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Pinenuts: Species, Products, Markets, and Potential for U.S. Production

Pinenuts: Species, Products, Markets, and Potential for U.S. Production

Leonid Sharashkin and Michael Gold Research Assistant and Associate Director, respectively, University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry, 203 ABNR Bldg., Columbia, MO 65211 e-mail: and
Citation Sharashkin L. and Gold M. 2004. Pine nuts: species, products, markets, and potential for U.S. production. In: Northern Nut Growers Association 95th Annual Report. Proceeding for the 95th annual meeting, Columbia, Missouri, August 16-19, 2004.

Abstract Pine nut is a gourmet non-timber forest product with a $100 million U.S. market. Pine nuts are harvested in natural stands and plantations in many regions of the world. In the U.S., however, the commercial importance of this product is underestimated. As a result, natural stands of pine nut producing pinyon pines in the U.S. are not specifically managed for pine nut production. Concurrently, over 80% of pine nuts consumed in the U.S. are imported. With the fast growing domestic demand in Russia, largest producer of pine nut consumed in the U.S., and the extensive destruction through logging of pine nut producing forests of Siberia and the Russian Far East, the U.S. may no longer rely on imports to meet local demand. The world wide scarcity of pine nut supply calls for a re-evaluation of the economic and ecological significance of pinyon pine forests and for considering growing pine nut producing pines in horticultural / agroforestry / forestry settings.

Pine nuts - edible seeds of certain pine species - harvested for food even prior to the time of ancient Rome and Greece, have been a staple in the diet of several Native American tribes in North America and indigenous peoples of Siberia and the Russian Far East. Today pine nut continues to be harvested in many regions of the Northern hemisphere and is marketed on domestic and international markets as a gourmet product.

In this paper we will look at pine nut producing species worldwide, describe pine nut products and their markets and draw attention to key issues surrounding the potential for pine nut production in the U.S.


Over 20 pine species in Eurasia and North America produce pine nuts (Table 1). Of those, 5 are commercially important nut producers. A number of nut producing pines are also major timber species. Many more species were historically important nut producers, but lost their importance as emphasis shifted from nut production to managing for timber or charcoal. They continue to be harvested locally.

Today the most important pine nut producers are: 1) Siberian pine, Pinus sibirica; 2) Korean pine, Pinus koraiensis; 3) Italian stone pine, Pinus pinea; 5) Chilgoza pine, Pinus gerardiana; and 5) singleleaf pinyon, Pinus monophylla, Colorado pinyon, Pinus edulis, and other pinyon pine species. Nut producing pine species have a wide variety of life history characteristics. They range from low (up to 10 m) trees or even shrubs (Pinus pumila) to trees with a straight bole, over 30 m tall (Pinus sibirica and Pinus koraiensis). They are adapted to a variety of conditions: from the extremely harsh and cold climate of north of East Siberia (Pinus pumila) to the hot dry deserts of Nevada and Mexico (pinyon pines). They also vary greatly in terms of pine nut productivity: from the abundant crops of pinyon pines (up to 335 kg/ha) to Korean pine (up to 100 kg/ha) and Siberian pine (usually about 50-60 kg/ha in natural stands) to other pines that have only marginal importance as pine nut producers (Pinus coulteri).

Economic importance of these pines is not limited to pine nut production. A number of these species are valuable timber species. This is especially true about Pinus sibirica and Pinus koraiensis, praised for fragrance, durability, dense grain and rot resistance of their wood, widely used in woodcarving, flooring, and expensive furniture making.

Many nut producing pines make good ornamentals (e.g., Pinus sibirica, Pinus armandii, Pinus parviflora, Pinus bungeana, etc.) and are planted both within and outside their natural range.

