Black Hills Forest Species
Urban Forest Species

Ponderosa Pine
(Pinus ponderosa)


Pinus is from the Latin name for pine, from the Sanskrit pitu . Ponderosa is from the Latin pondus , meaning great weight or
bulk in reference to its size. Other common names are: western yellow pine, yellow pine, blackjack pine and bull pine. The
Lakota referred to ponderosa pines as wazícan .

Ponderosa pine is a member of Pinaceae, the pine family along with Black Hills spruce (Picea glauca var. densata ). The
leaves are evergreen, 5 inches to 11 inches (13 to 28 cm) long, dark gray-green to yellow-green with needles in bunches of
3's or 2's on the same tree.

Male cones are orange or yellow and are located in small clusters near the tips of the branches. The female cone is oval,
woody, and 3" to 6" (8 to 15 cm) long, with a small prickle at the tip of each scale. Twigs are stout and give off a turpentine
odor when broken. Bark varies, sometimes brown to black and deeply furrowed, otherwise brown to dark red and broken
into flat, scaly plates.

Native Distribution

Ponderosa pine is native from British Columbia, throughout the western U.S. and into central Mexico. It extends as far east as
central South Dakota and Nebraska and west to the Pacific coast of Oregon. It has been the state tree of Montana since 1949. In South Dakota, it occurs as far east as Todd, Mellette and Tripp Counties, then westward to the border. Ponderosa pine is found in the Black Hills and in scattered pockets in Harding County. Ponderosa pine is the dominent tree in West River, covering over 1.3 million acres.

Ponderosa pine is classified as intolerant, but it is a climax species in much of the Black Hills. Ponderosa pine associates
with several other plants forming distinct communities. For example, in the drier, southern part of the Black Hills, primarily
on the steep, rocky slopes, ponderosa pine occurs with Rocky mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum ) as an understory
species. In the northern part of the Black Hills, ponderosa pine is found with bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa ) as the
understory species. These are just two examples of the adaptability of ponderosa pine.

Ponderosa pine grows on drier sites so it is more common on west and south-facing slopes where it may may be found from
the base to the peak of the mountain. On the north and east-facing slopes, where conditions are cool and moist, ponderosa
pine may be replaced by spruce above 6,000 feet (183 km).

Natural History

One reason for the adaptability of ponderosa pine is the early formation of a taproot . Four year-old seedlings may have a
taproot that extends down 5 feet (152 cm) while only showing a foot (30.5 cm) of shoot growth above ground. The early
formation of a deep root system allows the pine to survive droughts. The taproot does not continue to develop as the tree
matures, typically the root system only extends down 5 or 6 feet (152 to 183 cm), with most of the roots found in the upper
foot of soil. Ponderosa pine, while being intolerant, responds well to release. This means that the tree will usually not die
when suppressed by surrounding trees, but instead continue to grow slowly. In the Black Hills there are "dog-hair" stands of
ponderosa pine which often contain 20,000 to 40,000 trees per acre. The competition for water among all the trees prevents
any from growing and the stand stagnates. Once some of the trees are removed, the remaining trees begin to grow and
develop into healthy pines.

Uncontrolled fires were once the greatest threat to ponderosa pines. Fire scars on old trees testify to the continual presence of
fire, often occurring every 10 years or so. Young trees were often seriously injured or killed by fires that scoured their
crowns. Usually only the healthiest trees survived these fires. While fires were a threat to individual ponderosa pines, they
were also a benefit to the forest. By eliminating the weaker trees, the stronger ones had more room. With the absence of fire,
many "dog-hair" stands developed. Today, instead of fire eliminating the weaker trees, these forests are thinned out by
forest harvesting.

Another threat to ponderosa pine is attacks by the mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae ). This small bark beetle
is one of the most destructive insects in the western states. During the 1895-1908 outbreak in the Black Hills, over one
billion board feet of ponderosa pine were killed. To provide some perspective to this number, the average single family
home is made of 10,000 board feet of lumber.

