Plant Guide > Trees > Pines > Western Yellow Pine Tree

Western Yellow Pine Tree

Western Yellow Pine TreeWestern Yellow Pine (P. ponderosa, Laws.)--Spire-like tree with stout, short horizontal branches; too to 23o feet high, with trunk 5 to 8 feet thick. Bark thick, cinnamon-red, sometimes black, becoming furrowed and broken into large plates. Wood light red, strong, hard, very heavy, not durable, fine grained. Buds ovate, brown, scaly, tern-final the largest. Leaves in threes, or in twos and threes, stout, rigid, shiny, 3 to 15 inches long, yellow-green, tufted on ends of naked branches; last till third season: sheath persistent. Flowers: staminate yellow, in crowded spikes; pistillate dark red, oval, subterminal, clustered or paired. Fruits green or purple when full grown; scales conspicuously beaked, with recurved point. Preferred habitat, deep, well-drained soil on mountain slopes or elevated plains. Distribution, British Columbia and Black Hills south through Rocky Mountains and coast ranges to Texas and Mexico. Uses: Principal lumber tree of Northwestern and Southwestern states. Used in building, for railroad ties, fencing and fuel.

The most extensive pine forests in the world are those of the yellow pine in the mountainous West of our own country. The hardihood of this tree is the wonder of foresters and botanists, and the admiration of everybody who knows anything about it. Pines are particular trees, as a rule. They like one type of soil and climate, and out of their chosen range are unhappy and unhealthy. But here is it species which seems to have forgotten family traditions, and become a citizen of the world, as far as that is possible. It grows to great size in the arid foothills of southern Oregon, where the soil is volcanic in origin. In the Black Hills it roots itself solidly in sterile rocky soil, and is the dominant tree of these mountain forests. In the arid Southwest, on mountain and mesa, this tree is the principal source of lumber. It is the only pine tree native to Nebraska that thrives in the droughty western counties. This is the tree that inhabits the western slopes of the coast mountains from British Columbia to Lower California, as if the moisture-laden winds from the Pacific were the very breath of life to it. Finally, the same tree is found wading into swamps on the slopes of the Cascades. Its elevation ranges from 2,500 feet to the timber line.

A tree that clambers over mountains and meets so much variety of soil, elevation and climate must show variations in character to adapt it to its life. In the old lake basins on the Sierra slopes it reaches the height of 200 feet and more-with a trunk diameter up to 8 feet. These are the giants of the species, var. Jeffreyi. In swamps, and near the timber line the trees are stunted, and have black bark, in distinct contrast with the bright-red rind of the typical tree. Several species have already been made out of the forms this tree assumes in various situations. Closer study will doubtless lead to still finer distinctions. The common origin of these forms is not doubted; they are all P. ponderosa.

Knowing something of the extensive range of this tree, we are ready to appreciate the beauty of a single specimen. The central shaft rises like a spire, rugged if old, and massive at the base, lifting its head far into the blue and clothing itself with short, leafy branches most of the way down, if there is room. The young trees, under loo feet high, are pictures of tree vigour, still " having the dew of their youth and the beauty thereof," waving their arms, that catch and reflect the light upon burnished needles. Against the dark-green mantle the ruddy flowers and purple cones glow in their season, and new leaves lighten the whole tree throughout the summer.
The habit of breaking off its cones and leaving the stem and the first few scales still hanging is one of the characteristics of the various forms of P. ponderosa. On this the botanists leaned content, until, alack! somebody breaks the reed by announcing an exception! The wood is so heavy that the logs have to dry for a while before they can be floated down stream to the mills. Hence, Ponderosa.

The name is not the point of greatest interest. If there is to be a re-christening by the botanists we shall hear of it in good season. Let us take a hand, though, in blotting out the name, " bull pine," absurd and meaningless as it is misleading. It has been given variously by ignorant frontiersmen to any pine that attains large dimensions.

The yellow pine was first discovered by the members of the Lewis and Clark expedition, in 1804, while they were going up the Missouri River. Twenty-two later, David Douglas found the trees growing near the Spokane River. He suggested then the name they now bear, because of their ponderous bulk, and sent seeds and young plants to European gardeners.

In cultivation the tree does fairly well in the Eastern States and in Europe, though slow of growth and liable to disease. The best form in cultivation is var. Jeffreyi.

The Indians of the West long ago discovered that though the seeds of the yellow pine are inedible, yet the inner bark in spring is sweet and nutritious. So they stripped and scraped the bark for its mucilaginous living layer. The branchlets are fragrant, giving out when crushed an odour as of orange peel.