Across large areas of the American West, one tree is the undisputed king of dry montane forests: the Ponderosa Pine, Pinus ponderosa. “Ponderosa” is literally Spanish for “ponderous,” a name which reflects the size and majesty of these trees. However, it isn’t only their beauty (or their value as timber) that makes me fond of Ponderosas. It’s their scent.
Even though I only recently moved to the western half of the country, I’ve been familiar with Ponderosas ever since I was a kid, thanks to a series of family vacations to Arizona. On one trip, when I was around nine or ten, we took a tour of Lowell Observatory, the site outside Flagstaff where Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930. (My dad still likes to brag about how kid-me knew the answers to more of the tour guide’s questions about the Solar System than almost any of the adults who were there.) Near the end of the tour, the guide led us to a particularly large and impressive pine on the observatory grounds and encouraged us all to stick our noses into the furrows of its bark and take a sniff. Puzzled, we did as we were told.
It did not smell like Christmas. It smelled like, of all things, butterscotch and vanilla. For a moment we wondered if there was something unusual about this particular tree, if maybe an observatory groundskeeper had been brushing it with vanilla extract for some arcane reason, but the guide insisted that this was the natural scent of Ponderosa Pines. We spent the whole rest of the trip sniffing tree trunks. He was right.
While writing this post I went looking for some information on why they smell like this. The answer seems to be, no one really knows. All I found out was that the scent apparently gets stronger as the trees age and their bark fades to yellow-red. All I can say is, next time you’re out west, be sure to join the secret brotherhood of tree-sniffers. Who cares if it makes you look a little eccentric?
More information at Ponderosa Pines: Rugged Trees With a Sweet Smell