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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Legend of the Ponderosa

Here in the Inland Northwest, we live in the middle of a vast ponderosa pine forest. Yet how much do we know much about our tall, stately neighbors? Here’s your ponderosa primer: A NAME TO PONDER Scottish botanist-explorer David Douglas named the tree (in Latin) “pinus ponderosa” while botanizing along the Spokane River in 1826. He chose the word “ponderosa,” meaning ponderous or heavy, because of its sheer bulk. The Latin name eventually became - unusually among trees - the common name. THE TREE FORMERLY KNOWN AS … Loggers and old-timers called it the “yellow pine” or “western yellow pine” because of the color of its wood. Loggers still refer to young, black-barked trees as “blackjacks.” THE ‘BONANZA’ RANCH The Cartwright family’s fictional ranch in the 1960s NBC show “Bonanza” was named The Ponderosa. The setting was Virginia City, Nev., near some particularly massive ponderosa forests in the Sierra Nevadas. WELCOME TO PONDEROSA WORLD The ponderosa is one of the most widely distributed trees in the interior West, extending from southern British Columbia southward in two main branches: Down the Cascades and Sierras into southern California, and through the Rockies into Arizona and New Mexico. It is at home at high elevations in Arizona (think, the Grand Canyon rims) and at moderate elevations in, for instance, Spokane, Coeur d’Alene and environs. It prefers the dry half of Washington - it is drought-tolerant. KNOTTY PINE PANELING That knotty-pine paneling so popular in rec rooms throughout the West? It probably came from a ponderosa pine. The ponderosa is an important lumber tree, second in the West only to the Douglas fir. HOW TO RECOGNIZE A PONDEROSA Find a conifer with long needles, then count the number of needles in a bundle. If there are five, it’s a white pine. If there are two, it’s a lodgepole pine. If there are three, it’s a ponderosa pine. THE INCREDIBLE CHANGING BARK When young, the bark of the ponderosa pine is a dingy grey-black. But as it ages, the bark transforms into beautiful plates of deep golden-brown, with red and yellow tints. In the stateliest stands, the bark takes on a gorgeous, glowing cinnamon color, beloved of Western movie cinematographers. BEWARE OF THE CONE Pick one up. Ouch. That wasn’t very smart. Ponderosa cones have a nasty sharp prickle at the tip of each scale. GIVING RESIDENTS THE NEEDLE Inland Northwest residents are well aware of one ponderosa disadvantage: It sheds large piles of needles and cones every fall. All in all, however, the ponderosa is not a particularly high maintenance yard tree compared to many deciduous trees. AROMA OF THE PONDEROSA If you’ve lived in this region long, you can probably recognize the aroma of a ponderosa pine forest even if you can’t describe it. Donald Culross Peattie, author of “A Natural History of Western Trees,” poetically described it as “rosinous and timbern.” Sun-warmed bark is commonly described as exuding a hint of vanilla. THE WHISPERING PINES Famed naturalist John Muir once wrote, “Of all pines, this one gives forth the finest music to the winds.” Peattie described the sound of a ponderosa pine forest in a breeze as a “grand native chanty” and “whispered plain-song.” THE JIGSAW PUZZLE TREE Every mature ponderosa pine has an odd and utterly distinctive apron scattered at its base: jigsaw puzzle pieces. These are actually thin, flaky scales shed by the bark of old trees. LEWIS & CLARK NOTED IT Lewis and Clark had their first hint about the existence of the ponderosa long before they reached the forest. They saw cones floating down the Missouri. When they finally reached the forest of tall “long-leaf pine” (as they called it) in Western Montana, they noted that Indian tribes peeled the bark to eat the soft cambium. ANCIENT STRIPED PONDEROSAS Several old ponderosas in the Bitterroots still show bark-peeling marks. The trees survived because the Indians apparently understood that they could peel a certain amount of bark, but no more, without killing the tree. EDIBLE SEEDS The seeds of the ponderosa pine, which are released from the cone and descend on inch-long wings, were also used as food by the Indians. Squirrels and birds are also partial to them. THE PONDEROSA’S MOST ENDEARING TRAIT A mature ponderosa pine is generally limb-free on its lower trunk. This lack of a “ladder effect” has one particular aesthetic advantage: It creates open, parklike forests, perfect for strolling. UP IN SMOKE A ponderosa forest can burn, as many in our region have discovered. Yet mature ponderosas are not particularly fire-prone, protected as they are by thick plates of bark and a lack of lower limbs. Saplings and stands of small ponderosas are far more susceptible to fire. THE BIGGEST PONDEROSAS IN THE REGION The biggest ponderosa in Washington, by circumference, is near the West Fork of the Klickitat on the Yakima Indian Reservation. Its circumference is 22 feet, 7 inches (271 inches). The biggest in Idaho is on Deer Creek in Boise County, measuring 228 inches in circumference. The biggest in Montana is on Fish Creek, west of Missoula, measuring 246 inches in circumference. THE BIGGEST ANYWHERE There are two co-champions: a tree in Plumas County in Northern California, with a circumference of 293 inches and a height of 227 feet, and a tree in the Trinity Alps Wilderness, near Mount Shasta in California, with a circumference of 294 inches and a height of 223 feet. (Champions are determined by a formula involving girth, height and spread). THEY’VE BEEN HERE LONGER THAN YOU A ponderosa pine is fully mature at about 150 years old, and many live to between 250 and 400 years. It takes an unusual set of circumstances – a lack of lighting strikes, bark beetles, wildfires and humans with saws – to reach its limit of about 600 years old. OUR CITY TREES Yard and street ponderosas in Spokane average about 60 or 70 inches in circumference and average about 60 to 70 years old, according to Spokane city arborist Jeff Perry. Many ponderosas, of course, are more than 100 years old and predate development. PONDERING THE FUTURE Arborist Perry worries that in 100 years few ponderosas will be left in the developed parts of Spokane. The old trees will die or be cut down and no new saplings will be allowed to spring up in urban yards to replace them. (In natural areas, the ponderosa will take care of itself.) STAND UNDER THE MISTLETOE One of the ponderosa’s biggest pests is mistletoe, but not the variety familiar from the holidays. It’s a parasite that gets under the cambium and causes a twiggy growth and a swollen branch, which looks like a snake digesting a rat. AN OVERHEAD PERIL? During Ice Storm 1996, falling ponderosa trees and branches were a significant peril. However, the ponderosa pine is considered, in general, “one of the most stable of trees,” said arborist Perry. THE VERDICT Let’s go to a passage from author Peattie, in his 1950 classic “A Natural History of Western Trees”: “No tree that grows, and few works of man, one feels, could satisfactorily replace an acre of this, the foremost lumber pine of all the West. Deep-rooted, aromatic and sparkling, the forest stands exultant, with the mule deer bounding through its aisles and overhead the ravens, jet and stertorous, cruising the timber from canyon rim to snowy range.”
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