Ponderosa Pine - Pinus ponderosa

ponderosa pine botany with brit

 Ponderosa pines have purple pinecones when they are fresh on the tree. A mammoth, hulking chipmunk enlightened me to this fact on a hike in Montana as he postured aggressively in front of his purple pinecone booty. I have never seen a bigger chipmunk, or a more bright purple pine cone. Once the cones fall off the tree and dry out they turn brown, spherical, and can be distinguished by a prickle on each scale.

The bark of ponderosa pines is a distinctive orange color divided into plates by darker brown fissures, and bits of the bark flake off in puzzle-piece shapes that you can find littering the base of the tree. On a warm day you might also be able to identify the tree by scent - it smells like vanilla. Instead of being pointy, the broad crown of these trees are somewhat flat-topped with branches spaced wide enough that you can see the sky through their latticework. The long needles grow in groups of 3 generally, but east of the Continental Divide you'll find them in groups of 2.

These pines have a wide range and grow in warm dry forests in the American West from Canada to Mexico, and they are well adapted to drought. They can close their leaf pores (on the needles) to preserve water and invest in deep taproots to seek out moisture deep in the soil. Ponderosa pines are well adapted to fire and in a way almost encourage it with the quantity of dry needles and pinecones they drop every year. These trees are shade intolerant, and in areas where fires have kept down other faster growing species you can find ponderosas that are 500 years old with their first branches high up off the ground because all of the lower ones have burned off in forest fires.

The seeds can be eaten by people (think of the more popular pinon pine nut), and in the late spring in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana indigenous women would harvest the sugar-rich inner bark by using axes and sharp poles to remove the outer bark. These trees continued to live and grow, and the oval scars can still be seen 200 years later. This tree had many other uses: the pitch was used as a glue and waterproofing agent and was chewed as gum, the trunks were made into dugout canoes, the needles were used in basketry and boiled to make a solution for cough or fever, and the trunks and limbs were used as firewood and building material. 

These trees are beautiful, fire-resistant, and smell good. Few aromas can beat the scent of a ponderosa pine forest on a hot summer day.