Survival of the Araucaria araucana and good management of the piñón (Araucaria pine nuts)

With the arrival of fall comes the time to harvest the piñón (Araucaria pine nut, in Spanish) and, with it, the risk that the seed of the Chilean Araucaria araucana runs every year, if handled and collected incorrectly.

This is a serious conservation concern, as this tree–sacred for the pehuenche and natural monument of Chile–is classified as a vulnerable species in the Andes mountain range and in danger of extinction in the Coastal mountain range (according to the Regulation for the Classification of Species of the State of Conservation, which uses the criteria of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature).

Although the consumption of piñones is a traditional practice within the culture of some indigenous peoples and other communities of the south of Chile, we can currently purchase them in local stores or supermarket chains throughout the country. This scale of consumption of the piñón implies a new form of relationship with the araucaria, as its overharvesting can become a growing threat to the ecological balance of the tree’s ecosystems, and the forest cannot regenerate without its seeds.

To better understand the possible consequences of indiscriminate “piñoneo” (the practice of harvesting piñones), it is important to know more about the Araucaria araucana and how this endemic species reproduces itself in the temperate forests of South America (Chile and Argentina). In our country, the araucaria, pehuén or piñonero is found in the Andes and Nahuelbuta mountain ranges, from the VIII Región del Biobío to the southern slope of the Villarrica volcano, in the Región de los Lagos. It develops over well-drained soils, largely covered in ash and volcanic remnants. It grows at heights over 900 meters above sea level and in various climates, which are usually characterized by dry summers, annual rainfall of at least 800 mm and winters with temperatures below 0, which are key to the germination of its seeds.

The pehuén can measure up to 50 meters and live for over 1,000 years, and its reproductive stage begins at around 25 years. Some of these trees have male flowers, while others have female flowers; both are cylindrical cones located at the end of the tree’s branches, that are necessary for the pollination that occurs with the wind. Two years after this pollination, the female cones open. Each one drops between 100 to 300 piñones, which are spread thanks to gravity and are scattered throughout the tree’s canopy or are taken away by birds or rodents. As araucarias grow over 900 meters above sea level, the piñones can spend around three months buried in snow during winter, after which they are able to germinate.

It should be noted that the Araucaria araucana is essential to the survival of various species. For example, native rodents such as the choroy and the cachaña–the southernmost-dwelling parrot in the world–feed on the piñón. In addition, there are over 46 species of insects associated with this tree, half of which are exclusive to the piñón. Likewise, araucaria forests are also habitats to about 66% of the birds of the temperate forests of South America, as they are an important refuge for birds with specific requirements–being large, undergrowth trees–, such as: the Chucao (Scelorchilus rubecula), the Chilean swallow (Tachycineta leucopyga), the Rufous-legged owl (Strix rufipes), the Patagonian sierra finch, Woodpeckers (Picidae), and more.

Araucaria araucana forests have been exploited for many years. Its wood was used in the fabrication of furniture, structures and cladding, among others. Floreo was the method of exploitation, which consisted of extracting the best trees of the forest, but without taking into account the ecological deterioration this entailed. Its felling was thus prohibited in 1976, and in 1990 the araucaria was declared a Natural Monument in Chile. Currently, it is also protected internationally under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).