One of the iconic species of our Mogollon Highlands forest home is the Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa). This impressive tree is mostly found at elevations over 5,000 feet and can grow to 150 feet tall and 4 feet in diameter! Young trees, sometimes called “black jacks”, are characterized by blackish bark, while the bark of older trees (called “yellow bellies”) is a yellow orange bark. These trees are drought-resistant and may live for five to seven hundred years.
The ponderosa, like all plants, is dependent on water and has several strategies to make the most of the water it receives.
Its roots, while shallow, spread out to gather all available water. Ponderosas are often found on north-facing slopes, where the winter snows are slower to melt, providing a steady supply of water. Its needles are also leathery and small which helps conserve water.
These trees have a special symbiotic relationship with mycorrhizae, an underground fungus which grows among the tree’s roots, which provide certain nutrients to the tree, and in return, receive sugars from the tree. Ponderosas also have relationships with many mammals, birds and insects. The Abert’s squirrel, ravens and larger birds of prey, nest in the ponderosa. The squirrels find much of their diet in the trees, eating the seeds from the pinecones as well as eating immature cones.
They will also eat the tender inner bark of young branches, especially during the winter, tossing the uneaten part to the ground. These “squirrel snacks” can be seen littering the ground under their favorite trees. Smaller birds, along with Abert’s Squirrels, also eat pine seed and scatter them efficiently, assisting in the tree’s reproduction. Ponderosa Pines also provide acorn woodpeckers with most of their needs. Acorn woodpeckers use the ponderosa as a granary for storing acorns, a place to gather insects from beneath the bark, and as a home. Other cavity-nesting birds also make homes in the tree’s trunk, often using abandoned woodpecker nests.
Ponderosas provide homes for many kinds insects as well, from small beetles and carpenter ants, to large cicadas. The female cicada lays her eggs beneath the bark of trees, including ponderosas, where they remain until hatching to burrow under the ground as larvae. Several species of bark beetles live in the pines. Some can be beneficial to the tree, seeking out and eating other beetles that may be actively damaging to the tree. Unless the tree has been stressed by drought, fire or climate change, tree and beetles live together, but if the tree has been too stressed, the scales tip in favor of the beetles. Whole forests have been decimated in this way.
Even though ponderosa pines are long-lived, they eventually die but are still important. As snags, they provide perches for raptors seeking out their next meal and continue to food for insects and bacteria, which in turn provide food for birds. When the snag has fallen, they provide homes for carpenter ants and food for the decomposers, such as termites, fungi and bacteria, which use the tree’s nutrients and return them to the soil—completing their part in the circle of life
Contributed by HCNH Naturalist Sandy Stoecker