Curious Nature: Perfectly picked pines
Walking Mountains Science Center
All year round in the mountains you can see green, and we are not talking about money. Covered in snow or surrounded by wildflowers, Colorado’s many species of evergreen trees are true to their name — they are always green.
That being said, it may be tempting to lump all these trees into one category, but not all evergreens are created equally. Here in the High Country we have fir, spruce and pine species growing. Although all these plants are conifers and at first glance may look similar, each group is unique.
Of all conifers, the pines (genus Pinus) are the most diverse. One quick rule of thumb to identify an evergreen as a pine is to look at the needles. Pine tree needles are grouped in bunches of two or more. Counting the number of needles in a group can help determine different pine species. In our area, several pine species grow including the bristlecone pine, lodgepole pine and pinyon pine.
The bristlecone pines are some of the oldest trees in the world. Some individuals are known to be over 4,000 years old and were alive when woolly mammoths still roamed the Earth. They are typically found in the subalpine, in the high elevations on exposed slopes and mountain ridges.
Since they live where it is cold, dry and windy, they typically don’t get too big — 50 feet is where they max out. They are twisted and gnarled due to the conditions in which they live. And their bark is a deep reddish color and their cones are a deep purple color when immature. Their needles are in groups of five, making them easy to identify.
Lodgepole pines are tall slender trees that can reach heights of 70 feet. They can survive in many environments ranging from mountains to sandy soils. Lodgepole pines are a fire-dependent species. Their cones are serotinous, which means they are covered in a waxy coat that will only melt at a temperature of 105° F. Once the wax is melted, the seeds are released to start a new generation.
As humans we tend to view wildfires in a negative light, but they are what keeps the forest healthy and allows for lodgepole pines to reproduce.
Pinyon or piñon pines prefer dry, rocky desert areas of Colorado. They are on the small side in comparison to other pines, only reaching heights of 20 feet. Depending on the subspecies, their needles can be in groups of one or two. The trunks are often twisted and gnarled, just like their cousins, the bristlecone. They produce large seeds, or pine nuts, which are edible.
Whether you are hiking through a lodgepole pine forest or relaxing under the shade of pinyon pine, remember these plants are an essential component of the ecosystem. They provide habitat and nourishment for many animals that are living in the Rocky Mountains. They also impact the physical landscape, helping prevent erosion and snowpack melt, among other things. In our built world, many of our houses are constructed of and furnished with pine.
So before you shrug off that tree as just another evergreen, give it a second chance and look for a packaged needle. You may have just found yourself a perfect pine.
Karen Woodworth is a Naturalist at Walking Mountains Science Center. She enjoys smelling the fresh smell of pine trees as she hikes in the forest.