The pines perform important ecological functions: most of them provide valuable food for wildlife; many play an important watershed protection role. A number of species (e.g., P. sibirica) possess ecosystem-wide importance in the stands they dominate and dramatically influence composition and properties of the plant community as well as behavior and life cycle of animal species. Beyond that, several pine species are of exceptional cultural, symbolic and spiritual importance. The image of pinyon pines permeates the lore of several Native American tribes (Lanner 1981). Russian monks planted Pinus sibirica in monasteries as sacred trees and distributed seeds to pilgrims for planting (Drozdov 1998). Lately, the importance of Siberian pine as a cultural and spiritual symbol was popularized by Russian author Vladimir Megre in a series of books Ringing Cedars of Russia (Megre 1996), which became a national bestseller and were translated into 15 languages.

Pine nut products The use of pinenuts and pinenut products is summarized in Figure 1. Pinenuts are known throughout the world as a nutritious healthy snack (raw or roasted) and essential ingredient in multiple oriental and Mediterranean dishes. They are also added to gourmet chocolates. Pine nuts are cholesterol-free, contain from 53 to 68% fat (of which 93% is unsaturated fat), multiple micronutrients and vitamins. Nuts of different pine species differ in size, nutritional / medicinal value and taste. However, consumers are usually not sophisticated enough to distinguish between nuts of different species, therefore the nuts are usually lumped together in the commerce and referred to as “pine nuts”, pinyon nuts, pignolia, etc. They are usually marketed shelled, and sometimes in the shell. The latter is especially true of soft-shelled pine nuts, such as those of pinyon pines. Entire nuts are sometimes used as food for pet birds or wildlife. Pinenuts contain up to 68% oil. Pine nut oil is obtained by pressing and is available on the market as an expensive gourmet cooking oil or a medicine (in bottles or capsules). Cold pressing in all-wooden presses is preferred to retain the medicinal properties of nuts and derive the oil of highest quality. It is the quest for half-forgotten techniques for pressing Siberian pine nut oil that led Russian entrepreneur Vladimir Megre to the discoveries described in his inspirational books, now international bestsellers, Ringing Cedars of Russia.

While little research was made in the medicinal properties of pine nut oils derived from different species (Drozdov, personal communication), a number of sources suggest that Siberian pine nuts yield oil of highest medicinal value (Megre 1996), which has traditionally been used to cure a wide array of ailments – ingested (decreasing blood pressure, boosting immune system resistance, etc.) or applied externally (a range of dermatological disorders) (Cedar: a magnificent healer. 2002). Pinenut oil contains pinolenic acid, a polyunsaturated fatty acid, and is marketed in the U.S. as a means to stimulate cell proliferation, prevent hypertension, decrease blood lipid and blood sugar, and inhibit allergic reactions.

Apart from cooking and medicine, pinenut oil is used in cosmetics, beauty products, and as a high-end massage oil. It also has a variety of specialty uses such as a wood finish, paint base for paintings and treatment of fine skins in leather industry.

The byproduct of pine nut oil pressing is pine nut flakes used in granolas, chocolates, and crunch bar production. The flakes still contain up to 30% oil. When further pressed and crushed to extract oil, they turn into pine nut meal or flour, which has a wide variety of culinary uses. It is a gourmet substitute for wheat or rye flour, used in pastries, pancakes, etc. giving them a rich nutty flavor. Mixed with water, the meal becomes a pine nut milk or pine nut cream – a dairy-free milk-like drink with sweet, rich nutty flavor.

Pine nut markets

The U.S. market for pine nuts and pine nut products has a number of important and in some instances unique characteristics. Market potential. Despite the $100 million in annual sales in the U.S., the market of pine nuts and pine nut products is vastly underdeveloped. Pine nuts are considered a specialty product and are primarily available through specialized distributors such as health food / ethnic food stores and catalogues, as well as an ingredient in oriental / Mediterranean dishes such as pesto. Pinenut oil has limited availability as a gourmet product or food supplement from a number of on-line stores. Other products, such as pine nut chocolate / crunch bars, pine nut meal, milk and cream are virtually unknown. Market growth and introduction of new products is constrained by the limited supply of pine nuts, consumers' unfamiliarity with these products, and their high cost.

