The Ponderosa Pine

Ponderosa Pine is the most widely distributed pine in North America. It grows from the Pacific coast to South Dakota, and from Canada to Mexico. It is the second most common tree in the Sacramento Mountains after the Douglas Fir. The scientific name of this tree, Pinus ponderosa, is almost the same as the common name. Lewis and Clark made note of this abundant pine in 1804, but it was David Douglas of Douglas Fir fame who named it in 1826. The name “ponderosa” refers to ponderous or heavy wood. Ponderosa Pine is also called western yellow pine, yellow pine, bull pine and blackjack.

This pine is long lived, frequently exceeding 500 years. It is not uncommon to find Ponderosas in this area better than 250 years old.

The Ponderosa is most abundant at an elevation of about 6500 to 8000 feet above sea level. The tree is very drought-resistant, with a root system that can go down as far as 36 feet and sometimes go out to 100 feet on either side of the trunk. The tree averages 100 to 180 feet in height. Its needles absorb water, which the tree will then transport to the roots. This enables the Ponderosa Pine to live on south-facing slopes where there isn’t much water and other trees have difficulty surviving. This pine can survive on as little as 15 inches of rainfall a year, but can also tolerate wet areas. In Oregon, the Ponderosa is currently being grown in areas too wet for Douglas Firs.

Its needles are 5 to 10 inches long and occur nearly always in bundles of three, but two’s can sometimes be found. Groups of needles are tufted at the ends of the branches. Ponderosa’s egg-shaped cones are 3 to 6 inches long and each scale is tipped with a short, straight prickle.

While the bark of a young Ponderosa Pine is nearly black, the bark of mature trees is commonly pumpkin orange - in fact, large old trees are often called “punkins.” The tree changes to this color at about 90 years of age. Almost regardless of age, the bark of the Ponderosa flakes off in small, irregular pieces resembling the parts of a jigsaw puzzle. Bark crevices of older trees and cut branches have a pleasing, “pitchy” smell, similar to turpentine.

Ponderosa Pine forests have evolved with fire - if fact, their health depends on it. Because Ponderosa forests occur in dry, grassy environments, summer lightning fires are common. If these fires occur often enough, the stands stay thinned and healthy. If fires are inhibited, stands become dense and stagnated. The trees then become stressed and susceptible to insects and disease, like the pine beetle and dwarf mistletoe. Approximately 70% of the Ponderosas in the Sacramentos are infected by dwarf mistletoe, but it can take up to 100 years for this parasite to kill the tree. When a fire does finally occur in a dense stand, many of the trees are killed. When fires are not suppressed by humans, Ponderosa Pine forests experience small ground fires every 10 to 20 years.


Cloudcroft 1901 - Museum Photo