The Ponderosa Pine is a common tree in the Western United States. They prefer somewhat dry conditions and are found at moderate elevations throughout the Rocky Mountains, the Sierra Nevada Range, and the Cascade Mountains. They are usually found at elevations bellow the local spruce species (often Colorado Spruce in the central Rockies) and above the even drier elevations covered in juniper trees and piñon pines. Though, of course, these trees can be found intermixed in some locations.
Growing together they tend to form open sunny forests with wide spaces between the trees. Walking through one it may seem more like a park than a wild forest since the ground will be covered with grass and the lack of undergrowth or low branches that can make forests in the Eastern US so hard to penetrate.
A coexistence with fire is what causes this appearance, under wild conditions frequent ground fires sweep the forests floor of the pine needles that would otherwise smother small plants. The ponderosa pines resist these small fires with a thick bark made of interlocking pieces often described as puzzle like. They have also evolved to quickly loose lower branches as they grow so that it is unusual for a ponderosa to have a first branch lower than 3 meters.
They start out growing looking like a single pine branch stuck in the ground sprouted from a seed about the size of a BB (3 millimeters). As they get to about 10-15 cm they often grow a few side branches that later die off as the tree gets progressively taller and larger branches supercede them.
The dark green needles of the ponderosa are bundled in 3's most often, and if the associated needles are held together they form a round tube shape 10-15 cm long and about the width of a pencil lead. These small bunches stay on the tree for up to 4 years forming a needle covered section at the end of the finger width branches.
The trees can get up to 40 meters tall, but more often they reach a maximum height of 20 meters. The trees have the typical pine narrow cone shape when young and form a flattened out crown when mature. Some unusual trees reach ages over 300 years, but I know of none that has exceeded 500. As the tree grows it also begins to bear both male and female flowers. The male one release huge amounts of yellow pollen on warm late spring days. Over the next two years the fertilized female flowers develop into cone about the size of a baseball bearing many of the small seeds with a papery ‘wing’.
The wood of the ponderosa is straight, but filled with knots from dead branches lower on the tree, and so they are not often used for building anything but fences, barns, and other outdoor structures. They were used quite extensively in the building of early settlements of the Old West, giving them the stereotypical rough hewn look. They are very good as fire wood, as they are filled with pitch and are easy to ignite. Another interesting fact is they smell faintly like vanilla, especially on hot days in the summer.