Supply dependent market. World pine nut production is so small that demand for pine nuts is significantly greater than the available supply. Even in a good crop year the total world production may only be around 20,000 tons of kernel (International Nut Council). As both regional and world production fluctuates widely from year to year (good harvest from natural stands occurring at most every other year), the world market is often completely out of stock for months before the new harvest. This has two major implications: high prices and price inelasticity.

Price. Pine nuts are one of the most expensive nuts on the market, with retail prices of shelled nuts ranging from about $20 to $35 per kg and up. Retail prices for pine nut oil range between $70 and $140 per liter, and are substantially higher for pine nut oil marketed in capsules as a medicine / dietary supplement.

Price inelasticity. Limited supply of pine nuts makes the market very different from the markets of most agricultural commodities. The market is very elastic in terms of quantity: it can absorb as much nut as is available, expanding after a good crop year and contracting after a mediocre one. For instance, U.S imports have increased from 1,909 tons in 2000 (1999 being an average crop year) to 3,582 tons in 2002 (2001 being a very good crop year). This represents an increase of 88% in two years. At the same time, the market is very price inelastic: even with a dramatic increase in quantities, the price decreases insubstantially. Thus, as U.S. imports increased by 88% from 2000 to 2002, the customs price decreased by only 8% from $8.9 per kg to $8.2 per kg (U.S. Customs Statistics). This price inelasticity also reflects the fact that pine nuts have no good substitutes.

Dependence on imports. Eighty to 90% of pine nuts consumed in the U.S. are currently imported, primarily from China. U.S. domestic production is estimated at only 400 to 500 tons per year ( Historically, however, pinyon pine nuts were extensively harvested by Native Americans and later Europeans and as late as 1920’s they were commercially collected and sent to large cities on the East Coast.

Market trends: endangered supplies. Much of the pine nuts imported from China are originally harvested in Russia and brought to China for processing, packaging and shipping overseas. Two important trends may limit availability of these pine nuts imports. First, Russia’s vast Pinus sibirica and Pinus koraiensis forests are under heavy logging pressure and the resource that can provide a variety of long-term benefits, especially nuts, is being rapidly exhausted. According to WWF Russia, at least 20 million m3 of Siberian and Korean pine is harvested illegally each year, most of it is being shipped to China and Japan (Kotlobai 2002; Illegal logging... 2002). Second, publication of the Russian bestseller Ringing Cedars of Russia by Vladimir Megre has boosted Russia's domestic demand for pine nuts and a wide variety of pine nut products, and consumers are willing to pay prime prices. The growing Russian processing of pine nut and vertical integration of harvesters - processors - wholesalers makes selling on domestic market more profitable than exporting (see value chain of pine nut products in Figure 2). Thus, the dramatic growth of Russia's domestic consumption may limit availability of nuts for export (through China) to the U.S.

Potential for U.S. production The growing U.S. domestic and world demand for pine nuts calls for a) adjusting management practices of existing pinyon pine woodlands to recognize the value of pine nut production, b) exploring the pine nut production potential of other pine species native to the U.S. and c) considering introduction of pine nut producing pine species (including exotics) for growing in plantations and / or in agroforestry systems as multipurpose trees.

The nut producing pinyon-juniper woodlands of the Great Basin suffered from extensive logging for charcoal to fuel the growing U.S. economy (especially silver smelters) throughout 19th and first half of 20th centuries. Also, vast areas of pinyon-juniper were cleared and converted to pasture (Lanner R.M. 1981). Thus, from 1950 to 1973 the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management cleared 1.3 million ha of pinyon woodland for grazing, even though the value of nuts produced significantly exceeds the value of cattle. Given the past management practices, today pinyon pines cover only about 10% of their original range ( 2003). As harvesting pine nuts is a sustainable alternative to using lands for grazing, the value of pine nuts production must be given full weight in design and implementation of management plans for pinyon pine woodlands. Historically, thousands of tons of pinyon pine nuts were harvested and made available on the market, and the remarkable pine nut productivity of healthy pinyon pine trees should not be ignored. The highly competitive auction for 2004 pine nuts harvest licenses on Bureau of Land Management lands in Nebraska (resulting in licenses for about 500,000 lb sold - the historic high) may be an important indication of growing value of pinyon pine nuts for the American consumer.

