Aug 05 2015
Did you know you can recognize this tree by the smell of its bark?
After the Southwest Wings Festival I visited with Donna and Razzak Memon in Tuscon, Arizona. On Monday Donna and I went birding on top of Mount Lemmon, one of the few mountains named for a woman (Sara Plummer Lemmon).
The summit is 9,159 feet above sea level and 6,770 feet above Tucson so the air is thinner and cooler, a welcome change from the valley’s heat. That day it was 72oF on the mountain, 104oF in the valley. Because of the thin mountain air we learned something about this tree.
Donna and I were heading downhill when a group of hikers paused near the tree to catch their breath and I overheard one of them say it smelled like vanilla. On our way back up the thin air hit me at the same spot so I paused and sniffed the bark. Yes, the bark smells like vanilla.
The Ponderosa pine (on Mount Lemmon*) is one of the few trees you can identify this way. When the tree is young the bark is black, but when it reaches 100-120 years old it sheds the black and shows a yellow bark that smells like vanilla or butterscotch or baking cookies, depending your point of view.
The unusual bark is also a fire shield. According to this NPR report, when fire hits the tree it flash-boils the sap and blows the bark off the tree, but the tree doesn’t burn.
In the top photo you can see some snags at left that died in a fire on the mountain.
But not this one. Its vanilla-scented bark protects it.
p.s. Here we are at the top of the mountain. You can see Tucson in the valley below.
(tree photos by Donna Memon; Kate & Donna photo by Razzak Memon; information about Ponderosas from this 2009 NPR article)
(*) In the comments below Nickie explains that in California Jeffrey pines smell like vanilla but Ponderosas do not. However the Jeffrey pine doesn’t grow in Arizona. In Arizona the Ponderosa (and/or the Arizona species/ subspecies) does.