Photo: Lightning Scar on Ponderosa Pine Tree

From the files of Donald R. Kirk: 

Part 3. An Uncommon Pine Tree
In my earlier Blog we find a lightning scarred tree. When I examine the cones, I find it is neither a ponderosa cone, nor a Jeffrey. Suddenly I recognize this tree. I can’t believe that over the many years we have camped in these mountains and this particular canyon I have not discovered that these “ponderosas” are not ponderosas! Nor are they Jeffrey pines. They are very uncommon trees, the Washoe pine, (Pinus washoensis), named after the Washoe Indians of California and Nevada.

We go looking for more. For several hours we explore the wildflower–rich floor of the canyon. All four of us spread out and inspect the cones of every large “ponderosa” we find. Most, but not all, are Washoe pines. As we hike downhill, inspecting cones, ponderosa pines become more numerous.

When lunch time arrives, we return to camp. I dig out a book on California conifers from the field library I carry along and find the Washoe pine is listed as discovered in 1938 on Mt. Rose, Nevada. At the time, this tree was taken for either a ponderosa or a small–coned Jeffrey pine. However, more study showed that the resin chemistries of the Jeffrey pine and the ‘new’ pine tree are too different to be the same species. The resin chemistry of the Washoe pine and that of a ponderosa pine is similar, but not the same. The big difference is in the seed cones. They are not prickly. Ultimately, the Washoe pine was determined to be closely related to the ponderosa, yet sufficiently different to be accepted as a separate species.

Since the discovery of Washoe pine on Mt. Rose, the tree has been found in the Bald Mountains in California northwest of Reno, near Butte Lake in Lassen Volcanic National Park, and the Cascade Mountain Range of Oregon. It is also found in British Columbia and the southern Warner Range of NE California, where the largest stand is found right here where we are enjoying our own discovery of these rare trees.

Depending on which pine tree expert is consulted, there are 115 to 125 species of Pinus in the world, almost all in the Northern Hemisphere. Only one species of pine, the Sumatran Pine, Pinus merkusii, manages to reach about 2 degrees south of the equator in central Sumatra. This is not too surprising since most of the Earth’s livable land is north of the equator.

After lunch we hike the opposite direction up the verdant canyon through a mixture of aspen, white fir, and Washoe pine. Our goal is the thinly forested ridge top. As we approach the summit, my pocket altimeter says the elevation is just above 7000 feet. No wonder we pant for air. Washoe pines still dot the landscape, uncommon perhaps, but an established part of this forest community. They frame a panoramic view to the east, the unfolding topography of the Great Basin. We live in a wondrous world.


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