The Nut Pine covers or rather dots the eastern flank of the Sierra, to which it is mostly restricted, in grayish, bush-like patches, from the margin of the sage-plains to an elevation of from 7000 to 8000 feet.
A more contentedly fruitful and unaspiring conifer could not be conceived. All the species we have been sketching make departures more or less distant from the typical spire form, but none goes so far as this. Without any apparent exigency of climate or soil, it remains near the ground, throwing out crooked, divergent branches like an orchard apple-tree, and seldom pushes a single shoot higher than fifteen or twenty feet above the ground.
The average thickness of the trunk is, perhaps, about ten or twelve inches. The leaves are mostly undivided, like round awls, instead of being separated, like those of other pines, into twos and threes and fives. The cones are green while growing, and are usually found over all the tree, forming quite a marked feature as seen against the bluish-gray foliage. They are quite small, only about two inches in length, and give no promise of edible nuts; but when we come to open them, we find that about half the entire bulk of the cone is made up of sweet, nutritious seeds, the kernels of which are nearly as large as those of hazel-nuts.
This is undoubtedly the most important food-tree on the Sierra, and furnishes the Mono, Carson, and Walker River Indians with more and better nuts than all the other species taken together. It is the Indians’ own tree, and many a white man have they killed for cutting it down.
In its development Nature seems to have aimed at the formation of as great a fruit-bearing surface as possible. Being so low and accessible, the cones are readily beaten off with poles, and the nuts procured by roasting them until the scales open. In bountiful seasons a single Indian will gather thirty or forty bushels of them—a fine squirrelish employment.
Of all the conifers along the eastern base of the Sierra, and on all the many mountain groups and short ranges of the Great Basin, this foodful little pine is the commonest tree, and the most important. Nearly every mountain is planted with it to a height of from 8000 to 9000 feet above the sea. Some are covered from base to summit by this one species, with only a sparse growth of juniper on the lower slopes to break the continuity of its curious woods, which, though dark-looking at a distance, are almost shadeless, and have none of the damp, leafy glens and hollows so characteristic of other pine woods. Tens of thousands of acres occur in continuous belts. Indeed, viewed comprehensively the entire Basin seems to be pretty evenly divided into level plains dotted with sage-bushes and mountain-chains covered with Nut Pines. No slope is too rough, none too dry, for these bountiful orchards of the red man.