Kerry Peetz
/ Categories: Opinion, Commentary


By Kerry Peetz

We are blessed, in our diocese, to have an abundance of ponderosa pines growing and providing wonderous beauty for all to enjoy.

The ponderosa pine, also known as the yellow pine, is one of the most widely distributed tree species in the West, growing from southern Canada into Mexico.

Pine trees can be difficult to identify but the ponderosa is a cinch. The needles are 5-10 inches long and are typically found in bundles of three, forming tufts at the end of each branch. They are stiff and dark green-yellow in color. Cones are oval, 3 to 6 inches long and 2-4 inches in diameter, with outwardly curved spines that make them prickly to handle. The bark is dark brown and rough textured in young trees and orange-brown nearly 3 inches thick and furrowed into large, flat scaly plates on mature trees.

In 2003, Stan Kitchen, a research botanist for the USDA Forest Service, was collecting ring samples of trees in which he studied the link between fire and climate. Kitchen used a chain saw to remove a wedge of wood from near the base of selected trees, leaving the tree circumference about 80 percent intact so it continues to live. He brings these samples back to his lab for sanding and processing so the annual rings can be easily identified. One of the trees he sampled from the Wah Wah Mountains in Utah turned out to be the oldest known living ponderosa pine in the world. Kitchen’s sample from the inner-most ring dated to the year 1075, making this tree at least 947 years old. Keeping in mind, it probably took an additional 10 to 20 years to grow to the height of the sample, making the tree approximately 967 years old!

Ponderosas grow well in elevations between 6,300 and 9,500 feet. They can reach heights between 40 and 160 feet. They flourish in dry, nutrient poor soils in open stands or with Douglas-fir, Rocky Mountain juniper and spruce. They are resistant to fire, due to open crowns, thick, insulating bark, self-pruning branches, high moisture content in the leaves and thick bud scales. Ponderosa pine is well adapted and is highly resistant to low-intensity fire. A long taproot helps the drought-resistant pine obtain adequate moisture and also decreases its chances of being uprooted by strong winds. Although ponderosa pine is most common at slightly higher elevations, it begins to appear around 5,000 feet where prairies  transition into open ponderosa pine forests. Ponderosa pine is generally the dominant lower timberline species in Colorado’s montane zone.

An important fact is that the ponderosa pine needles can be toxic to cattle, sheep, goats and bison. These toxins can cause paralysis and renal failure; and cattle that consume pine needles in the last trimester of pregnancy will abort anytime up to two weeks later. Sheep may have a high incidence of dead lambs after eating pine needles.

Special Note: Although thousands of evergreen trees in Colorado display dying yellow or brown needles, in the fall most are simply going through a natural shedding process — they are not being damaged by bark beetles or any specific tree insect or disease. Colorado evergreens shed their older needles as part of an annual growth cycle. Needles typically yellow first; then, they turn a reddish-orange or brown color before dropping off. Trees can have varying levels of needle shed, even within the same property.

Evergreen trees are a symbol of Christmastime — this wonderful time of year, when, so long ago, a savior was born unto us. He is the one, true gift of Christmas.

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