Northwest Conifers


Ponderosa Pine – Pinus ponderosa Speaker

Ponderosa pine

Ponderosa pine at Tualatin Hills Nature Park


USGS Distribution Map** Subspecies: ponderosa, benthamiana, scopulorum

Ponderosa pine is the iconic conifer of the western United States, instantly recognized by its distinctive, colorful bark, often seen in western movies. It grows to 200 feet (60 meters).

Needles: Ponderosa pine has 3 needles per bundle. The needles are up to 10 inches long, with sharp points. Ponderosa pine is easy to identify outside of southwest Oregon because it is the only 3 needle pine in the rest of the Northwest.

Ponderosa pine

Cones: The egg-shaped cones are 3 to 6 inches long and have a sharp point on each scale. 

Bark: The bark is the most striking and distinctive characteristic of this pine, with flat red or yellow plates shaped like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The bark is more colorful on older trees, most notably on large trees growing east of the Cascades. Climate may also influence bark color.

Where it grows: Ponderosa pine is common throughout much of the western US. It is the most common conifer in the Northwest east of the Cascades, growing at elevations up to 5000 feet (1500 meters). Although it thrives in dry, mountainous regions, it is also native to the wet habitat of the Willamette Valley, but there the bark loses some its distinctive color, as shown by the photo below. Ponderosa pine is the state tree of Montana.

Two subspecies of Pinus ponderosa grow in the Northwest:*

  • Columbia ponderosa, subspecies ponderosa grows east of the Cascades summit. It has short needles bunched at the ends of branches.
  • Pacific ponderosa, subspecies benthamianagrows in the Willamette Valley and the coastal mountains of southwest Oregon, and a few locations near Olympia, Washington. It also grows in the mountains of California. Those in the Willamette Valley are called Willamette Valley ponderosa pines. The needles of this subspecies are typically longer than the other subspecies, usually over 9 inches. 
  • If you travel farther east, you will encounter Rocky Mountain ponderosa, subspecies scopulorum, which grows throughout much of the Rocky Mountains. Some sorces show subspecies brachyptera in Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and sourth Colorado.

Similar Tree: Jeffrey pine grows in southwest Oregon and California.

Uses: Ponderosa pine lumber is widely used in home construction, window and door frames, moldings, and furniture. Squirrels, chipmunks and many kinds of birds eat the seeds. Some cache the seeds, which facilitates the propagation of more pine trees.

Names: Lewis and Clark encountered this pine in 1805 and were impressed by its long needles. In 1826, David Douglas named it for its heavy (ponderous) wood. Other common names: Yellow pine, western yellow pine, blackjack pine.


*The Gymnosperm Database lists these as subspecies. Oregon Flora Project lists them as varieties.

**Subspecies: ponderosa, benthamiana, scopulorum. Subspecies distribution based on information from the Gymnosperm Database




Pollen cones

Ponderosa pine

Ponderosa pine bark near Bend, Oregon

Ponderosa pine

Ponderosa pine Bark near Portland

© 2011 Ken Denniston