P is for Pine

Whenever I write about a tree, I feel like I always introduce it as “one of my favourite trees.”  The western redcedar, the “tree of life” to many west coast peoples, is one of my favourite trees.  So is the Douglas-fir, the tree of the forests I grew up in, and the trembling aspen, and of course also the maple, mountain-ash, larch, apple, and many more.  I love all trees.  But if I had to name just one favourite tree, I think that tree would be the ponderosa pine.

The ponderosa pine is a beautiful and majestic tree that dominates the landscape.  Its very name suggests its size and majesty: ponderosa is Latin for “of great weight”.  Also known as the yellow pine, bull pine, and rock pine, this is a tree of western North America, growing from southern British Columbia to southern California in dry, sunny, open woodlands.  It has long needles that grow in bundles of three; the needles are long enough that some people use them to make pine needle baskets.  I own one of these baskets, and even today, years after it was made, it still carries within it the unmistakable scent of pine needles.  The bark is unmistakable; it is a beautiful orange- to reddish-brown colour and flakes off in pieces that most people liken to the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.  The cones are just the right size to fit in your hand, but the prickles on the cone scales are sharp.

Ponderosa pine growing at cliff's edge

The ponderosa pine is a tree that can survive wildfires – an important adaptation for a tree that grows in a hot, dry climate.  Wildfires occur naturally and regularly in ponderosa pine forests (perhaps every 5 to 20 years).  The dry grasses that grow in the understorey and the fallen pine needles provide an ideal fuel for ground fires.  The thick bark of a mature ponderosa pine protects it from these fires, and the tree can survive even if the crown is partially burned.  I have seen many old pines with bark blackened by past fires, yet the trees themselves still thrive.  However, seedlings, shrubs, and competing trees growing in the understorey will not survive the fire.  Fire then is beneficial for the mature ponderosa pines, as it reduces competition for the limited water supply in the dry forest.

Ponderosa pine forests are among my favourite places to walk.  The forests are open (usually described as “park-like”) and dominated by widely-spaced large trees.  Grasses and wildflowers (such as balsamroot) cover the ground.  This kind of landscape is perhaps more like a savanna (a grassland that contains some trees) than it is a true forest.  Unlike the dense, dark, moist coastal forests that can feel closed-in, ponderosa pine woodlands are open and bright.  The sunlight shines down through the trees onto the gently waving grasses, and the lack of dense underbrush encourages you to wander.  The trees themselves seem to have a very solid, calm presence.  Their bark is fragrant, and fills the forest with a characteristic aroma.  (Some have said that the bark smells like vanilla, and – having tested this for myself – I can say that it really does!)

Ponderosa pine bark

Of course, I’m not the only one who loves the ponderosa pine.  Deer, elk, and bighorn sheep may use the pine forests for their winter range, and the pine seeds are eaten by many birds and small mammals.  The thick, flaking bark provides habitat for many insects, which in turn feed insectivorous birds.  Woodpeckers both forage in the bark and excavate their nesting cavities in the decaying wood.  These cavities can then be re-used by many other animals, such as small mammals, owls, and tree-nesting ducks, while bats may roost in spaces under the bark.

If I were to craft a mythology of the land I live on, the ponderosa pine would be an important part of that mythology.  It is a tree I feel familiar and comfortable with.  It occurs in many of my best memories and favourite places.  The ponderosa pine’s ability to withstand destructive forests fires awes me, and a walk through a pine forest always leaves me feeling uplifted.  And perhaps all of that is at least part of why it is my favourite tree.

Do you have a favourite tree?


Previous post: O is for Owl.  Next post: Q is for Quail.


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