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Pines are more than just a chore

Here I stand on my lawn, ankle deep in pine needles, raking. Again. And as I do so, ever more needles are floating down upon me as the wind releases them from branches high above me.

This won’t be the last time I rake this fall, nor will it be the last time my husband climbs the ladder to de-needle our roof as part of the ongoing fall ritual, which will be followed by several months buried in snow, and resumed again in the spring as a new crop of needles emerges.

Despite this inundation, I think ponderosa pine trees are just wonderful. That we overlook them, ignore them, mistreat them and denigrate this tree which is the champion of our Inland Northwest conifer forest is just a darn shame. OK, they don’t give the brilliant color display in the fall that sugar maples or oaks do. And yes, their yellow-green pine pollen coats everything in the spring, and the mounds of needles they create bury plants and lawns and small animals in the fall. What’s a little inconvenience among friends?

I rise in defense of this wonderful specimen of endurance and singular beauty. Yes, beauty.

My husband and I have many of these trees on our lot, the largest of which – 9 feet in circumference (I measured) – is 10 feet from the front of our house. It stands straight and tall, but I am aware of our proximity to peril should it ever go down. There were more here, but the devastating ice storm of 1996 killed off several of them, first by dropping limbs and then in taking out whole trees. We didn’t know the real toll for a few years, as it took that long for some of them to die of the effects.

I took it very personally. One tree was damaged so badly we thought it would die also. But it soldiers on, even with some gnarled and half broken branches near the top. I can see it clearly from my deck, and I check it often. We had to take out two other large and beautiful specimens that were damaged by an underground water leak. An arborist told us they would surely die and because they were leaning toward our house, it would be safer to remove them.

I couldn’t stand to be home when the deed was done.

But I missed the trees. A few years ago, we went to a nursery that specializes in native plants and bought a dozen ponderosas rooted in buckets and planted them around the back of the property to replenish our own dwindling little conifer forest. We’ll be long dead and gone before they reach maturity, but I am happy to report that all but three have survived and some are nearly as tall as I am.

Frankly, I think the ponderosa pine should be the state tree instead of that short-needled, moisture-loving western hemlock that the Legislature in its wisdom gave the honor to back in 1947 after an Oregon newspaper made fun of us for not having a state tree. Not that the hemlock isn’t a pretty tree, but this is another case of those pushy West Siders having their way. Again.

But consider ponderosa pines. They’re tough. Spokane arborist Jim Slott notes they fared better than any other conifers in our area during the ice storm, and they’re drought resistant (take that, western hemlocks) and can grow out of sheer rock. Besides, they are our native tree, making up 95 percent of the conifers in the Spokane area.

“They’re capable of sealing over wounds very well,” Slott said. “They’re a strong wood tree and, frankly, I think we should treat them with more respect on this side of the state.”

Tell it loud, brother. The first thing developers do is mow them down, build whatever they’re there to build and then replant things – often smaller ponderosa pines. I don’t get that.

I think those of us on this side of the state are a lot like these trees. We’re not showy. Maybe we don’t dazzle. We can be a little annoying sometimes. And we’re easily taken for granted (like by people west of the Cascades). Even so, you can count on us. We are strong and reliable and we endure in the toughest weather – and rather nicely, thank you.

So, as I lean on my rake and look out at the needles and up into the trees and think about these things, I feel good. These trees may not get a lot of respect elsewhere, but they sure do at my house.

Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by e-mail at Previous columns are available at