Unlike pinyon pines, which continue to be harvested commercially for pine nuts, many of the nut producing pine species naturally occurring in the U.S. (Table 1) were never commercially used for pine nut production and their potential for such production was never a subject of systematic inquiry. The growing recognition of importance of non-timber forest products for sustainable management of forest resources calls for assessment of potential of these species as pine nut producers.

Finally, there are a number of exotic pine species that may be well adapted to North American growing conditions. Some of these species are already known to perform well and are grown as ornamentals (Pinus armandii - hardiness zones 5 to 7, Pinus parviflora and Pinus bungeana). However, they were never selected for pine nut production and their nut producing potential in the U.S. remains unknown.

Pinus sibirica and Pinus koraiensis, two major nut-producing and timber species of East Siberia and Far East may be well adapted to the northern part of Midwest (Wisconsin, Minnesota). Introduction of Pinus sibirica to Canada was successful, less so with Pinus koraiensis. Also, both Pinus sibirica and Pinus koraiensis are white pines. It was observed that white pines readily hybridize among themselves (Mirov N.T. and Hasbrouck J. 1976). Therefore, Pinus sibirica and Pinus koraiensis could potentially be hybridized with Pinus strobus in an attempt to produce a nut producing hybrid adapted to the natural range of Pinus strobus.

Good understanding of economics of pine nut production would be crucial before considering any selection / breeding program for the U.S. Noteworthy, most of the pine nut available on the market is coming from natural forests. Pickers have the advantage of being able to harvest the nuts without incurring any expense of plantation forestry. Largely for this reason nut producing pines are rarely planted in tree plantations for nut production, but where they are, they are usually planted in their natural range, often in a country with planned economy (North Korea, USSR, China), where market considerations may not play the leading role, or in countries with low level of wages, or both (small Pinus pinea orchards in Italy and Southern France being a prominent exception, where the growers capitalize on specialty uses of the pine nut oil as food and in cosmetic industry and on other applications). The labor cost consideration is particularly important given that pine nut collection and processing is very labor intensive. It has also been noticed that pine nut yields of Pinus koraiensis plantations are lower per acre than those of natural stands with higher density of trees per acre (Korean pine-broadleaved forests... 1996). Additionally, most pine species start bearing crops of nuts at 30 to 40 or more years in natural stands, and rarely at less than 20 years in plantations. This extended period before production erodes profitability of pine plantations, even though a nut producing pine may produce good crops for hundreds of years in its natural range. Next, these pines usually have periodic crops (every other year), with good crop years on average every 3 to 5 years, which increases uncertainty and risks. Last but not least, pine nuts are a preferred wildlife food, so the owner of a pine orchard would have to compete with numerous wildlife species (especially squirrels and birds) for the crop. For all these reasons pine nut producing pines can become a suitable forestry / agroforestry species for nut production in the U.S. only if suitable varieties are developed that a) are well adapted to local ecological conditions, b) are fast growing, c) start producing nut crops yearly in life, d) reliably produce heavy crops at least biannually, e) are multipurpose species that also produce valuable products other than pine nuts (e.g., timber).

This suggests that a selection and breeding program would be essential to make exotic pines a new nut species in the U.S. Several major issues are relevant here.

