Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Camping Field Guide - Ponderosa Pine

Part of camping is understanding the natural environment around you. The better naturalist you are, the more you'll enjoy the time you spend outside. Periodically on this blog I'll talk about the natural history of Utah, including the flora and fauna, topography and geology, and different habitats. The first topic is a common tree found in much of the state. If you go camping in Utah, you'll probably run into one of these beauties.

The Ponderosa Pine

Ponderosa Pine trees can be found in much of the mountainous terrain in Utah and are often times the dominant tree in the forest. They are particularly prevalent in northeastern Utah in the Uinta Mountains and in the Flaming Gorge National Monument. This large specimen in the photo on the right can be found in the Firefighter's Memorial Campground. There are two subspecies most commonly growing in Utah, the Southwest Ponderosa and the Rocky Mountain Ponderosa. Outside of Utah these trees have a extensive North American range including parts of Brittish Columbia, Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Montana, Arizona, and Nevada.

Okay, you ask, but how do I identify them?

Ponderosa pines have yellowish-orange bark with older trees displaying a distinctive black lining in the deeper folds of the bark. The bark smells very much like vanilla. Because of their yellow colored bark, Ponderosas are often called "Yellow Pines."

Another destinctive characteristic of Ponderosas are their long sharp needles that grow in bunches of three. Their needles are approximately 8 inches in length (5-10 inch range) and grow in clumps at the tips of the branches. I learned a good way to identify tree needles when I was on a NOLS course almost 15 years ago. Just remember that pine needles start with the letter "P". So do their characteristics. Pointy, prickly pine. That's easy right?

The largest Ponderosa on record stood 232 feet tall and was 8 1/2 feet in diameter. It was 600 years. More typically the species reaches heights of around 220 feet, and is about 4 feet across. The lucky ones live 400 to 500 years.

Ponderosa Pines are drought tolerant and like lots of sun. They also thrive in wide variety of soils. So it's easy to understand why they do so well in Utah. Historically, high frequency, low intensity wildfires helped stands of Ponderosas thrive by clearing out underbrush providing young trees with plenty of sunlight. Older trees have thick bark, and a high canopy of branches, making them very resistant to fires. It's very common to see mature stands of Ponderosa with charred black bark around their bases. Look up at their branches and you'll notice the trees are still perfectly healthy.

Ponderosas reproduce by dispersing seeds on a two-year cycle. Their cones mature and shed in August. Each cone can produce up to 70 seeds. These seeds are distributed by birds and rodents eating and transporting them away from the parent tree.

Fun Ponderosa Pine Facts:

The inner bark of Ponderosa Pines was used by Native Americans for food. They also produced a medicinal salve from the bark to treat backaches, rheumatism and dandruff. Keep that in mind next time you're missing your daily shower on a camping trip!

The name Ponderosa comes from the tree's large, ponderous size.

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