The mountain pine beetle primarily attacks lodgepole (P. contorta ) and ponderosa pine. The beetles feed on the
food-conducting tissue found just beneath the bark. They attack a tree in large numbers then move to the surrounding trees.
This is the reason groups of trees are killed. The beetle attacks trees that are stressed by drought, have been injured by
lightening or are over 80 years old.

Life Span: Ponderosa pine is a fairly long-lived tree, as are most evergreen trees. They live to be about 300 to 500 years
old, though a tree over 800 years old has been found in Utah. In the Black Hills, the mature ponderosa pines are 90 to 290
years old, though one individual is documented to be 690 years old. This tree is growing in Reno Gulch near Hill City. The
rocky terrain surrounding it has provided protection from fire and the saw.

Size: Ponderosa pine often become 150 to 230 feet tall (46 to 70 m) and 60 to 96 inches (152 to 244 cm) in circumference.
In the Black Hills, most are only 80 to 100 feet (24 to 30 m) tall. The national champion in Pluma, California. is 287 inches
(729 cm) in circumference, 223 feet (68 m) tall, with a crown spread of 68 feet (21 m). The state champion ponderosa pine is
near Custer. The tree is 129 inches (328 cm) in circumference, 132 feet (40 m) tall and has a crown spread of 32 feet (9.8
m). This champion tree is also the tallest tree in South Dakota.


Ponderosa pine is the second most important softwood for lumber production in the United States. In South Dakota, it is by
far and away our most abundant and important timber species. Ponderosa pine is a strong, light wood used for lumber to
frame houses and in general construction. It is also sometimes used as a furniture wood.

Ponderosa pine is also a valuable windbreak and ornamental species. While not native to the East River prairie
environment, it has adapted well and is extensively planted.


There are two other pines native to the Black Hills, but none native to the eastern part of the state. Both western species
occupy a very small area of the Hills.

(Pinus contorta)

 Lodgepole pine is called Wazi by the Lakota. Its needles always come in 2's and are only 1 to 3 inches (2.54 to 7.6 cm) long, so they are not easily confused with ponderosa pine. Lodgepole pine occurs from the Yukon to southern California and from Colorado to the Pacific shores. In South Dakota, it is found in a small area in the Black Hills west of Nahant. Here the lodgepole pines grow on the northern aspect of a ridge, just beneath the crest.
Lodgepole pine is a fire species, meaning fire is important to its establishment. The cones of lodgepole pine remain attached
to the tree and closed for as long as 15 to 20 years. After a fire, the cones open and thousands of seeds fall to the freshly
exposed mineral soil. Lodgepole pines grow quickly and soon a dense stand of pine results.

Lodgepole pine can live for 200 years or more and may reach 90 to 100 feet (27 to 30.5 m) in height. The trees in the Black
Hills are much shorter. There is not a designated state champion tree.

Lodgepole pine gets its name from the American Indians using the light, strong wood for lodge poles. The trees grow tall and
slender, with few branches along the lower trunk making it an ideal pole.

Limber pine
(Pinus flexilis)

 Limber pine has no known Lakota name. The species has needles in clusters of 5's, the only native pine to do this. The
needles are about 2.5 inches (6.4 cm) long. Limber pine grows in the mountains at elevations of 4,000 to 10,000 feet (122 to
305 km) from southern British Columbia to southern California. It occurs as far east as parts of Wyoming expect for a single
stand of trees in the Black Hills. In the Black Hills a small group is found in the Cathedral Spires area of the central Hills.
These trees are found on very steep north-facing slopes, which is a common habitat throughout their range.
Limber pine is a small, slow growing tree that rarely becomes taller than 50 feet (15 m). There is not a designated champion
in South Dakota.

Publication of the Pines of South Dakota fact sheet was funded by the S.D. Department of Agriculture, Division of Forestry,
Pierre, SD.