First, breeding programs to develop cultivars of pines (or hybrids) well adapted to climatic conditions other than those of their natural range were generally unsuccessful. For instance, almost a 40 year long effort to introduce Pinus sibirica into European Russia was only moderately successful, and species’ performance usually plummeted in the southern, warmer parts of European Russia (Drozdov I.I., 1998). Considerable efforts to introduce a nut producing pine species to South Africa did not lead to its becoming an important nut producing species (Pines of silvicultural importance. 2002). Second, Pinus sibirica and Pinus koraiensis are known to possess very high genetic variability even within a given stand. There are individuals that are prolific seeders and produce heavy crops, sometimes even annually. In a natural setting these individuals tend to loose in competition with other individuals that invest energy and carbon in growth rather than seed production – the good seed producers are usually overtopped, shaded out by surrounding trees and eventually die. This points to the opportunity, however, to select individuals that are extremely good nut producers and propagate these exceptional individuals asexually (e.g., grafted orchards).


Nut producing pines are unique species of high economic, ecological, cultural and spiritual significance. They provide a multitude of benefits to humans, including highly nutritious healthy nuts and durable fragrant wood, as well as other products. At the same time pine forests often have been and continue to be abused and managed for timber production, which destroys the pine nut production base. The growing world demand for pine nuts and stable high prices call for better management of existing pine nut resources and for considering pine nut tree's cultivation within and outside their native range.

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Table 1. Nut producing pine species Scientific name Common name(s) Range Economic value EURASIA Pinus koraiensis Korean pine, Korean cedar Russian Far East, north-east China, Northern Korea, Japan very high: nut, timber also cultivated Pinus sibirica Siberian pine, Siberian cedar Russia (European N, Urals, Siberia), N Kazakhstan, N Mongolia very high: nut, timber also cultivated Pinus pumila Japanese stone pine, Siberian dwarf pine Japan, Manchuria, N Korea, N Mongolia, Siberia E of Enisey River medium: nut (good crops, small seeds) Pinus armandii David’s pine Central & W China, S Japan. N & C Taiwan at 2,300-3,000 m altitudes medium: nut (local), ornamental (US) Pinus bungeana Lacebark pine, Bunge’s pine NW China medium: nut (local), ornamental (US) Pinus parviflora Japanese white pine Japan, 1300-1800 m altitude medium: ornamental Pinus gerardiana Chilgoza pine E Afghanistan, N Pakistan, N India, Tibet. Valleys at 2000-3350 m alt. high locally, medium commercially Pinus griffithii (P. wallichiana) Himalayan (white) pine, Bhutan pine Himalayas: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan medium locally Pinus cembra European stone pine Alps, Carpathian mountains low for nuts Pinus pinea Italian stone pine Mediterranean Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Albania, Greece, Turkey very high: nuts, cultivated NORTH AMERICA Pinus edulis Colorado pinyon, two-leaf pinyon Semidesert from TX to CA high, historically very high (staple) Pinus monophylla Singleleaf pinyon, one-leaf pine Great Basin (NE, CA, UT) high, hist. very high - staple & charcoal Pinus cembroides Mexican piñon, threeleaf piñon SE Arizona, SW New Mexico, W Texas, Mexico (mountains N of 20° lat) medium, high historically Pinus quadrifolia Parry pinyon CA, Mexico high historically Pinus pinceana (Pinus latisquama) Pince piñon Central Mexico mountains high historically Pinus nelsonii Nelson piñon Central Mexico mountains locally high Pinus flexilis limber pine, Rocky Mountain white pine Alberta & SE BC to New Mexico, AZ, E CA low for nuts Pinus lambertiana Sugar pine Sierra Nevada low for nuts Pinus albicaulis whitebark pine SW Canada, W US low for nuts, irregular heavy crops Pinus torreyana Torrey, Soledad, lone or Del Mar pine W US, CA mountains historically high, cultivated Pinus jeffreyi Jeffrey pine, yellow pine OR, Nevada, CA low for nuts Pinus sabiniana Digger pine, bull pine, grey pine CA high historically, Indians' staple Pinus coulteri Coulter pine, nut / bigcone / pitch pine CA, Mexico low for nuts Source: list of species - Krylov et al. 1983. Figure 2. Pine nut value chain*

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