Pinus ponderosa) is one of the Southwest's tallest trees in many parts of its range, growing to incredible heights of over 200 feet, with huge trunks 3-4 feet across. Named for its ponderous (heavy) wood, this pine is the major lumber tree in the Southwest. These woody behemoths grow on dry mountain slopes and mesas. They occur in green, park-like stands on dry, well-drained, and exposed southerly slopes or plateaus. Ponderosa Pines are easily recognized by their tall, straight, thick trunks, clad in scaled, rusty-orange bark that has split into big plates. One can easily identify some trees by smelling their bark. Ponderosa Pine bark smells like vanilla or butterscotch.
The 4-8 inch long evergreen needles, thick and flexible, three to a bundle, droop gracefully from their branches. Large trees live for 500 or more years. For the first 150 or so years, young ponderosas have nearly black bark. Mottled purple winged seeds are dispersed from the parent tree by the wind and may float as high as 1,000 ft before falling to the ground. Although small, the seeds are readily consumed by small rodents and birds.
The Ponderosa Pine is the major species used for dendrochronology, or tree-ring dating, to study historic climate patterns by reading the width of tree rings. In wet years, trees grow wide rings. In dry years, the rings are narrow. Reading tree ring widths from the roof beams of cliff dwellings and other Indian ruins has allowed archaeologists to precisely date their construction. Native Americans ate the seeds of this tree either raw or made into a bread and used the pitch as adhesive and waterproofing agent for canoes, baskets and tents.