Plant of the Month
Blog – Plant of the Month
Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa)
This month’s featured plant grows right outside my office window, and it provides endless viewing excitement, especially in late winter. When everything is still bare in the outdoor landscape, this ponderosa pine stands comparatively lush and tall, a green promise of shelter. In the mornings, finches perch on the branches. When the afternoon sun is warm, an old rabbit nestles in the shade, thinking itself completely unobserved. Squirrels fight up and down the trunk and distract me from what I ought to be doing at my desk. It’s better than television, let me tell you!
And, of course, the tree provides shelter for a motley assortment of insects and arachnids as well. The bark of ponderosa pines has lots of nooks and crannies for ants, beetles and spiders. Ponderosa pine needles feed the caterpillars of Western Pine Elfin butterflies and twirler moths. Other more generalist caterpillars, such as woolly bears, often visit as well.
Ponderosa pines are the dominant conifer in western North America, reaching between 40-160 feet tall (the tallest can get over 200 feet, but they live in the Pacific Northwest). We can recognize ponderosa pines by their striking, orange-red bark, and their long needles in groups of three. This lofty, open-crowned conifer covers over eight percent of Colorado’s land area, although many stands have been lost due to the notorious mountain pine beetle. Most people think of them as trees of the mountains, but ponderosa pines may grow naturally at 5000 feet, marking the transition between shortgrass prairie and montane forests.
Ponderosa pines are well-suited to our dry, open landscape here in the Front Range, too. These tough evergreens can tolerate high temperatures, lots of sun and low moisture, thanks to their thick bark and big taproots. They provide shelter and color, no matter what the time of year. They aren’t showy or attention-grabbing, but their endurance makes them a great backbone for our landscape; I know I especially appreciate evergreens during the long wait to spring. All the wildlife shenanigans they support are just frosting on the cake!
Posted by Amy Yarger, Butterfly Pavilion Horticulture Director