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Ponderosa pines brighten the spring mountain scenery

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By Sylvia Brockner

It is not unusual in the mountains to have winter finally give way to summer with hardly a day of spring in between. The mountains are never more beautiful than they are in June.
It seems like everything turns green overnight from grassy meadows to new aspen leaves; even the new growth on pines, spruces and Douglas fir are green. The ponderosa pines that have appeared almost black all winter are washed clean by the spring rains and new growth is starting at every branch tip. They suddenly appear to be alive and they are in bloom.
The male flowers are beginning to shed their pollen. On windy days, you can see the pollen as it is blown in great yellow clouds across the mountains. In less windy weather, it falls and collects on the ground, on picnic tables, patios and puddles, bringing misery to people who are allergic to it. Once it becomes damp, it no longer blows about as much.
Pollen is designed to be light and fluffy so that it can travel on the wind to pollinate ponderosa pines far away. This assures cross pollination and healthy vigorous offspring. Early moisture and dry buoyant weather during the time of pollination occurs cyclically about every seven to 10 years. So we do not have a big cone crop every year. When the flowers are fertilized, it still takes a year and a half for the cones to ripen and mature. Usually, in a big cone year, the cones are both big in size and in numbers. This is the time to collect them for craft work and making wreaths, or for seeds to start your own seedlings.
Most years, the pollen reaches it peak here during the last two weeks of June. By the Fourth of July, most of the local pollen is gone and the faded male flowers begin to fall to the ground, returning nutrients to the soil. This year, I thought the pollen started a bit earlier than usual, which seemed odd since in other ways we seemed to have a late spring.
For those of you who are allergic to pine pollen, you are not out of the woods yet for just as the trees at lower elevations are through blooming, those at higher elevations begin. Lodgepole, limber and bristlecone pines all bloom later than our ponderosa pines and are still casting pollen often well into August. So, the pollen season is not over yet. The pollen from high elevations is carried to us on every eastern wind. Even Denver has pine pollen in its air.
In June, our ponderosa pines reach their peak and in July, August and September, they are at their magnificent best. New needles on every branch tip make them a lighter green that glistens in the sun. The wind sings in their branches, and a thousand scintillating branch tips sparkle in the sun. The ponderosa pine is indeed a beautiful tree. Its love of the sun makes it grow straight and tall, the prize tree of the west. They are long-lived, and we still have a few 200- and 300-year-old trees in the area. A mature ponderosa pine forest is like a great cathedral, the trunks are straight and tall, there is no undergrowth, just a thick carpet of pine needles. It is magnificent, awesome and humbling to walk through its stately corridors.
The blue and lavender narrow-leaved mertensia are in bloom on our hillside. This is just one of the four species of chiming bells found on the eastern slope. Golden banner seems to be abundant this year. It is a member of the pea family and is a native wildflower but because of its deep perennial root system, has become a problem in some areas, causing it to be put on some weed lists.
Golden banner becomes a problem when land is over-grazed. All of the more tender herbaceous plants are eaten off and their roots destroyed by hooves. Golden banner is seldom eaten by animals, and its very long deep roots are not destroyed by hoof traffic, therefore it thrives when all other plans have been killed off.
They grow at all altitudes from the plains to timberline and so their golden banners march up the mountains from May through July. They can be killed off with some chemical sprays, but talk to the Jefferson County weed expert to find out what is both safe and effective. Use it carefully, so you don’t kill off other plants or pollute your water supply. Once your pasture is restored, cut back on the amount of grazing. Summer lies ahead of us. It is the best time to be outdoors, and there is no better place to be outdoors than in Colorado.