Exploring the headwaters of the Missouri River in 1804, the Lewis and Clark expedition sighted towering stands of trees more majestic than any they'd known before. Twenty years later, the English botanist David Douglas discovered these same trees growing along the Spokane River in what is now Washington state. Because of their ponderous dimensions and the comparative heaviness of their wood for pine, he named them "Ponderosa."
Ponderosa pine, Montana's state tree, is truly the wood of the West. Indians wove its long needles into baskets and jewelry. Ranchers felled it for barns and bunkhouses. On July 4, 1876, Arizona lumberjacks stripped branches from the tallest ponderosa they could find, and hoisted the American flag in celebration of the nation's centennial--that's how the town of Flagstaff got its name.
One of the most commercially important trees in the United States, ponderosa pine also has the distinction of being the subject of a Supreme Court ruling. A 1934 decision protects it from being sold under any name except ponderosa.
Occasionally referred to as Western yellow pine and blackjack pine, ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) is one of 35 pines native to North America. Mature trees have cinnamon to orange-brown, scaly bark on a trunk up to 8' in diameter at chest height.
Needles up to 10" long grow in threes along its branches, which also bear 6"-long, brown cones. "Young" ponderosa pines (under 100 years old) display dark brown to nearly black bark; hence the nickname blackjack pine.
In its native mountain slopes and well-drained uplands, the ponderosa can reach 200' high. It is also a long-lived pine; specimens 500 years old are not uncommon.
Ponderosa pine stands tall in the saddle among softwoods. It is yellowish-white, hard, fine grained, and strong, yet light. Dry, it weighs about 25 pounds per cubic foot.
As the finest of the pines available in volume today, this wood has excellent working qualities: You can cut and shape it by hand as well as with power tools; it glues extremely well; and it doesn't split readily. Because of ponderosa's texture, uniform cell structure, and comparative hardness for a softwood, it stains and finishes exceptionally well.
The volume of ponderosa harvested makes it a mainstay of the construction industry. Knotty pine paneling and furniture for the popular country look come from this tree.
In the workshop, ponderosa pine easily fashions into furniture, wood novelties, toys, pastry boards, and cabinets. Carvers often choose it over other woods.
Ponderosa pine is available in both "construction" dimension and hardwood dimension, such as 6/4. This makes for complex grading standards. Common grade lumber goes from no. 1 down to no. 5. Select grades, for furniture and cabinets, consist of B and Better (the highest), C-Select, D-Select, and Factory Select. The lowest grades are no. 1, no. 2, and no. 3 Shop.
Cost, of course, varies with the grade, but even top grades carry more moderate prices than some cabinet-class hardwoods.
Growing in 11 western states, as well as in the Black Hills of South Dakota, ponderosa pine has the greatest range of any commercial tree in America--approximately one third of the U.S.
Photographs: Hopkins Associates
Illustration: Steve Schindler