Plant profile: Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa)

Jan 18, 2012
How much do you know about this majestic pine with its cinnamon colored bark?


The ponderosa pine is a tree commonly found throughout Oregon and on all of the Land Trust’s Community Preserves.  How much do you know about this majestic pine with its cinnamon-stick colored bark?  Here are some facts that might be of interest, or at least come in handy during a mid-winter trivia game.

Name: Ponderosa pine, also known as western yellow pine, yellow pine, bull pine, blackjack pine.

Description:  The ponderosa pine is a long-lived species found in abundance throughout the western U.S.  It can range from 55-90’ tall and can live up to 400 years.  Needles are found in clusters of 3, called fascicles, and are typically 4-6 inches long.  Ponderosa pine will keep their needles for several years and then drop old needles during the fall months.  The bark is dark brown to nearly black when young and turns from cinnamon brown to orange-yellow at about 90 years of age. This tree quickly develops a deep tap root which helps it to survive extended drought periods, especially long, dry summers.  It is also well adapted to grow on bare rock with its roots following crevices or cracks in the rock.

Winter survival strategies:   Winter conditions make finding sources of liquid water and transporting water a challenge.  Water loss is minimized in several ways.  Water can be obtained from the ground, within the tree, or under the snow.  Conifers have special cell adaptations to facilitate water transport whenever temperatures allow it. 
Each year conifers drop some of their leaves, similar to broad-leafed trees, they just don’t shed them all.  Most conifers retain needles for two to three years before shedding them.   Retaining needles allows trees to extend the length of the photosynthetic season.  It also potentially allows trees to take advantage of winter thaws and, perhaps, even to permit slow rates of photosynthesis during cold weather.

Metolius Preserve ponderosas
Metolius Preserve ponderosas
Metolius Preserve ponderosas

Food for wildlife: Ponderosa pine can become targets for animal browsing during the winter.  Foliage contains some of the better sources of nutrients, although they are poor compared to summer food availability.  The seeds of ponderosa pine are choice food of red-winged blackbirds, chickadees, mourning doves, finches, evening grosbeaks, jays, Clark's nutcrackers, nuthatches, white-throated sparrows, rufous-sided towhees, turkeys, chipmunks and squirrels. The pine needles are important food of blue and spruce grouses. The pine bark is fair food for beavers, and is used by porcupines which sometimes damage the trees.  Nuthatches dig nest holes in dead trees.

Traditional uses:  Ponderosa pine was employed medicinally by several native North American Indian tribes, who valued it especially for its antiseptic properties, using it to treat a range of skin problems, cuts, wounds, burns etc. It was also valued for its beneficial effect upon the respiratory system and was used to treat various chest and lung complaints. The turpentine obtained from the resin of all pine trees is antiseptic.  The inner bark of the ponderosa pine can be eaten raw or cooked and the seed, which is rich in oil, can be ground up to make a flour used in bread-making.