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Ponderosa pine

Pinus ponderosa subsp. ponderosa Identification Guide
Conservation status
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
Division: Pinophyta
Class: Pinopsida
Order: Pinales
Family: Pinaceae
Genus: Pinus
Subgenus: Pinus
Species: P. ponderosa
Binomial name
Pinus ponderosa
Douglas ex C.Lawson
Range map of Pinus ponderosa and Pinus arizonica

Pinus ponderosa, commonly known as the ponderosa pine, bull pine, blackjack pine,[1] or western yellow pine, is a very large pine tree of variable habit native to western North America, but widespread throughout the temperate world. It was first described by David Douglas in 1826, from eastern Washington near present-day Spokane. It is the official state tree of the State of Montana.

The fire cycle for ponderosa pines is five to 10 years, in which a natural ignition sparks a low-intensity fire.[2]


P. ponderosa is a large coniferous evergreen tree. The bark helps to distinguish it from other species. Mature individuals have cinnamon-red bark with black crevices. Younger trees have black to reddish-brown bark. The tree can often be identified by its characteristic long needles that grow in tufts of two to four (or five)[3] depending on subspecies.

Sources differ on the scent. Some state that it has no distinctive scent,[4] while others state that the bark smells like vanilla if sampled from a furrow of the bark.[5] Sources agree that the Jeffrey pine is more strongly scented than the ponderosa pine.[4][6]


The National Register of Big Trees lists a ponderosa pine that is 235 ft (72 m) tall and 324 in (820 cm) in circumference.[7] In January 2011, a Pacific ponderosa pine in Siskiyou National Forest in Oregon was measured with a laser to be 268.35 ft (81.79 m) high. The measurement was performed by Michael Taylor and Mario Vaden, a professional arborist from Oregon. The tree was climbed on October 13, 2011, by Ascending The Giants (a tree climbing company in Portland, Oregon) and directly measured with tape-line at 268.29 ft (81.77 m) high.[8][9] This is now the tallest known pine. The previous tallest known pine was a sugar pine.


This species is grown as an ornamental plant in parks and large gardens.[10]

Use in nuclear testing

During Operation Upshot-Knothole, a nuclear test was performed where 145 trees were cut down by the United States Forest Service and transported to Area 5 of the Nevada Test Site, where they were planted into the ground and exposed to a nuclear blast to see what the blast wave would do to a forest.[11]

Ecology and distribution

P. ponderosa is a dominant tree in the Kuchler plant association, the Ponderosa shrub forest. Like most western pines, the ponderosa is associated with mountainous topography. It is found on the Black Hills and on foothills and mid-height peaks of the northern, central and southern Rocky Mountains as well as the Cascades, Okanagan Valley and Sierra Nevada, and the maritime coast range ponderosa pine forests.

P. ponderosa needles are the only known food of the caterpillars of the gelechiid moth Chionodes retiniella.[12] Blue stain fungus, Grosmannia clavigera, attacks P. Ponderosa from the mouth of the mountain pine beetle.


Modern forestry research identifies four different taxa of P. ponderosa, with differing botanical characters and adapted to different climatic conditions. These have been termed "geographic races" in forestry literature, while some botanists historically treated them as distinct species. In modern botanical usage, they best match the rank of subspecies, but not all of the relevant botanical combinations have been formally published.


  1. P. ponderosa subsp. ponderosa Douglas ex C. Lawson – (North Plateau ponderosa pine).
    • Range & climate: southeast British Columbia, Washington State and Oregon east of the Cascade Range, Arizona, northwestern Nevada, Idaho and western Montana. Cool, relatively moist summers; very cold, snowy winters (except in the very hot and very dry summers of central Oregon, most notably near Bend, which also has very cold and generally dry winters).
  2. P. ponderosa subsp. scopulorum (Engelm.) E. Murray (Rocky Mountains ponderosa pine).
    • Range & climate: eastern Montana, North & South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, northern and central Colorado and Utah, and eastern Nevada. Warm, relatively dry summers; very cold, fairly dry winters.
  3. Pinus brachyptera Engelm. (South western ponderosa pine)
    • Range & climate: southern Colorado, southern Utah, northern and central New Mexico and Arizona, and westernmost Texas. The Gila Wilderness contains one of the world's largest and healthiest forests.[13] Hot, relatively moist summers; mild winters.
  4. P. benthamiana Hartw. (Pacific ponderosa pine)
    • Range & climate: Washington State, Oregon west of the Cascade Range, California, and just into westernmost Nevada. Hot, dry summers; mild wet winters.

The distributions of the subspecies, and that of the closely related Arizona pine (Pinus arizonica) are shown on the map. The numbers on the map correspond to the taxon numbers above and in the table below. The base map of the species range is from Critchfield & Little, Geographic Distribution of the Pines of the World, USDA Forest Service Miscellaneous Publication 991 (1966).

