The tale of a 41-year-old ponderosa pine

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Our Evergreen World

After an unusually hot spell during the first two weeks of June, the weather has returned to the June normal of hot sunny days and cold nights. However, I am glad to be able to keep my windows closed for it keeps out a bit of the pine pollen.

This is the time of the “yellow peril” for about 10 days to two weeks at the end of June. The male pinecones ripen on the ponderosa pines, and for those who suffer from pollen allergies, it is a difficult time.
Ponderosa pines have a particularly heavy set of male cones this year, and the gusts of wind form yellow sheets of pollen across the foothills. When I wake up each morning, I look into the branches of a ponderosa pine just outside my window. This morning, it appeared to be studded with diamonds that were sparkling in the early morning sun. It had rained during the night, and their normally burnished needles were more sparkling than usual because each one had a rain drop dangling from its tip. A sudden gust of wind set the branch swaying, and soon all the “diamonds” disappeared. It had been a beautiful sight and a great way to start my day.
No tree is more symbolic of the western states than the ponderosa pine. Known as western yellow pine to the lumber industry, it is second only to the Douglas fir in the amount of lumber produced each year. Our local trees are rather small due to the rather poor soil and lack of moisture on the eastern slope, but this pine is found in all of the western states, and the huge Jeffrey pine of California fame is a subspecies of the same tree. Most of the trees in this area are fairly old because the summer resort use of the area in the past tended to preserve the trees. Only a few were cut to increase pasture land for grazing or to clear crop land. However, farmers found there was little that they could grow here in our short summer, so most gave up and raised beef instead.
Studying the top of my ponderosa with my binoculars, I can see there are three generations of cones on the tree at this time. There were tiny, tiny new little green cones just forming that were this year’s growth and small brown cones that were formed last spring that will continue to grow through this growing season. There also were old cones that ripened at the end of last year’s growing season and have already lost most of their seeds, but haven’t fallen from the tree.
On a late summer morning in 1971, I was weeding one of the flowerbeds when a ponderosa pinecone fell from the tree above me and hit me on the head. It rolled to a stop, lodged against a stepping stone I hade place in the garden, and there it lay all winter.
On May 30, 1972, I was working in the same flowerbed and came upon the fallen cone. When I picked it up, I discovered a cluster of eight seedlings just sprouting from the seeds that had fallen from the cone. I knew they couldn’t grow there in the flowerbed, so I dug them up and planted one where it had room to grow. I now had a known-age seedling, and by fall, it was a sturdy little seedling.
I moved it the next spring for one last time to the hillside where I wanted it to grow with others of its kinds and so I could keep track of it over the years.
All of the books say that ponderosa pines are very slow growing for many years, which is unusual in timber trees. However, it did grow, and I even gave it a bit of supplemental water when we had exceptionally dry periods. It did grow very slowly at first, but it finally grew large enough so that I could see it above the grass. Finally, when it was 17 years old in May 1989, it finally looked like a small tree with both a top header and a whorl of side limbs to show for the past year’s growth. It stood 34 inches high.
Today I measured it again, and it stands 95 inches tall and has celebrated its 41st birthday. From now on, I expect it to make better annual growth for it is beginning to look like a tree. But it is a very slow starter. And I now know that trees I took to be about 25 years old when we moved into this house were probably much older than that.
Young ponderosa pines have side branches all the way down to the grass level. As they grow older, some of these develop into big branches and the smaller ones die off due to too much shade. This leaves a tall straight trunk on older trees, which produce good timber. Although I have found references that claim they mature at 150 years of age, others say they mature at 250 years. They all seem to agree that they are very resinous and stand as mature trees for many years without decaying. There seem to be many records of 500-year-old trees. At any rate, they are great trees that will most certainly outlive me.