In his book A Natural History of Western Trees, Donald Culross Peattie wrote, “If you know your West at all, you know its Yellow [Ponderosa] Pine.” From Mexico to Montana, California to British Columbia, the stately ponderosa pine covers vast amounts of acreage in the west. Growing generally in areas with less than 20” of annual precipitation, these pine forests cloak the mesas and plateaus of the Southwest, the eastern sides of the Sierras and Cascades, and the is the State Tree of Montana.
Locally, the “back side” of the La Sals has extensive ponderosa groves, and ponderosa forests cloaks portions of the Abajos and Elk Ridge. Smaller pockets or stringers of pondos exist within some of the higher elevation canyons in the area.
Long before the first explorers ventured west, the Native Americans in the Northwest knew of the ponderosa and how to use fire to hollow out a tree to make a dugout canoe. In the Southwest, the early inhabitants used ponderosas for construction materials in their pithouses and dwellings. Ponderosas were harvested as poles from small trees for roof beams, and in multi-roomed dwellings ponderosa beams were incorporated into the structures. Chaco Canyon, in northwestern New Mexico, included extensive amounts of ponderosas in construction, many of the trees brought down from the surrounding mesas.
Though the early Spaniards venturing into the Southwest undoubtedly observe ponderosas, one of the earliest mentions of the trees was in 1540 by Francisco Vasquez de Coronado who made a reference to the “pillars of pines” used by the natives. Pinyons don’t grow so stately, so he must have been writing about the ponderosas.
During the Lewis & Clark Corps of Discovery expedition in the early 1800s across the west, the explorers collected specimens of the Y-shaped pine needles arranged in bundles of 3, but lost these before returning home. They referred to these as the “long-leafed pines” and wrote that, “The long-leafed pine forms the principle timber of the neighborhoud [sic].” The Scottish botanist/plant collector David Douglas is credited with introducing the ponderosa to science, “rediscovering” the plant near what is now Spokane, Washington. He named the plant Pinus ponderosa or Ponderosa pine; the name “ponderosa” referring to the significant stature of the trees.
Over the years, ponderosas would be, and still are, called a variety of names: yellow-bellies, blackjacks, bull pines, pondos or pumpkins. The names suggest rapid growth (bull pines), dense stands of young, dark trees (blackjacks), or old growth trees with an orangish bark (pumpkins). Their wood is harvested for lumber and firewood; during the Civil War the trees were tapped for their volatile turpenes which were turned into turpentine. These compounds give the trees a vanilla or butterscotch-like aroma.
In addition to human uses, ponderosa pine forests provide habitat for a wealth of bird and animal species. Northern goshawks nest in the tall pines and prey upon a variety of birds and mammals that inhabit the forests such as Steller’s jays, northern flickers, grouse, chipmunks and squirrels.
Nuthatches and woodpeckers probe the bark for insect larvae leaving holes or flaked-off pieces of bark in their wake. The woodpeckers also excavate nest cavities in the trees which provide nest sites for a host of secondary cavity nesters like bluebirds, house wrens, tree swallows and pygmy owls.
The forests also support different animals such as elk, deer, bear, coyote, bobcat, rabbits and rodents. It is a rare occurrence to not see any wildlife while passing through these forests.
Just like the numerous names for ponderosa pines, there is a wealth of wildlife and plant life that inhabits these “forest neighborhoods,” earning their praise from historic and modern-day adventurers.