Before the distinctions between the North Plateau race and the Pacific race were fully documented, most botanists assumed that ponderosa pines in both areas were the same. So when two botanists from California found a distinct tree in western Nevada in 1948 with some marked differences from the ponderosa pine they were familiar with in California, they described it as a new species, Washoe pine, Pinus washoensis. However, subsequent research has shown that this is merely a southern outlier of the typical North Plateau race of ponderosa pine.

An additional variety, tentatively named P. ponderosa var. willamettensis, is found in the Willamette Valley in western Oregon, but is now rare.[14]

Distinguishing subspecies

 Taxon  1 North Plateau   2 Rocky Mts   3 Southwest   4 Pacific     5 Arizona   6 Storm's 
 Character  (ponderosa  (scopulorum  (brachyptera  (benthamiana    (arizonica  (stormiae
 Needles per fascicle  3  2–3  2–3  3    4–5  3–5
 Needle length  10–22 cm  8–17 cm  12–21 cm  15–30 cm    12–22 cm  20–30 cm
 Needle thickness  1.7–2.2 mm  1.5–1.7 mm  1.6–1.9 mm  1.3–1.7 mm    1.0–1.1 mm  1.0–1.2 mm
 Cone length  5–11 cm  5–9 cm  5–10 cm  7–16 cm    5–9 cm  6–11 cm
 Cone scale width  14–19 mm  16–20 mm  14–19 mm  18–23 mm    15–18 mm  12–17 mm
 Immature cone colour  purple  green  green  green    green  green
 Mature cone surface  matte  matte  glossy  glossy    glossy  matte
 Seedwing to seed length ratio   1.9–2.5  2.1–3.4  3.0–3.5  3.0–4.7    2.8–3.2  3.0–3.5
 Max tree height  50 m  40 m  50 m  81 m    35 m  20 m
 USDA hardiness zone  4  4  6  7    7  8

Taxon numbers refer to the map
Needles per fascicle – the most frequent number is in bold
Seedwing : seed length ratio – high numbers indicate a small seed with a long wing; low numbers a large seed with a short seedwing


  • Conifer Specialist Group (1998). Pinus ponderosa. 2006. Retrieved on 12 May 2006.
  • Baumgartner, D. M. & Lotan, J. E. (eds.) (1988). Ponderosa Pine the species and its management. Symposium proceedings. Cooperative Extension, Washington State University.
  • Conkle, M. T. & Critchfield, W. B. (1988). Genetic Variation and Hybridization of Ponderosa Pine. Pp. 27–44 in Baumgartner, D. M. & Lotan, J. E. (eds.).
  • Critchfield, W. B. (1984). Crossability and relationships of Washoe Pine. Madroño 31: 144-170.
  • Farjon, A. (2nd ed., 2005). Pines. Brill, Leiden & Boston. ISBN 90-04-13916-8.
  • Haller, J. R. (1961). Some recent observations on Ponderosa, Jeffrey and Washoe Pines in Northeastern California. Madroño 16: 126-132.
  • Haller, J. R. (1965). Pinus washoensis in Oregon: taxonomic and evolutionary implications. Amer. J. Bot. 52: 646.
  • Haller, J. R. (1965). The role of 2-needle fascicles in the adaptation and evolution of Ponderosa Pine. Brittonia 17: 354-382.
  • Lauria, F. (1991). Taxonomy, systematics, and phylogeny of Pinus subsection Ponderosae Loudon (Pinaceae). Alternative concepts. Linzer Biol. Beitr. 23 (1): 129-202.
  • Lauria, F. (1996). The identity of Pinus ponderosae Douglas ex C.Lawson (Pinaceae). Linzer Biol. Beitr. 28 (2): 99-1052.
  • Lauria, F. (1996). Typification of Pinus benthamiana Hartw. (Pinaceae), a taxon deserving renewed botanical examination. Ann. Naturhist. Mus. Wien 98 (B Suppl.): 427-446.
  • Smith, R. H. (1977). Monoterpenes of Ponderosa Pine xylem resin. USDA Tech. Bull. 1532.
  • Smith, R. H. (1981). Variation in Immature Cone Color of Ponderosa Pine (Pinaceae) inNorthern California and Southern Oregon. Madroño 28: 272-274.
  • Van Haverbeke, D. F. (1986). Genetic Variation in Ponderosa Pine: A 15-Year Test of Provenances in the Great Plains. USDA Forest Service Research Paper RM-265.
  • Wagener, W. W. (1960). A comment on cold susceptibility of ponderosa and Jeffrey pines. Madroño 15: 217-219.

Further reading

  • , Bulletin No. 95, pp. 17-20 retrieved Nov. 13, 2011

External links

  • - Photo Gallery
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