Identification and growth of ponderosa pine trees

Ponderosa pines are fairly common trees in the United States, particularly in the west. They have several traits that tend to set them apart from many other pines however. Fully grown, this is a pine that is hard to mistake for other species. This is despite sometimes being called the yellow, western yellow, pondosa, blackjack or bull pine. 


A Ponderosa is a tree that thrives in both high altitude and low altitude, however, they often do well in areas that get large amounts of snow in the winter, but where the ground becomes dry and hot in the summer. For this reason, in the Pacific Northwest, they often grow on the east side of the Cascade Mountains. Winters can be bitter, with large amounts of snow falling. In the summer, though, the ground dries out to the point one would think that the tree can’t get adequate moisture to survive. Appearances are deceiving, however. These pines have deep, spreading roots that can gather moisture that isn’t easily seen.


These pine trees often grow to massive proportions if they are not harvested or otherwise destroyed. It isn’t uncommon to find Ponderosa pines that are 12 feet in diameter and nearly a hundred feet tall at Crater Lake National Park, for instance. Most don’t get this large. Still, some become even larger both in girth and in height. This tends not to be a small pine tree if it is allowed to keep growing. Maturity also usually happens in 65-70 years, though they will continue to grow if they can.


The needles of a Ponderosa pine are an identifier of the tree. They are usually two to three inches in length, occasionally longer, and are in clusters of three or rarely in twos. As the tree grows, it sheds needles and grows new ones almost constantly, so this is a true evergreen. However, around the base of the tree, it isn’t uncommon for a bed of dried needles to build up, several inches in thickness, yearly. Even the dried pine needles have a distinctive and pleasant pine smell.


These trees produce a pine cone that is usually a few inches in length, from base to tip. They are roughly conical or egg shaped, tapering from a base of a couple inches to the tip of the cone. As the cone opens, the seeds are borne two to each bract. Each bract also has a small but sharp spine on the bottom of the leading edge. The cones also tend to be pitchy, and along with the needles, readily catch fire if they are dry.


When these pine trees release pollen, it can at times appear like a yellow cloud. The pollen release can even almost appear like smoke, as the dust-sized particles are carried by the wind. The pollen can also cover the ground, cars and especially windshields and windows with a fine yellow dust.


Few things about a Ponderosa pine are as distinctive as the bark. In mature trees, this has a reddish-brown color, and almost looks like a jigsaw puzzle, spread apart. The bark is also thick, protecting the tree from extremes in temperature as well as wildfires. It isn’t uncommon for a fire to go through a stand of these trees, blackening the bark, without harming the tree. This has happened at Crater Lake National Park, and evidence of the fire, which happened decades ago, can still be seen on the bark of many trees at the south entrance to the park. The trees continue growing, however.

Ponderosa pines become majestic trees, and they grow in many areas. People who enjoy the smell of pine will probably enjoy their aroma. They contribute to forest fire hazard because of the cones and needles, and yet the tree is largely able to withstand fire. They love cold, snowy winters and hot, dry summers. Though the Pacific Northwest may be best known for hemlocks and firs, Ponderosa pines tend to leave a lasting impression wherever they are found.