Aim: The geographical extent and climatic tolerances of one- and two-needled pinyon pines (Pinus subsect. Cembroides) are the focus of questions in taxonomy, palaeoclimatology and modelling of future distributions. The identification of these pines, traditionally classified by one- versus two-needled fascicles, is complicated by populations with both one- and two-needled fascicles on the same tree, and the description of two more recently described one-needled varieties: the fallax-type and californiarum-type. Because previous studies have suggested correlations between needle anatomy and climate, including anatomical plasticity reflecting annual precipitation, we approached this study at the level of the anatomy of individual pine needles rather than species. Location: Western North America. Methods: We synthesized available and new data from field and herbarium collections of needles to compile maps of their current distributions across western North America. Annual frequencies of needle types were compared with local precipitation histories for some stands. Historical North American climates were modelled on a c. 1-km grid using monthly temperature and precipitation values. A geospatial model (ClimLim), which analyses the effect of climate-modulated physiological and ecosystem processes, was used to rank the importance of seasonal climate variables in limiting the distributions of anatomical needle types. Results: The pinyon needles were classified into four distinct types based upon the number of needles per fascicle, needle thickness and the number of stomatal rows and resin canals. The individual needles fit well into four categories of needle types, whereas some trees exhibit a mixture of two needle types. Trees from central Arizona containing a mixture of Pinus edulis and fallax-type needles increased their percentage of fallax-type needles following dry years. All four needle types occupy broader geographical regions with distinctive precipitation regimes. Pinus monophylla and californiarum-type needles occur in regions with high winter precipitation. Pinus edulis and fallax-type needles are found in regions with high monsoon precipitation. Areas supporting californiarum-type and fallax-type needle distributions are additionally characterized by a more extreme May-June drought. Main conclusions: These pinyon needle types seem to reflect the amount and seasonality of precipitation. The single needle fascicle characterizing the fallax type may be an adaptation to early summer or periodic drought, while the single needle of Pinus monophylla may be an adaptation to summer-autumn drought. Although the needles fit into four distinct categories, the parent trees are sometimes less easily classified, especially near their ancestral Pleistocene ranges in the Mojave and northern Sonoran deserts. The abundance of trees with both one- and two-needled fascicles in the zones between P. monophylla, P. edulis and fallax-type populations suggest that needle fascicle number is an unreliable characteristic for species classification. Disregarding needle fascicle number, the fallax-type needles are nearly identical to P. edulis, supporting Little's (1968) initial classification of these trees as P. edulis var. fallax, while the californiarum-type needles have a distinctive morphology supporting Bailey's (1987) classification of this tree as Pinus californiarum.