Way of the Ponderosa Pine: Excerpt from the Book of Ways

Excerpt from the Book of Ways: Lore from the Keeper of Ways and Builder of Paths

Way of the Ponderosa Pine

Consider the Ponderosa Pine.  In Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado, the presence of this pine mark the edge of the Plains, for they are found in the hills at the western edge, but not out onto the plains themselves.  In the hillls to the south of the Northern Frontrange, they grow among Gambel oak thickets.  In the Foothills to the west, they grow on southern facing slopes with juniper primarily, with the north facing slopes mostly lodgepole pine.  In the Highlands to the north, they grow on the ridges and hills, with scattered shrubs below them.

Ponderosa pine have a much shorter fire cycle than lodgepole, with fires occurring naturally every two to fifteen years.  Unlike the lodgepole, which has thin bark and is easily killed by fire, Ponderosa have thick bark that protects them, the fires killing off the seedlings and clearing the forest floor and leaving the mature trees scarred but alive.  As a result, natural Ponderosa forests have tall trees with very few small ones, other species making up the ground cover.  The fires in Ponderosa stands are also very low intensity, compared to the raging fires of the lodgepole.

The bark also makes this pine more resilient to the western pine beetle, so even though it is still a threat, not near as many are killed by the beetle as are the lodgepole.

The thick bark just mentioned it the most clear offset of the Ponderosa from other species.  It has yellow to red bark that is very thick, with dark to black crevices in it, giving it two of its common names, the blackjack pine and the western yellow pine.  It also has tufts of long needles, setting it apart.  In the Rocky Mountains, most have three needles per tuft, or occasionally two.

The Ponderosa has had many indigenous uses.  The pitch was used as an ointment for various things including sores and scabs, back aches, ear aches, rheumatism, and inflamed eyes.  It was also used to help infants sleep.  The needles were used for female reproductive issues and for skin issues, and for insulation in storage pits.  The roots were used for blue die.  The boughs were used for muscle pain, hemorrhaging, and treatments for children.  The wood was used for building fences, housing, and snowshoes.  Logs were made in canoes.  The bark was used for roofing.  Pollen was used with needles in healing.  Pitch, seeds, cones, bark, buds and cambium were used for food.  There is no part of the tree without a practical use.  It is a tree that provides and nurtures.

It also provides for and nurtures the animals that make their homes in its forests.  Birds roost and nest in its limbs and use it as protection from birds of prey.  Chipmunks, squirrels, and many types of birds eat its seeds.  Grouse use its needles for nesting material.  Rodents and porcupines use its bark for nesting.

A specific example is the Albert’s squirrel, which lives only in Ponderosa stands.  This squirrel doesn’t gather food to live through the winter nor hibernate like more squirrels and other rodents.  Through the winter, it feeds on the inner bark of the branch tips of the Ponderosa.  It feeds near the top of the tree, chewing off a needle clump, removes the outer bark, then eats the inner bark.  They always return to the same tree each winter.  The Ponderosa has a symbiotic fungus, the EM fungus.  Like the blue stain fungus of the lodgepole, EM fungus for root systems with Ponderosa.  These act as extensions to the roots, helping the tree draw in more water, nitrogen, phosphorus, and various other nutrients from the soil.  In return, the tree provides carbohydrates that the fungus needs to survive.  This is relevant, because the main source of food for the squirrels during the growing season is the sporocarps of this fungus.  The spores survive in the squirrel’s digestive tract and are spread through the forest by them, where they join with other pine root systems.  It is possible that the fungi concentration effects the inner bark the squirrel eats, drawing them to return to certain trees, and also that the stunting the squirrels cause on those trees and the reduction in those trees in reproduction as a result to the squirrel effects its relationship with the fungus, causing more sporocarp production.

The Ponderosa grows best in well draining soil, mostly loam, but it will grow in sandy soils as well.  In does well in dry climates and can handle the heat of the sun quite easily.

The Ponderosa pine is outer earth and inner fire.

The outer earth nature is evident in its bark. The bark is similar colour to much of the soil it grows in.  Like the surface of the earth, it protects what’s inside, from fire, from cold, from heat, from insects and other threats.  And like the earth, it nurtures and provides for those that come to it, not just animals, but humans as well.

That outer nature is nurturing and and very mother-like, though the fire inside is unforgiving of those that don’t respect the tree and can be dangerous to those who don’t approach in a respectful manner.

This fire is evident in its intolerance for moist undraining soil, its ability to grow well in hot climates and full sunlight, and its short fire cycle that leaves mature trees unharmed.  These fires are part of its nurturing and providing, as it is important for the health of a forest to be cleaned out periodically.  It provides for both the creation aspect, by providing what those under its care need for life, and the destruction aspect, cleaning things out every so often, but with low intensity and less risk to the animals than a roaring fire would be.

Earth over fire.

Consider this well, and think on it.