One of the most prevalent trees in the Tehachapi landscape is a hardy, drought-resistant conifer known for thousands of years by local residents — the Nuwä Indian people — as wohodüba. In English it is called a Gray Pine or Bull Pine.
These familiar trees look more like typical pine trees when young: conical in shape, deep green and fairly dense. As they get bigger, however, the main trunk often forks into two or three primary upright branches, and the foliage becomes more sparse and somewhat paler in appearance (hence the name Gray Pine).
These are also known as Foothill Pines, since that is their preferred terrain. They are found all through the Tehachapis and the Sierra Nevada, fringing the Great Central Valley. They are not common on the floor of valleys or the high mountains, but thrive in the dry, rolling, undulating countryside in between.
These tough trees, with rough, dark bark, are often found growing in the company of Blue Oaks, and Gray Pine/Blue Oak woodland is a common foothill habitat type in California. The area between Tehachapi and Hart Flat is an perfect example of a mixture of Gray Pines and Blue Oaks.
Gray Pines (Pinus sabiniana) frequently lean out from the slopes in which they grow, rather than pointing straight upward like many of the pines. With their forked trunks, they are the pines that are most likely to look like they are flashing you a peace sign.
When winter ends and the green months return to the Golden State, wildflowers like California Poppies, Owl's Clover, Pygmy-leaved Lupine, Farewell-to-Spring and others decorate the ground under Gray Pines, which are endemic to California.
A Gray Pine and oak-dappled landscape, with mule deer resting in the shade and the calls of California Quail and Acorn Woodpeckers echoing in the woodland, while an occasional Red-tailed Hawk circles overhead, has been a quintessential California scene for untold millennia and continues to this day.
The Nuwä (Kawaiisu or Paiute) people valued wohodüba trees, pronounced woh-hoh-DUB-uh, for multiple reasons, including the shade and firewood they yield, but were particularly fond of the delicious pine nuts they produce. These narrow white seeds, which are 25 percent protein, are encased in very hard shells, unlike the thin shells of Singleleaf Pinyon Pine (Pinus monophylla) which, like a sunflower seed, can be easily cracked open with a mild bite. Try biting open a Gray Pine nut, and it is fragments of your teeth that you are likely to be spitting out.
Gray Pine nuts were typically gathered in October, and had to be hammered open with a stone. By the time cones fall on their own, many of the seeds have already dropped out or been removed by animals, but you can smash the cones on the ground and dislodge nuts that are still contained within.
The seeds can be eaten raw, but Nuwä people also roasted them, sometimes roasting the cones themselves to make them open and dislodge the seeds inside, which have a delicious nutty flavor. The Nuwä would also gather green cones in June, pulling them off the tree and splitting the cones open, and then eating the young seeds raw.
The shells of Gray Pine nuts are so hard and durable that they make good beads, and are used to make necklaces and jewelry that are distinctive to Native California people. The ends of Gray Pine nuts are rubbed off on an abrasive rock, an awl is used to poke the raw seed out of the resulting holes at each end, and a natural bead is created.
Settlers in the Tehachapi Mountains tended to refer to Pinus sabiniana as Bull Pines, and that's the name I heard most frequently growing up. If I had grown up here in centuries past, the name would have been wohodüba. But regardless of what name you use, these rugged, irregular trees are an essential part of our Tehachapi Mountain scenery.
Have a good week.
Jon Hammond has written for Tehachapi News for more than 30 years. Send email to email@example.com.