Next time you walk by a Ponderosa Pine, go stick your nose on the tree and take three short inhalations. You’ll smell vanilla. If you’re on a long hot summertime backpacking trip the smell will be almost as refreshing as if you had just had a spoonful of cold vanilla ice cream.
By the way, the three short inhalations are otherwise known as “The Fireman’s Sniff.” Firefighters know that three short inhalations deposit more odor molecules in our nostrils, enhancing our ability to smell. They need odor information in all kinds of situations, to smell smoke or detect dangerous chemicals. But it works with all kinds of odors. Try it on your food tonight.
Now back to the vanilla-smelling ponderosa pines. They smell that way because of chemicals in their bark called “terpenes.” Terpenes are a large group of naturally occurring hydrocarbons found throughout the plant world. Vitamin A is a terpene, modern medical steroids are derived from them, and conifer resins give us terpentine.
Insects affect the chemical composition of the terpenes in ponderosa pines. And when birds, such as Mountain Chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Pygmy Nuthatches, White-breasted Nuthatches, and Yellow-rumped Warblers, stop by the trees for a snack of fresh insects, they can actually alter the terpenes by removing sufficient numbers of insects. Because the smell of the terpenes influences the desirability of the tree’s bark to bark beetles, squirrels, and porcupines, the birds indirectly affect the health and the life of the tree.
Birds, small mammals, and insects aren’t the only ones that have used the trees for food. Native Americans collected the sweet inner bark of the tree in the spring time and rolled it up to use as food later. They harvested in the spring just when the sugar content was highest. They also used the sap to make waterproof baskets and to repair leaks in canoes. The Nez Perce showed Lewis and Clark how to make canoes from the trees which the Corps of Discovery then used to float down to the Pacific Ocean.
The birds, by removing large numbers of insects from the trees, help spur growth. Scientists think that one function of the terpenes in the bark is to act as a kind of immune system for the tree. Many species of bark-eating insects weaken the tree’s immune system just like stress can weaken yours.
After the trees begin producing mature seeds in their pine cones, you’ll find the smaller song birds joined by larger birds like Red Crossbills, Evening Grosbeaks and Stellar’s Jays. Every female cone produces about 75 seeds and an individual tree may produce hundreds of cones every three or four years. The presence of the larger birds indicates that the tree is at least 45 years old.
If its bark flakes off easily and has that distinctive burnt orange color associated with ponderosa, the tree is at least 125 years old.
But it could be far, far older than that. You could be sticking your nose on a tree that popped out of the ground when Henry II was the King of England, or when Isaac Newton first took breath, or when billions of Carrier Pigeons roamed the air over the planet. The oldest Ponderosa we know about lived to be 1047 years old. Think of what that tree in Colorado witnessed as it lived through its allotted millennium of life. Imagine how many generations of song birds and jays feasted on its outpouring, all the while helping protect it from disease.