resulting grafted trees retained the dwarfing characteristics of the witch’s broom. Jerry has scoured the Four Corners area in his pursuit of unique and special dwarf piñons that have different rates of growth, shapes, and foliage (needle) colors.
Generally these named dwarf piñon cultivars fall into three different groups based on their growth habits and resulting shapes:
1) Pyramidal growers – these dwarf trees form a tight cone that comes to a point, like the point of a pencil. Examples include: ‘Lil Jake’, ‘Tiny Pout’, and ‘Tiny Rations’
2) Rounded growers – more globe shaped, as wide as tall mostly. Examples include: ‘Farmy’, ‘Penasco’, and ‘Trinidad’
3) Low mounding growers – the lowest and the slowest. ‘Thompson Brother’s Broom’
These seven named cultivars are the result of over 30 years of selecting, collecting, propagating, growing, and observation by landscape and nursery professionals. Due to their being native to and grown in Colorado they will outperform most other dwarf conifers imported from theWest Coast or the Midwest. Plant Select has judged these dwarf piñons worthy enough for our landscapes to start their promotion and distribution. Next time you are in a nursery that has natively grown Colorado plants, seek out
these diminutive beauties.
Kirk Fiesler owns LaPorte Ave. Nursery in Fort Collins.