Take advantage of the changing seasons

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By Sylvia Brockner

From Oct. 1, 2008


It is a warm “summer” day, even if fall has arrived. While out on the patio enjoying the warm temperature, I noticed several patches of pine resin that were gathering the fallen scales of pine cones in their viscous, gooey puddles.

Why, I wondered, are they oozing sap in the fall? Then I remembered that evergreen trees, unlike deciduous trees, retain sap in their evergreen needles (modified leaves) all year. The resin acts like an antifreeze to prevent the needles from being damaged by frost. It also makes it possible for evergreens to manufacture food by photosynthesis whenever the temperature reaches the level needed for the process.

The dripping of sap onto our patio was caused by the tips of branches being snipped off by the red squirrel in an effort to acquire the cones; he then shucked off the scales to obtain the seeds beneath. The scales floated down onto the patio, where the wind blew them into the resinous sap.

What amazing trees our ponderosa pines are. Pinus ponderosa are the most abundant timber trees of our Western forests. I have admired these magnificent trees at every season but especially in the fall. On such a day as this, they are brilliant, glowing, as facets of sunlight dance from every needle. No diamond could glitter more. And certainly could not smell as sweet.

The sun-warmed resinous sap of the ponderosa pine has a scent that always reminds me of pouring vanilla extract into hot fudge. However, it is a more robust, pungent, yet sweet aroma. This thick sap oozes from any break in the bark, healing the wound be it from wind, beetle, frisky squirrel or woodpecker.

This is the time of year to collect cones for holiday decorating and to see that pine needles do in fact fall. True, they do not fall every year but do fall as soon as they no longer receive enough sunlight.

Ponderosa pines grow in a conical shape, with the new growth at the tip of every branch, where it gets most of the sun. Usually two years of growth prevent the three-year growth below from receiving enough sunlight, thus causing those needles to turn brown and fall off. While the trees are always green every year, the 3-year-old needles fall sometime during the fall and winter. This leaves the tree ready for next spring’s tip growth of male and female cones and new green needles.

The female cones, which are formed each spring, take a year and a half to develop. During the first growing season, they only develop a small cone. During the second growing season, they are fertilized and begin to grow rapidly. After this summer growth, they mature, and the warm days of late August and early September see the cone scales open so the seeds can fall. Then the cones detach at the base scales, and they also fall to the ground.

Most books list the ponderosa pine as having cones from 2.5 to 6 inches long. The size seems to vary with the soil moisture and nutrition where the tree grows, as well as their age. The seeds are about a quarter-inch long and are attached to a wing of about 1 inch. The weight of the seed causes them to spiral on the way down. The seed has no hard outer coat so it cannot pass unharmed through the intestinal tract of an animal. Therefore, the thousands of seeds that are eaten every year by chipmunks, squirrels, birds and other animals are lost as far as producing new forests.

However, those that land in a safe spot where they receive both sunlight and moisture will germinate the following spring.

Most books list ponderosa pines as growing 150 to 180 feet and 3 to 4 inches in diameter, but this too varies with location. The maximum size ponderosa pines are found on the Pacific Coast, where they receive more precipitation.

A record tree was recorded in Washington state at 175 feet high and 84 inches in diameter. Another tree was measured by John Muir in the Sierra Nevada Mountains at 220 feet high and an 8-foot diameter trunk — a tree I wish I could have seen.

Our ponderosa pines locally are of the variety scopulorum, which seldom exceeds 60 to 125 feet in height and a diameter of 20 to 30 inches. But even our trees will respond to moisture and may occasionally be larger. Of all the praise one can heap on ponderosa pines, nothing can equal the music the wind makes in their branches. From a gentle soughing in a soft summer breeze to a mighty freight train roar in a storm, they sing their way through every weather condition.

The tensile strength of their tall trunks is also amazing as they sway back and forth in a storm almost as much as the width of their crown.

The most beautiful grove of ponderosa pines I have ever seen was somewhere along the border of Texas and New Mexico. We had been wandering back roads looking for birds and suddenly found ourselves in a climax ponderosa pine forest. It must have covered about 5 acres or more. Every stem was tall and straight and had shed all its lower limbs. The crowns touched the sunlight above, and walking on the forest floor was like walking on a thick carpet.

Layers of duff and needles covered the floors so deeply that the acidity prevented any understory from growing. You could have waltzed beneath those trees without harm to the finest gown.

I wanted to try it, but somehow my jeans didn’t seem appropriate for such a grand ballroom, so I just walked in silent awe.