Ponderosa pines have long history in the foothills

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By Sylvia Brockner

I am still at Elk Run Assisted Living and therefore my list of birds seen this week is limited and small.

Out of my windows, which are on a corner and look both north and east, I have seen very few birds. A pair of robins have a nest nearby, a small flock of house finches flit in and out of some nearby shrubs several times a day, and 10 common crows spend a good bit of time each day picking up bits of food dropped by the children on a nearby school playground.

This seems to be an endless supply of food, which is renewed each day. I wonder if the children eat even half of their lunches or what proportion of it is dropped to be consumed later by the crows. At any rate, they have found a good thing and clean the playground thoroughly every afternoon.

With my less-than-exciting list of three species of birds, I tried to look at botanical objects.

Most of the area around the buildings is mowed, so there is little to see other than spring green grass, which has already been mowed once this year. In one small area below my window is a low mound, which I think was once a flowerbed.

Because of its mound shape, it has not been mowed, and I can see tall grass and some wild mustard with their four-petaled bright yellow flowers growing there. This mustard is also very common in nearby Elk Meadow, so I am not surprised to see it here.

The only other flowers I see are dabs of golden yellow dandelions among the mowed grass. I have always loved dandelions from the time I was big enough to blow their fluffy seeds from the flower heads and still do to this day, even if most people despise them because they grow in their lawn. If they were just a bit rarer and difficult to find, they would be listed as a flowering weed, but almost everywhere they are on the local noxious weed list because they are neither rare nor native.

The best part of the view from my window is a large ponderosa pine that is probably no more than 30 feet away. My guess is that this tree is about 100 years old, and it probably is more amazed at what it sees around it than I am.

Ponderosa pines are very slow growing. During their first 25 years, they barely make enough growth to compete with the tall grasses.

Ponderosa pines are sun lovers and keep reaching up to keep their crown in the sun. They come up in groups where their seeds have fallen and now begin to shade each other out. Smaller, weaker trees die out, lower branches die on the trees as the trunks grow straight and tall, reaching for the sun. The tree outside my window is old enough that I can see the irregular scales of bark, and the tree trunk gleams red in the morning sun. Therefore, this pine is also called “red pine” by the men who cut them.

They are also often called “yellow pine” by lumbermen and contractors, and are the most commonly cut timber tree in the western states.

However, this may change in the near future because ponderosa pines are so slow growing, a man can seldom profit from planting them in his lifetime. Other trees that grow more rapidly are preferred for reforesting cut-over areas and are more commonly used in areas that have enough moisture to support them.

It is the yellow color of the freshly cut timber that gives it the common name of yellow pine. As ponderosa pines grow older, the bark thickens and forms a scaly appearance on the trees. It is so thick that it can withstand minor fires, and many old ponderosa pines show charcoal burned areas around their bases. Yet, thanks to their thick bark, they have survived.

The name ponderosa comes from the latin and means heavy. So, these trees are well named for the wood is very heavy. The tree grows in many parts of the west. The bigger trees grow farther west where there is more rainfall.

Our local ponderosa pines are a small subspecies that has developed in our drier climate. Yellow pine is still the most available timber in most of the world. It is used in many forms of construction.

It is not unusual to see big ponderosa pines in yards in the area, where they have been protected over the years, but few trees seen locally are more than 200 to 300 years old because the older ones having been cut for timber in the yearly days. However, you can see many places where ponderosa pines were cut and dragged so today there are rows of ponderosa pines when the seeds feel into their roadside ditches.

This could be a sadly barren area were it not for the ponderosa pines because the only other trees that grow here are willows, blue spruce and Douglas fir, all of which grow in the stream valleys or on north-facing slopes where they get more moisture. We should be thankful for the sun-loving ponderosas.