The Ponderosa pine is popular as a specimen or ornamental tree for its moderate to fast growth, green foliage, interesting bark texture and cinnamon-colored bark, pleasant aroma, large ornamental cones, and its size. It can be used for windbreak, buffer strip, highway, reclamation, lumber, and in the landscape as a mass planting. The mature thick bark helps to make it fire resistant, and its deep taproot very wind resistant. It is long lived to hundreds of years old.
The Ponderosa pine is a large, straight trunked tree with a wide, open, irregularly cylindrical crown. The narrow to broad pyramidal crown on young trees flattens out on old trees with lower branch loss. The bark on the young trees is blackish or dark red-brown and furrowed, and on mature trees yellow brown to russet broken up into scaly plates separated by deep, irregular fissures. The thick bark makes it very resistant to wild fires. Dark gray-green, olive or yellow green needles are in threes, rarely two or five. The reddish brown or tan cone scales have prickly tips. This is a yellow pine with yellow or light brown heartwood. The root system is wide spreading with a deep taproot. Moderate to rapid growth rates vary within the species. Ponderosa pine grows best in full sun and deep, moist, well drained soil, but will adapt to a wide range of soil and growing conditions including alkaline, dry, low humidity, wind,and high elevation. It is highly drought tolerant once established. It is damaged by late frosts and is intolerant of shade. Under cultivation it grows 60'-100' with a 25'-30' spread, and 150'-230' in the wild.
The seeds provide food for birds and small mammals particularly turkeys, nuthatches, crossbills, grosbeaks, pine siskins, grouse, squirrels, chipmunks, and mice. The leaves, twigs, and bark are browsed by porcupines, mule deer, and elk. Snags provide a large number of wildlife species with nesting and roosting sites.
Ponderosa pine has two recognized varieties: Ponderosa pine var. ponderosa, Pacific ponderosa pine; Ponderosa pine var. scopulorum, Rocky Mountain ponderosa pine. Each variety has two or three races. It is one of the the most widely distributed pines in western North America. It occupies diverse habitats throughout the west from southern British Columbia to Mexico, and Nebraska and Oklahoma to the Pacific coast.
The Scottish botanist David Douglas named this pine for its ponderous or heavy wood. Ponderosa pine forests are valuable for timber production, livestock grazing, recreation, and wildlife habitat. Other common names are western yellow pine, western longleaf pine, bull, ponderosa white, and black jack pine for the black, furrowed bark on the trunks of small trees (blackjacks.)
Native Americans used the inner bark for emergency flour and boiled the young cones for emergency food. In the spring the bark was scraped and eaten raw as a sweet treat. Inner bark gum was used for medicine. The needles were steeped to make a tea.
The ponderosa pine prefers moist, well drained soil, but will grow in dry, arid areas and is highly drought when tolerant well established. It is intolerant of excessively wet sites or sites with poor drainage.
The needles are sharp, stiff but flexible, 5"-10" long, densely crowded on the branchlets in bundles of three (sometimes two), dark-gray green or yellowish green. They persist on the tree for three years and then turn brown and are shed.
Male flower is yellow, female is red purple in pairs
Cones are solitary or in groups of 3-5, 3"-6" long, light reddish brown, matte or glossy. May be produced as early as seven years with irregular good crops depending upon the variety.