Chilgoza is a Persian name for pine nut. These seeds are native to the north western Himalayas in eastern Afghanistan, Pakistan and in some north west countries of India.
Trees are 10-20 metres tall. The crown is usually deep, wide and open with long, erect branches. The bark is very flaky, peeling to reveal light greyish-green patches. The leaves are in fascicles of 3, 6-10 cm long. Female cones are 12-20 cm long and 10 cm wide when open. Seeds are more than 3 cm long with a rudimentary wing. The nuts, whose skin is thin and well resistant to breakage, have an intense white colour.
Pine nut is rich in oils, phosphorus and calcium with its especial taste, sweet taste when roasted, and after eating the oily and sweet sensations persist.
The Afghan pine nut or chilgoza is different from its size and colur than others growing in northeast of India and southeast of Pakistan mountains. This is alos due to the particular conditions of the Chilgoza forest which is very closed to east part of Suleiman mountains and this has a positive impact on the climate (it is dryer than in other areas) during the maturity of cones.
The chilgoza trees grow naturally on the top hills of Himalaya mountains in south east region of Afghanistan like Paktia, Kunar, Nangarhar, Nuristan and Paktika provinces, where the altitude is between 1800 to 2600 meters above the sea level and the average of temperature is 10 degrees Celsius.
Because of the climate condition of Chilgoza forest, trees can have a yield of 25 – 45 kg of unshelled pine nuts. An adult tree can yield 2.3 kg of shelled pine nuts, on average, and every tree produces 8.5 kg of nuts per year.
The pine nut tree cones are separated from the branches by the wind or birds after maturity in late summer (August) and fall to the ground. Later for different reasons, the birds especially remove the pine nut seeds from the cones and due to natural factors such as wind they are buried in the ground and germinated naturally in early spring (March).
Some local people cultivate the pine nut raw seed in the month of November for the production of saplings. The pine nut trees start bearing fruits after 8-10 years. The flowering phase of Afghan pine nuts may last for five weeks and is typically harvested from September to October each year after.
After the collection, the cones are stored in an open area under the sun for 15-20 days.
Local people and family members take part to remove the seeds from cones by beating them. After that, the seeds are ready for the market and consumption.
Chilgoza is one of the dried fruits that the local people are commonly consumed fresh and even slightly roasted for the purpose of skin removal. In Nuristan, the local communities use grinded chilgoza seeds with its shells as a side part of cheese salad in the summer and even they cook chapatti with the addition of grinded chilgoza in the dough.
Chilgoza pine nuts are also processed into an oil that has a mild aroma with a sweet flavour. Local community in Zazi Maidan district of Paktia province traditionally prepares a thick salty bread with chilgoza oil, called chilgoza Qalif, especially during some occasions like Ramadan.
The potent antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, antiseptic and expectorant properties are beneficial in treating various ailments. In addition, it is also used as a carrier oil in aromatherapy and beauty products. Its nut contains close to 90% of healthy unsaturated fatty acids of which 51 per cent is linoleic acid and 37 % is oleic acid.
Pine nuts are the best gift of the local people and in traditional parties.
In Afghanistan, this pine nut tree is y cultivated for its edible seed and efforts are underway to expand its economic utilization in the country. Elsewhere, native populations are ruthlessly exploited, with typically 100% of cones harvested. This harvest pressure is driven by subsistence and for the economic benefits that it provides. In a good year, about 20,000 indigenous people in the Nuristan, Kuner, Paktia and Paktika provinces of Afghanistan derive income from the nut harvest. As a consequence, there is virtually no natural regeneration of this species except in that very small fraction of its range (about 5%) where the chilgoza trees are inaccessible to significant human exploitation.
Lack of preservation of pine nut forests and lack of widespread public and local community’s attention to the establishment and development of Chilgoza forests due to the time-consuming fruiting, the number of Chilgoza trees has decreased in the last 30 years and were under the danger situation of extinction. Today, 800 to 1000 metric tons of chilgoza are produced on average every year. However, 60 % of production has decreased compared to the last 30 years.