Newcomers to Payson may wonder why the late summer brings Apache Indians into their yards who pick up the fallen acorns. This has been a tradition in the Payson area from time immemorial, because here is one of the finest stands of Emory Oak trees in the Rim country.
Tonto Apaches camped throughout the Payson Basin before and after their incarceration on the San Carlos Reservation. The tradition runs deep, and while the local Tontos seem to have little or no interest in the traditional Apache menu, others from Camp Verde, San Carlos, Cibicue and White River come here each year to collect the edible acorns. This particular acorn is sweeter than most, and so it is especially desirable.
Each year when I visit with these folks, I find they are, for the most part, White Mountain Apaches. They come here because there are none of these acorn trees at the higher elevation of their reservation. The clusters of gatherers often represent three generations of one family, coming here the night before and spending the day in this age-old task. They often express their gratitude that the local people do not chase them off.
Paysonites might even catch on to this natural and abundant food. The Apaches make acorn soup as well as flour from the nut. It was a staple in their diet during their centuries of living by hunting and gathering. The acorns, known in Spanish as bellotas, are nearly free from tannin with its bitter taste and make a tasty food.
Another nutritious nut to harvest is the fruit of the pipine.
The other day while driving over the back hills near the Crackerjack Mine, I entered an area where there were many pitrees. "There must have been an Apache camp here," I thought, and stopped the car to get out and look. Sure enough, I found evidence of a roasting pit, of turn-of-the century cans (the kind with soldered lids), and limbs cut from old trees. When you find a piwooded hill look closely for potsherds and grinding stones. You probably are not the first person to be there.
Pitrees are smaller than other pines and grow at lower elevations, beginning at 4,000 feet. They are usually found with juniper trees, and have short, wiry needles. The cones are egg-shaped and short, only up to two inches long, with thick, blunt scales that house the nuts. In early fall, the cones are closed and should be collected whole. (They twist off the branch.) If spread out to dry, they will open in about a week. That's the time to shake them so the nuts are released, about 20 or more for each cone. When you are hunting them after the cones have opened, you may retrieve the nuts from the ground if the bears, coyotes and jays have not gotten there first. Wear old clothing and be prepared to get a lot of pitch on your hands and clothes.
The thin shells need to be removed from the kernel and the raw or roasted nuts can be cracked between your teeth like sunflower seeds. Roasting them in the shells will make them last longer and give a better flavor. Spread them on a cookie tin and roast for up to two hours in a low 200-degree oven.
In the shells, the stored nuts can last two or three years. By the way, the tree may not have the nutritional data on it, so here it is: 14.6% protein, 61.9% unsaturated fat, and 180 calories per ounce. Also they have considerable amounts of vitamin A, thiamin, riboflavin and niacin. No wonder the Indians found them important for hearty living. The nut is ripe usually through early September and early October.
The pipine was often used as the Christmas tree by Payson and Tonto Basin folks, because winter snow often made spruce and fir tree inaccessible. The legends of Native tribes often included the pipine with reverence and suggestions for its many uses. The tree provided wood for tools, weapons and shelters. The pitch was used for glue, waterproofing and medicine. The nut was used for food, roasted, boiled, or mashed into a nut butter. Given a good grove of the trees, one person can easily pick 20 pounds of nuts in a day.
A poetic reference to the wood of the pipine was given by Ronald Lanner in his book, That Pinion Pine: A Cultural and Natural History.
"Pinion firewood comes into its own on dark nights in midwinter, when warmth and cheer and a bit of excitement is needed. Nobody who has sat before a roaring, pitch-boiling, bubbling, scented fire of pican think of it as the mere consumption of wood.
"It is the spirited release of centuries of brilliant sunlight absorbed under a cloudless southwestern sky, the sudden and instant flow of energy patiently accumulated."